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.”

Guest Post Announcement: MY BIRTHDAY IS SEPTEMBER 11 AND OTHER SHORT STORIES, by Nicole Weaver

My Birthday Is September Eleven and Other Short Stories… A book for children and adults, so we never forget 9/11.

On Sunday, September 11, people across the country will pause to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It’s important that we tell our children about that day, especially kids who were very small, and those who weren’t born yet, so we never forget. I want to make sure teachers, parents, librarians, and grandparents are aware of a new ebook, My Birthday Is September Eleven and Other Short Stories. This is an ebook dedicated to all children born on 9/11, 2001. The stories are for grades 6-8.

Here’s a recent review from a psychologist. “As a licensed psychologist with a specialty in children, parents often ask me to direct them to a book that they can read with their children. I have no problem sending parents to My Birthday is September Eleven and Other Short Stories. In this book, you will find stories about children with real-life struggles and how they find ways to cope with those problems. These stories present opportunities for parents and children to talk about what is happening in their own lives and possible solutions, while strengthening parent-child communication.”

Many children today know little or nothing about 9/11 or why it’s important to them. On a recent national news program, I saw some man-on-the-street interviews of young people in their late teens and early twenties. A few could explain what took place on 9/11, but sadly, most had no idea. We cannot allow this to continue.

My Birthday Is September Eleven and Other Short Stories will help teachers, librarians, grandparents, and parents with this issue. Additionally, the stories were written to help teach children about having compassion for others.

See description of each story below:

My Birthday is September Eleven– A story about a boy who was born on 9/11. When the reader steps into the world of Matthew, he or she will recognize the undercurrent of mourning that will help all to not forget 9/11.

Zebra Boy – A biracial boy is spared further teasing when his best friend comes to his rescue.

The Good Samaritan – A group of fifth-graders raise funds to help a fellow classmate that needs money for a life-saving surgery.

No More Hunger – Ronald, a Haitian boy whose village was virtually wiped out by a devastating hurricane, becomes a victim of abject poverty. He is later rescued when the well-respected Madame Wilson takes it upon herself to nourish him back to health.

A New Life – A biracial boy experiences many hardships before being adopted by a caring couple.

There is a special web page for My Birthday Is September Eleven and Other Short Stories. You are welcome to lift any material that might help you in communicating with your circle of influence

Reviews and Comments
Nicole Weaver’s latest collection of short stories is a great gift for any middle grader or teen to read about 9/11. While this date only reminds us of tragedy, the author has found a way to weave themes of friendship, loyalty and compassion in these stories which aren’t only educational but entertaining as well. Written in simple language and in an engaging style, My Birthday is September Eleven and Other Short Stories will make a great gift for that special child in your life.
Amazon- Mayra Calvani ( Brussels, Belgium)
Young audiences will love these short stories that teach young children to cope and overcome the many obstacles we all can face growing up. Young readers will learn about pain, suffering, compassion and the willingness to be more accepting of others.

Nicole Weaver introduces readers to Matthew a young boy who has to spend his birthdays celebrating the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. With no friends to celebrate and the sadness that surrounds that day, he really doesn’t want a birthday at all.

Another interesting story for readers is about a boy named Pascal. He is bi-racial and is faced with bullies at school. Two older kids Eric and Tommy spend their time on the playground threatening kids for money. Eric especially likes to tease Pascal by calling him Zebra Boy. Pascal and his friend Marcel must learn how to overcome these challenges and stand up to these kids.

More stories follow that will teach triumph and the celebration of div adversity and helping others. These stories can be a great tool for parents, teachers and homeschoolers.
Teaching children about friendship, forgiveness, and to stand up for themselves as well as others, will help them become better human beings.
Kristi Bernard (Overland Park, KS)

This collection of short stories touches on many different subjects from dealing with tragedy to bullying to giving to self-sacrifice to adoption. Each story has a child main character or characters that have to deal with real-life situations that readers may have or will experience personally or through a friend sometime in their own lives. For those who never have to experience some of the tougher situations like a natural disaster, it offers the reader a glimpse of this tragedy on a more human level rather than just a list of faceless statistics of fatalities and damages.
Lessons learned from the stories are far-reaching. Such as that the way we begin our lives in not always how we are destined to lead them. These stories show how we are all socially connected to the world at large even though we may physically be far away. Sharing these stories with your children will open their minds and hearts to living and thinking beyond themselves.
By having the characters come from many different walks of life, this book will appeal to a wide variety of juvenile and older readers. As the U.S. has always been a diverse blend of peoples, cultures and languages, this book reflects that diversity showing that what we may consider different is actually familiar.
Amazon-Auto mom

These stories provide a great springboard for classroom or parent-to-child discussions on bullying, adoption (infant adoption, older-child adoption) and the world history tragedies of 9/11 and the Haitian earthquake. The stories themselves are tangential to the worst of Ripped from the Headlines news, so they are more palatable to middle schoolers and young adult readers. The stories center around children and are relatable–as children and their families work through problems, not all the way to Hollywood endings but to a place of compassion and understanding. The story about 9/11 is especially telling in this strategy. A boy happens to have a birthday on 9/11. He wants that day to be one of celebration for himself, but always there is this undercurrent of mourning. Thought-provoking for the boy, and for a reader
Amazon-Vicki Gundrum (San Francisco)

Nicole weaver was born in Port-au-Prince Haiti. She came to the United States when she was ten years old. She is fluent in Creole, French, Spanish and English. She is a veteran teacher of French and Spanish. Her second children’s trilingual book titled: My Sister is My Best Friend will be published by Guardian Angel Publishing fall 2011. She is also the author of a children’s trilingual picture book titled: Marie and Her Friend the Sea Turtle. She has a third book currently under contract with Guardian Angel Publishing titled: My Brother is My Best Friend.