Sometimes I’m included on a panel proposal for a conference. Like most authors, I have absolutely no idea why one proposal is accepted, while another is rejected, but the real mystery of panels is titles. Many of them try to say something about diversity, but I’m not always sure exactly which aspect of diversity is being featured. Recently, I learned that I would be on a “Cuban Literature” panel at a book festival. I was thrilled. This was a specific title, clearly stated. Then I learned that the panel would also include an otherwise wonderful, wise, and revered non-Cuban author whose new book, no matter how well-intentioned, is loaded with offensive historical and linguistic errors. Many non-‘own voice’ authors do thorough research, but Cuba is an easy country to misinterpret. Rural Cuba, in particular, is often misunderstood by tourists who speed past impoverished villages and farms in air-conditioned buses, listening to official stories told by government guides.

I wrote to the book festival. The organizers responded immediately, changing the panel. Then, even though speaking up was awkward and quite frankly, terrifying, I wrote to the editor of Katherine Paterson’s book. She and Paterson have been very gracious, but it would take a complete revision to make the book historically accurate. A few minor corrections won’t make its oversimplification of a complex era any less offensive.

The basic problem with many of the books about Cuba written by casual travelers is that idealists often go to the island, listen to official propaganda, imagine Utopia, come home, and start writing. So many non-own voice books about Cuba are suddenly emerging that it’s hard to keep up with them, but I try to read anything about my ancestral homeland.

Refugee by Alan Gratz makes linguistic assumptions, but is generally accurate, and the small errors are not offensive. I was in Cuba many times during the rafter crisis of the early ‘90s, and I know how dangerous it was to speak Fidel’s name out loud. It was either whispered, or indicated with sign language, using the fingers to indicate a beard. No one would have ever pronounced his surname out loud, as characters in Refugee do, nor would they call the U.S. el norte. It was dangerous to admit that one wanted to leave the country, so a metaphor was needed, and throughout the island, everyone said Yuma, not ‘the north.’ Yuma was taken from old American cowboy movies where the hero would survive his desert crossing only if he could make it to Yuma, Arizona. In Cuba during the early 1990s, if secret police or neighborhood spies overheard a conversation, one could claim to be discussing the movie, not plans to build a raft.

While I was in their home, two of my cousins stepped out onto their balcony, shook their fists, and shouted, “¡Viva Fidel!” That same night, they quietly slipped away on a homemade raft. Caught by a Cuban patrol boat, they were arrested. Their parents, who were government officials, were ordered to denounce them. Their mother had been a literacy brigade volunteer, but her sons’ desire for freedom of expression helped her see that literacy by itself is not enough, when accompanied by censorship. Fortunately, I was eventually able to help the whole family leave the island. I mention this story to show the complexity of Cuba. The only part of this entire saga that would have been visible to an outsider was the pro-Fidel scene on the balcony, deliberately staged to make a particular impression.

Unlike Refugee, many of the recent non-own voice books about Cuba are either wildly inaccurate, offensive, or both.

A popular young adult fantasy novel perpetuates the myth of sustainable agriculture on an island where, in reality, food has been rationed for more than half a century, and 80% of the food is imported. I think that’s an injustice to the Cuban people, who are hungry.

There’s a military thriller titled, Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) misspelled as an absurd and meaningless Cuba Libra (Cuba Pound).

A critically acclaimed literary novel describes women patting out tortillas with their hands even though in Cuba, the word tortilla means omelet.

There is a murder mystery featuring priests who supposedly molested children at a time when in reality, religion had been outlawed, churches were closed, and the clergy had been deported or arrested.

It wouldn’t take much research for all these American authors who are jumping on the Cuba bandwagon to learn basic facts about the country they’ve misinterpreted. All they have to do is hire scholars—Cuban-American historians and linguists—to proofread their manuscripts.

Anyone who has read my memoir, Enchanted Air, knows that I spent the summer of 1960 in rural Cuba. Here is just a taste of the complexity of that post-revolutionary era in the countryside: My mother had around two hundred cousins. Some were uneducated, while others were highly educated. Some of the educated cousins became idealistic volunteers in the literacy brigades of 1961. However, while they were teaching illiterate people how to read Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote—along with hard-line Stalinist propaganda—other books were banned, even burned. Poets, novelists, and journalists were arrested. Some were abritrarily executed. Many of my mother’s guajiro (peasant) cousins had fought with Che Guevara in the central mountains, but now, because they were growing food in a region where it could be seized by counter-revolutionaries hiding in the mountains just uphill from their farms, they were rounded up and sent to prisons and forced labor camps. Some were incarcerated for decades, along with their entire families, simply because of the locations of farmland that had been in our family for centuries, extending back to indigenous ancestors.

The Cuban government still refers to those innocent guajiros as bandits, and so does Katherine Paterson.

