Award-winning author Margarita Engle has written historical novels for young adults as well as picture-book biographies for younger readers. This week, she caught up with Kidsbiographer about The Lightning Dreamer, her latest book, a biographical novel-in-verse about the early years of Cuban poet Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.
Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, and what inspired you to write The Lightning Dreamer?
Margarita Engle: Her poetry is very famous in Cuba and Spain, but I actually didn’t know much about her youth until I started researching the inspiration for her interracial romance novel, Sab, which was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and was far more influential in Europe. I didn’t realize that Avellaneda was not only an abolitionist, but also an outspoken feminist, who used her poetry, prose, and plays to campaign against the tradition of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls, and referred to as a form of slavery.
Kidsbiographer: Although Avellaneda was a real person, The Lightning Dreamer is a work of historical fiction, a novel-in-verse. How did you extrapolate from your research to create the character of Tula, Avellaneda as a young girl?
Margarita Engle: Fortunately, Avellaneda wrote autobiographical letters that reveal a great deal about her childhood and teenage years. I didn’t have to invent the most amazing aspects of her story, such as the way she had to burn her early work, to prevent her disapproving mother from discovering them. Her letters also describe the charitable theater for orphans that became her only literary outlet, and the letters are quite specific about her temperament. She admitted that she was emotionally volatile and suffered from wild mood swings.
Kidsbiographer: How did Avellaneda’s poetry influence your verse in this book?
Margarita Engle: Her poetry was her voice, in a society where women were silenced. Verse and prose were the only avenue of protest – not only for Avellaneda, but for male abolitionists as well. They could not speak out against slavery unless they veiled their protests with metaphors because Cuba had no free North. The entire island was slave territory, with strict censorship, and harsh penalties. Writing was an act of courage.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of The Lightning Dreamer is the way you craft a unique voice for each character, all of whom speak in first-person free verse. Which voice was the most challenging to evoke and why?
Margarita Engle: Thank you! The multiple voice verse novel is a form that fascinates me. In this case, I actually had a great deal of trouble with her brother Manuel. I struggled to acknowledge his courage in helping her smuggle her banned verses because I didn’t have a first person account from his own voice. I had to imagine his childhood. He never abandoned her, but from her letters I gleaned the possibility that he might have initially been embarrassed by her “unladylike” and dangerous habit of stating her opinions openly. So I needed to portray him as someone who longed to balance traditional male views with sincere concern and support for his rebellious sister.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adults will take away from this biographical novel?
Margarita Engle: I would feel grateful if they end the book with questions. I would like them to be left wondering:
- Should we still speak out against slavery? In a classroom, they might learn that the world still has an estimated twenty million slaves.
- Should all marriage be voluntary? They might also learn that in many countries, most marriages are still arranged, and underage girls are often purchased with money or other financial benefits paid to their parents. This question of voluntary marriage could even be extended to other modern issues. Avellaneda believed in the Golden Rule. What would she think of same -sex marriage? Would she conclude that no one has the right to tell someone else whom to marry?
- Can we change the world with words? Avellaneda certainly did! Can modern young people expect to be heard, if they express their opinions in writing? Avellaneda expressed her anger through poems and stories. Are carefully crafted words still a safe “home” for helpless rage?
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects for young readers?
Margarita Engle: My next novel in verse is SILVER PEOPLE, Voices From the Panama Canal , which is due to be published by Harcourt in March, 2014. It is about the Caribbean islanders who were recruited by the U.S. to do the hard work of digging (by hand, with shovels!) while subjected to U.S.-imposed apartheid. Because it is set in the rain forest, this story includes the voices of animals and trees, just as The Lightning Dreamer includes choruses of orphans and nuns. Experimenting with voices is one of the great pleasures of the novel in verse form!
I also have several biographical picture book projects for younger children about important Latinos who have been forgotten by history and deserve to be better known. Bringing independent thinkers back from obscurity is one of my favorite goals.