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

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.”

On The Depiction of Slavery in Picture Books

“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” – Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House, 1951.

The following two paragraphs were added two hours after the initial publication of this post. Turns out I wasn’t quite done yet.

I’m not saying there’s only one way to depict slavery in children’s books, but I’m starting to wonder: has slavery become the new normal? It’s like the first paint you apply on a canvas, which becomes the background, and then you paint a happy portrait on it, one that is supposed to make the viewer smile and deeply reflect at the same time. How does that work? I’m still trying to figure it out.

New normal: because of last year’s big picture book controversy, will writers, and illustrators, and even editors working on a kid’s book depicting slavery (even just in the background), now explain their creative choices in every book they publish and on social media? Is it supposed to help me understand the book, impact my reading experience, will that change how a book ultimately makes me feel? I welcome the dialogue on all accounts. I think a dialogue still is needed, and maybe when we find a balance, or maybe when what appears to be morphing into a “new normal” stabilizes, will all these questions become obsolete. For now what I’m left with is the struggle to navigate the waves of joy and sorrow such books bring, not just in me but also in the sea of emotions of the young reader.

On the controversy of the smiling slave in children’s books: did Black slaves ever smile? 

Is that question really up for debate? The real problem with the picture of a smiling slave, in a children’s book, has more to do with the truth and atmosphere the story and illustrations convey – especially if slavery is only part of the background of the story and not the central element, and how the aforementioned may impact a kid. Images and words are not neutral. Again, the problem is not the smile. And the problem is not whether a Black or White person wrote the story, whether a Black or White person illustrated it, or whether a Black or White editor curated it.

The topic of slavery in picture books will remain a sensitive one as long as parents will fear for their children’s safety, every time they step outside of the house, and as long as children themselves will refrain from smiling or get nervous simply because they have spotted a police officer. It might stop being a sensitive topic (to the level it has reached today, I mean; the past has happened already, and we can’t changed it, and yes it was ugly) – when we’re able to sustain a conversation about racism that doesn’t stop at “Us vs. Them,” but takes us further and keeps opening spaces that will bridge history with present, and fear and pain of the other with healing and cross-cultural respect. Books either denouncing or simply showing a human being who is not equal to another one, or not free, are published in an era where young and old, whether they want it or not, are aware of videos about kids being arrested, handcuffed in the classroom or in the streets, or shot dead. The kid doesn’t even need to have a Facebook or Twitter account to be exposed to that information. A conversation among classmates during recess is enough to do the damage.

On the “Us vs. Them” atmosphere.

I challenge every Facebook user who hasn’t already done so, to not just post a video about police brutality against a person of color, fuel the anger and stop there. Ask the questions. Create a dialogue that stirs us up toward looking for a solution. I ask the journalist who hasn’t already done so to not just report or write about acts of racism and stop there, leaving us to explode when every where we turn we’re already saturated by viral contents on the same violent topic. Do your research about grassroots (literary) efforts in the same area, and please mention them in your article.

Though usually labelled “for 4 to 8 years old” and marketed as such, a fundamental difference between picture books as a category, and middle grade and Young adult novels, is the wide age range of the readers. Picture books uniquely bring the family together. Grand-parents and parents read the stories to the kids; sometimes the precocious kid reads the book to his or her parents; the older siblings also get involved, and read them aloud to the younger ones. If something is not accurately addressed in a picture book that has historical elements in it, it can impact a whole family, not just the child. It will make a parent uncomfortable, confuse a kid, and further extend a racial stereotype, to put it mildly.

Why did I feel the urge to write this post?

Hercules, President Washington's slave cook.
Hercules, President Washington’s slave cook.

After writing about the cultural and ethnic background of the writer (Ramin Ganeshram), the illustrator (Vanessa Brantley-Newton) and the editor of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor at Scholastic Trade Publishing), in an article titled Smiling Slaves in a Post-A Fine Dessert World,  Kirkus Children and Teen Editor Vicki Smith asked: “Had A Birthday Cake for George Washington come out a year ago, concurrent with A Fine Dessert, how would it have been received? It’s impossible to know, but I think one thing’s for sure: the conversation would have been a whole lot different.”

I doubt it. Again, given the climate in which any book depicting slavery is published, including textbooks, I don’t think the conversation is that much different. Anytime “slavery” will be brought up in children’s book, the following will happen: it will generate a conversation, likely lively, because slavery remains a sensitive topic. Whether relating to a food recipe or not, slavery is not an easy topic to cover with children, not even with adults, and this especially if the general feeling is that the book has missed the mark at some point. Though the wound of slavery has been treated through its official abolition, it’s still in the healing process. Its scarifications remain visible through the examples of racism our world is still fighting today, and this is observed through the socio-economic dynamic and inter-cultural relationships within and outside of a country, and not just in the United States.


For Further Reading – edited on January 09 2016 to add a few more links.
o I recommend Vicki Smith’s original article, Smiling Slaves in a Post-A Fine Dessert World, as well as Andrea Davis Pinkney Guest Post on Scholastic, A Proud Slice of History.
o From UK based online children’s books magazine Books for Keeps, here is an article written by Brycchan Carey: The Depiction of the Slave Trade in Children’s Books.
o Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas once asked: “How can we inspire young people from all backgrounds while being honest about the pain and the hope of the African American story?” She answers in this Los Angeles article titled Four children’s books introduce African American experiences
o Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom: ALA Notable Children’s Book by Virginia Hamilton, Leo Dillon & Diane Dillon. Knopf, 1993.
o The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children and Stories of Slave-Life, by Julia Colman & Matilda G. Thompson.
o From Debbie Reese, of American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL): “These set of links are blog posts that are primarily on what-to-do about (…) broadly speaking, diversity in children’s/young adult literature.” From her blog post Not Recommended: A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall.
o Slavery in American Children’s Literature, 1790-2010, by Paula T. Connolly. 1st ed. U of Iowa, 2013.

Addendum: I did read A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The book review will be posted separately.
01/17/2016: Scholastic has Pulled A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON off the shelves and is accepting returns of the book. Read the publisher’s full statement here: