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Prize-winning author will discuss her Cuban, American roots

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From page A1 | February 05, 2013 |

Author Margarita Engle, a winner of the Newbery Honor for children's literature, listens as Jodie Kim, 5, reads a poems titled "My Pink Kitty" at Korematsu Elementary School's Family Writing Night in September. She worked with students and parents as they created poems in the Japanese "tanka" style. Engle's books include "The Surrender Tree" and "The Poet Slave of Cuba." Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Writer Margarita Engle, who has won several prizes for her books for young readers, will make two appearances at UC Davis as part of the “Words Take Wing” program on Tuesday, Feb. 12. Her morning presentation at Freeborn Hall is sold out, but space remains for her 7 p.m. talk at the Student Community Center on campus.

Tickets are $15 general and $7 for students. Her lecture will be followed by a book sale and signing.

Many of Engle’s books are set in Cuba.

“My mother is from Cuba, my father is American, so when I was a child, during the years before the revolution, I spent summers in Cuba visiting my extended family,” she told The Enterprise in a recent interview.

“The title of my talk at Words Take Wing — ‘Two Cultures, Two Wings’ — reflects how those childhood visits to Cuba affected my development as a person and as a writer … one complete person with two different sides, Cuban and American, with two languages, of course.

“After the missile crisis (in the early 1960s), I was not able to return to Cuba for a number of years. But as an adult, I have been able to go back many times. One of the legal ways to visit Cuba is to visit relatives. So Cuba and California — the homelands of my two parents — have influenced me a great deal.”

As a girl of Cuban heritage attending school during the missile crisis, when the possibility of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union appeared high, she was sometimes “perceived as belonging to the enemy” by classmates.

“There was a time when we wondered if Cuban Americans would be interned,” much has Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. But that never came to pass.

Engle’s childhood visits to Cuba, and her desire to know more about the country where her mother and her grandparents were born, spurred her to write several books set in Cuba at various points in the past. Her book “The Surrender Tree,” which was a Newbery Honor Book in 2009, is set during the late 1800s, when the Cuban people fought three wars of independence over 30 years, trying to break away from Spanish colonial rule.

In response, the Spanish built “reconcentration” camps, where Cubans were rounded up. The conflict finally ended when the U.S. intervened and Spain let go of Cuba, but the Cuban people gradually realized they had passed from one form of foreign domination to another.

The story of “The Surrender Tree” focuses on Rosa, a nurse who hides in caves and aids those who have been injured in the independence struggle. The story is told in the form of short poems, from the point of view of several different characters — a narrative style that Engle uses in several of her books.

“I try to distill it down to emotional essence,” she said. “The book is for middle school and high school students; I’m hoping that they’ll be asking what it felt like to live at that time. This is what I was asking myself — how did it feel? I want the history to be accurate, but what I want to present on those friendly, uncrowded pages is (a character speaking in) the first person. I like to write in first person, imagining those voices and points of view.”

Other books by Engle that are told in such a way include “Hurricane Dancers,” a tale involving Caribbean pirates and shipwreck, set in the 1500s; “The Poet Slave of Cuba,” set in the early 1800s; and “The Firefly Letters,” describing the visit of a female Swedish novelist, who is also an early advocate of equal rights for women, to Cuba in the 1800s.

“I am fascinated by people who have been largely forgotten by history,” Engle said.

She reads diaries (sometimes unpublished) written in past eras, which she borrows from the Library of Congress or university collections, and she finds references to a person whose story interests her.

“If I can find where they talk about what they had for breakfast, or what they thought when the soldiers came through, I like those daily details,” she said.

She also reads histories and other nonfiction accounts to steep herself in facts and figures relating to the era she has chosen.

“I don’t just write about Cuban history. I am American, too, and I studied botany and agriculture, and I like to write about scientists and nature. I also have books coming out about search and rescue dogs — my husband is a wilderness search-and-rescue dog handler. I sometimes go out (in a wild area) and hide so the dogs can practice finding someone.”

Engle’s most recent effort is “The Wild Book,” which she also considers her “most personal.” It tells the story of her grandmother Josefa (“Fefa”), who was born in 1901, and developed “word-blindness,” which modern Americans might call dyslexia.

“In my Words Take Wing talk, I will be describing my grandmother’s childhood, and the way each person is unique, and has a different way of learning,” Engle said. “Reading and writing were a struggle for her. She felt smarter when she danced.

“In my talk, I will also be talking about how I chose to write about people that I admire. And usually what I admire is the courage that they showed, making hopeful choices in times that seemed hopeless.

“The settings for my books are often very difficult historical situations, but I’ll find some historical figure who did something amazing despite the difficulties. And I know kids are making choices in difficult situations every day. I hope they might be inspired reading about these people.”

Engle said she also will talk about her mentor, Tomás Rivera, a Mexican-American poet and educator who became the chancellor at UC Riverside.

“His parents were migrants who followed the crops,” Engle said. “He learned to read by finding magazines in junk piles. He was a wonderful influence.”

Engle visited Davis last fall, driving from her home in Clovis to lead a family writing night event at Korematsu Elementary School.

“I read to the children, then they sat with their families and wrote their own poems, and then took turns reading them aloud,” she said. “We had a binding machine there, and each family left with a bound anthology of their own poems. And all that fit into an hour and a half.

“It was inspiring to hear the children reading what they had written.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8055.

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