With My Brigadista Year, beloved children’s author Katherine Paterson shares the little-known story of Cuba’s brigadistas: teachers who helped promote Fidel Castro’s campaign for nationwide literacy. One volunteer brigadista is 13-year-old Lora, and through her story, readers discover a complicated history of Cuba.
You thought you had retired, but then this project evolved. How did this story begin to tug at your heartstrings? And you’ve noted that this book was a “pure delight” to write, as opposed to the agony that occasionally occurs. What made this project so delightful?
It was a delight because I had forgotten how much I love the process. Suddenly I had a story that few people in this country had heard, and I wanted to share it.
“If only the people of the world would unite in causes that heal and elevate our mutual humanity and shared planet, rather than fight to destroy each other and perhaps our beautiful world.”
You’ve traveled twice to Cuba. What drew you there, and how was it? What things surprised you most? Any plans to visit again?
Both times I went to Cuba, it was at the invitation of Emilia Gallego, who runs a literacy conference every two years for folks from Latin America. She asked me to speak despite my lack of Spanish because some of my books have been translated into Spanish and have been enjoyed in Latin America.
Yes, I certainly want to go to Cuba again. I have another invitation from Emilia for next spring when she is sponsoring a conference commemorating José Martí’s 165th birthday. I’m hoping to go either then or sometime before I get too much older.
I imagine many readers will be surprised to learn how in 1961 Fidel Castro achieved his goal of making Cuba an “illiteracy-free” nation in a year (the first country in the Western Hemisphere to do so) and that Cuba continues to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. How did your impressions of Castro and Cuban history change as you researched and wrote this book?
I knew very little about Cuban history before I visited there the first time and knew nothing about the literacy campaign. For me, as probably for most Americans, Castro was a cruel dictator who caused great suffering in Cuba and drove many Cubans to flee. I had heard about their fine universal health care system, but had trouble reconciling that with the regime I thought I knew something about. I did know that Castro had driven out Batista and the American mafia, which was a good thing, but how good was it for one dictator to simply be replaced by another?
Was it difficult—or a delicate dance—to touch on some of the history involved in this story, including U.S. involvement in Cuba, as well as the repressive regimes of both Castro and Batista? I love what Lora says in the epilogue: “My country is not perfect, but, then, is yours?”
Yes, of course. The story is written in first person by a person who still lives and works in Cuba. I was conscious of the fact that my fictional character, like my friends who live there, would tread softly when talking about the political situation in her country when writing her story for Americans. She wouldn’t want to land herself in jail, now would she?
The narrative is compelling and flows so well. How did you begin to imagine the character of Lora, and was it hard to make her first-person narration sound so authentic?
I was inspired by actual stories, but I do also believe in the power of the imagination.
Your friend Dr. Emilia Gallego, a Cuban educator and writer, was herself a brigadista and one of the many young women whose lives were transformed by the campaign. How much of her experiences and impressions did you incorporate into your novel?
I found out just before my second visit that my brave, accomplished friend Emilia had been one of the teenage literacy volunteers or brigadistas that I went on to write about. She is a very proud Cuban, but, like many, never named Castro, simply stroked her chin to indicate the bearded one. The stories in my book were inspired mostly by the interviews with former brigadistas in the documentary Maestra and the accompanying book, A Year Without Sundays, because they were translated into English. But I treasure Emilia’s response to the draft of the book that I sent to her and that our friend Isabel Serrano helped her read. (Emilia is brilliant, but not in English.) Among other things, she said that if she didn’t know me and my books, she would not believe that someone who had never had the experience could have written the book. That gave me the courage to move ahead with the project.
This was indeed a war on illiteracy, and there were some tragedies. Some brigadistas were killed, and some reports say that others were forced to go. If you had been a 13-year-old Cuban girl like Lora, would have wanted to leave home and join this literacy brigade? And if you had been a Cuban parent, would you have allowed your son or daughter to go?
I’m not that brave a person. So I probably wouldn’t have volunteered. But having had four children braver than I was at 13 and knowing what a determined bunch they are, I would have swallowed hard, prayed a lot and known I couldn’t stop them.
Near the end of the story, Lora says, “We were like an army of sharpened pencils marching into the center of the capital among our flags and banners.” Can you envision such an army of global literacy volunteers?
The photographs of that march are thrilling! If only the people of the world would unite in causes that heal and elevate our mutual humanity and shared planet, rather than fight to destroy each other and perhaps our beautiful world.
You have said that books helped you through tough times as a child, and they still help you during transitions. Have any been especially helpful lately, and before and after the death of your husband, John, in 2013?
I have found that it is hard to watch television these past four years, because the news is so bad and so insistent. I’d rather read the newspapers that deliver news more gently and thoughtfully. So I am reading a lot. I think the book that was most helpful was Final Gifts, written by two hospice volunteers. Last year I was jury chair for the NBA in Young People’s Literature and was so heartened by the number of wonderful books I read—and saddened that we had to narrow our choices down to 10, five and one. My husband was jailed in Alabama in the summer of 1965, so March: Book Three, as well as the first two volumes of Congressman Lewis’ powerful autobiography, were especially meaningful for me.
Your son David has turned several of your books into movies, and there are plans for more movies, as well as TV shows. How are things going? Wouldn’t My Brigadista Year make a wonderful movie!
My sons (John is now helping produce) certainly think My Brigadista Year would make a great movie, but in the world of independent filmmaking, the gears turn very slowly. It took us 17 years to get Bridge to Terabithia into theaters, seven years to get The Great Gilly Hopkins into a few theaters and onto on-demand sites. Let’s hope the next movie can get made and into theaters in, say, four years.
When Lora describes her grandmother as “an old woman with young ideas,” I couldn’t help but think of you. You’re 84 and seemingly as busy as ever. How does it feel to be a Library of Congress “Living Legend”? Do you and the others ever hang out?
Boy, wouldn’t I have liked to hang out with Pete Seeger? But fellow legend Judy Blume took my son, my granddaughter and me to lunch in Key West last April. It had been years since Judy and I last saw each other, but she is just as lovely and gracious as ever. I fear, however, that lovely oceanside restaurant is no more.
Are any new books begging to be written? Please!
Don’t worry: If one comes knocking, I will throw open the door.