I am liberal. I travel to the island of my mother’s birth often. I lobby to lift the embargo. I promote peace and reconciliation. Nonetheless, I am dismayed when books written by people who don’t understand Cuba’s complexity decide to honor idealistic aspects of revolutionary history by simply ignoring the brutal aspects. Should a novel set in 1989 Beijing omit the Tiananmen massacre? That is the depth—or rather the shallowness—of many of these new books written by casual travelers.

People might ask me why I don’t just write my own novel about rural Cuba in 1961, during the oddly juxtaposed literacy campaign/reign of terror that followed Playa Girón (called the “Bay of Pigs” by Americans). Here is my cautious answer, which I hope will stay on this page instead of circulating as a quoted tweet:

  1. I don’t want to be declared an enemy of the state, added to the long list of Cuban-American authors who are not allowed to visit the island.
  2. I don’t want relatives I have visited on the island to be accused of hosting an enemy of the state.

The basic problem is that tourists don’t understand Cuba, while those of us who do understand need to self-censor.

Even though I censor myself, I have no desire to censor other writers. I believe in freedom of expression precisely because idealistic literacy brigades were accompanied by censorship, repression, and firing squads. I don’t believe in any restrictions on freedom of expression—other than hate speech and inciting violence—precisely because during the 1960s, Cuba became a country where you could spend many years in prison simply for owning a Bible, reading a foreign newspaper, or listening to Beatles music.

I’m overjoyed that tourists have the right to visit Cuba. Unfortunately, they also have the right to absorb propaganda, come home, and write inaccurate books. One of the most offensive errors in the advanced review edition of My Brigadista Year is the mis-translation of Che Guevara’s violent military slogan, ¡Venceremos!” (We will win) as a pacifst’s “We Shall Overcome,” which in the ARC is capitalized, apparently for greater emotional impact. I hope that offensive error will be corrected before the book comes out. The ghosts of my relatives who fought with Che before being arbitrarily shot or arrested, know that he wasn’t a pacifist.

I don’t want to censor Katherine Paterson or anyone else, but I regard inaccurate historical novels as unfinished, and even when they are finished, I don’t think non-Cuban authors should be included on panels called, “Cuban Literature.”

This is a year of amazing debut Cuban-American children’s authors: Ruth Behar, Emma Otheguy, Pablo Cartaya, Celia Pérez! Please add them to panels, instead of inviting the authors of unfinished books. Then sit back and listen, instead of making assumptions that try to explain our complex culture and history with drastically over-simplified stereotypes.

About the author:
Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots.

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist. She lives in central California with her husband.


Edited on 9/12/17: “Katherine Paterson’s book” instead of “Paterson’s book.”

16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Cuba for Beginners, by 2017-2019 National Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle

  1. Thank you for sharing this, and at great risk to your family members still in Cuba. (And I will not tweet it.) I’m glad you stood up on behalf of Own Voices authors as well, because there’s so much wonderful Cuban-American literature for young people coming out now, and those are the folks that need to be on the panels. I’m currently writing a historical novel set in another Eastern Bloc country during the 1960s, and they all, unfortunately, share the same “ends justify the means” disregard for intellectual freedom and human rights. A tragic outcome, because in many cases, the revolution occurred because people had already endured years if not centuries of injustice and repression.


  2. Margarita, thank you for writing this. I’m so glad that I had the chance to visit Cuba, but even from the seat of my tourist bus, I couldn’t help but be moved by the confusing combination of beauty, verve and heartbreak. I came home from Cuba with music in my ears, and whenever I long for it, I only have to open one of your books.


  3. Many parts of this post, an hour or so after I initially read it, are lingering in my thoughts. One is that each of us, from our respective communities, understand things that outsiders do not. We know what can be shared, and why it is ok to share. And we know that if we share some things, we put ourselves or our families or communities in a vulnerable position. I hope editors at the publishing houses read it and share it with their writers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I thank you for this post and vital information. One note and I hope you take this in the constructive intent that it is meant to be: it seems there is a sentence missing near the beginning to identify Katherine Paterson? You refer to “Paterson” and I had no idea who you were referring to until the end when I read her first and last name. Or was this intentional, a writing form that I am not used to? I am used to seeing antecedents in white writing. Perhaps that is my myopic point of view.


  5. There is so much to ponder in your thoughtful article – thank you for your bravery and integrity. You have pointed out so unequivocally why we need to hear voices from within, whatever that ‘within’ represents, and why writers from the ‘outside’ need to include the voices on the inside in their research in order to present an authentic context to their writing.


  6. As always, you educate and inspire me, Margarita. Thank you for this informative and wise call to action … as readers, writers, reviewers, conference planners, citizens of the world.


  7. Thank you for this wise, inspiring, convincing and educational post, Margarita. Several writers for young readers and I were discussing it and admire and appreciate tremendously your honesty and the respect you show your fellow writers and industry professionals.


  8. I was reserving judgement on a book mentioned in this article until I heard an #ownvoices view. This confirmed my suspicions that, while well researched, the book could not cover the complexities of the situation adequately. Thank you for this post.


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