Lighting the Candle: Inherited Exile

When I was little, my mother read poetry to me in Spanish. José Martí’s Versos sencillos were the essence of my memories from those early years. Even though he died in battle, his rosa blanca of forgiveness for enemies had an enormous impact on my lifelong commitment to peacemaking.

After she learned English, my mother read picture books out loud and took me and my older sister to the Arroyo Seco Library in Los Angeles every Saturday. By the time I started school, I was reading voraciously — poetry, novels, folklore, and travel books. I walked home from school alone, on steep hills with a view of arid mountains. We had just returned from a summer in Cuba, where riding horses on a farm had been the highlight of my dreamlike summer with extended family in and around the small city of Trinidad.

In Los Angeles, during those solitary walks to and from school, nature called out to me. Each bristly Canary Island date palm, every dry, brown slope, even the smoggy sky and gray foliage of wild artichoke plants became a link to the green, humid beauty of rural Cuba.

As I walked, my footsteps created a rhythm that worked like a magnet, attracting words and transforming them into poetry. The music of those verses was spoken silently, inside my mind. I rarely wrote my early poems on paper. I didn’t memorize them, either. They were a fleeting gift from my footsteps, meant to be enjoyed temporarily, during the joy of those moments of movement.

By the time I was a teenager, travel to Cuba became impossible for U.S. citizens. We lost our ability to visit half our family. I suffered in silence, because I didn’t know other Cuban Americans in Los Angeles, and non-Cubans simply did not understand my surrealistic condition of inherited exile. One day, after reading a book about an island in the South Pacific, I looked at my mother and said, “Someday I’ll write a book about Cuba.” I could see the book in my mind. It would include history, real people, imaginary ones, villages, farms, and green mountains. It would be the book I had never found in any library, the emotional yet informative volume I had always longed to read.

What I didn’t yet know was that many decades later, that book would be written in free verse, with the rhythms of human footsteps and galloping horses. I didn’t know that it would be called The Surrender Tree, or that it would be an experimental verse novel about one of Cuba’s most significant historical tragedies and triumphs. I didn’t know it would be written and sung out loud in poetry, for young readers, instead of being structured as a traditional prose novel for adults, like most of my earlier books. I had no way of knowing that it was destined to be a book I could not write until late in life, after I had finally been able to return to Cuba many times, reclaiming my mother’s extended family, and completing a small fraction of the necessary study of Cuba’s unique nature and culture. The Surrender Tree was a book I could not write until I had found the lost pieces of my childhood self.

While I was young, I had no way of knowing that The Surrender Tree would be followed by other verse novels and memoirs, as well as picture books. In Enchanted Air, I told the story of how I became a poet. In Soaring Earth, I told the story of how I became a botanist. Now, most recently, in Your Heart, My Sky, I’ve told the story of Cubans who survived one of the island’s modern tragedies, the era of hunger during the 1990s.

Perhaps the true significance of my path to writing is not what I’ve written but rather what my mother read to me. When we read poetry to children, we travel far into their future, helping them listen to rhythms that act like magnets, attracting words and transforming them into musical verses.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here. Photos of the author as a child in Los Angeles and as a teenager in Spain courtesy of Margarita Engle.

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle is a three-time Belpré winner for narrative, most recently in 2016 for Enchanted Air, and has received three honors. Her latest book is Your Heart, My Sky; A Song of Frutas is forthcoming (all Atheneum).

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