Author Margarita Engle thanks the 2012 Pura Belpre committee for selecting HURRICANE DANCERS as an honor book.
Is it difficult to find the balance between imparting the information necessary in a historically-based work and creating poetry?
Using free verse to tell a story feels like an ancient process, something that might have been done in the time of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It feels ancestral in some universal, timeless way. When it works, it is a euphoric experience.
Unlike your previous books, the characters in Tropical Secrets are entirely fictional, though the history is not. How did you find these characters?
Many of the Jewish refugees from Europe were children traveling alone. Cuban teenagers volunteered to teach them Spanish. As soon as I linked these two facts, the characters took form, and started singing their stories.
Can you talk a little about the creation of this book? How did you discover how many voices were needed to tell this particular story?
I can only describe the process of writing a verse novel as scribbling madly. This was one of those rare stories that came to me in one huge wave, rather than fragments. I had to struggle to keep up, trying to get the voices down on paper while they were fresh. From the beginning, I knew the names of the characters, and their passions: music, birds, freedom, truth. The character of the old man appeared quite naturally, perhaps because there was a need to balance youthful exuberance with experience and wisdom. The voice of Paloma’s father only speaks occasionally, retaining a certain distance, because he is the hardest one for me to understand. He clings to greed and selfishness, while the young people are learning about generosity and hope. He is the past. They are the future.
What inspired you to write Tropical Secrets?
My mother is Cuban, and was raised in the strict Catholic tradition of saints, festivals, and rituals. My father is an American of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry. I wanted to honor both of these branches of my family tree, and in particular, I wanted to celebrate the idea of safe harbors and the kindness of strangers, at crucial moments in history when refugees need compassion.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
Morning is my best time, and early morning walks are often my best time for getting ideas, and solving problems. I love to write outdoors, on old-fashioned paper, with an old-fashioned pen. My husband leads a search and rescue dog training group, and I am a volunteer “victim.” I hide in the Sierra Nevada forest, so the dogs can practice finding a lost person. Sometimes I hide for hours, and I always take paper and pens with me. There is no place more suited to poetry than the wilderness. Anything can happen. Usually, I just see squirrels and birds, but there are bears, deer, and eagles.
Then comes the hard part: sitting indoors, putting the rough draft on the computer, revising, letting the work sit, reading with a fresh eye, and revising again. The hardest part of all is putting the manuscript in the mail, and waiting to find out whether it will ever be published.
What kind of research do you do for your books?
I immerse myself in Cuban history. I love antique books, and there is nothing more pleasing to me than the chance to open a book from the island that still smells like humidity and a sea breeze. I have been to Cuba many times since 1991, when travel restrictions were eased by the Cuban government. Since travel is still severely restricted by the U.S. government, it is always an ordeal trying to get permission from both countries at the same time.
Why are you drawn to write about Cuba and its people?
My mother is from the beautiful town of Trinidad, on the south coast of Cuba. When I was a child, we spent several summers there, getting to know her relatives. I fell in love with the island, especially the lush, green rural areas, and with the people, who are perhaps the warmest, friendliest people in the world. After the Missile Crisis of 1962, travel became impossible, and even communicating was difficult. I felt like I had lost a part of myself, and in a way, writing became a way of trying to know that missing part.