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Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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" I am comfortable with the label 'magical realism.' I don't do it on purpose, it just grows out of the strangeness of life..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



"I do start with outlines, but the outlines are alive. They are
vine-like, with creeping tendrils. They grow and change. Sometimes they turn into strangler figs, completely suffocating the original plot, so that I find myself starting over. "

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I think that because I
fell in love with Cuba as a child, elements of fairy tales seep into everything I write about the island."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

" I am definitely an early morning person...By noon I can feel a heavy door in my mind starting to swing shut. By mid-afternoon, I turn into a sponge. All I want to do is read, read, read, not write."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"When you are a scientist, other scientists tend to be horrified if they "catch you" writing anything creative. As a writer, there are no limits."


Interview: Margarita Engle


Reading Margarita Engle’s prose is like stepping from the stale air of an office building into a humid rainforest dense with impossibly tangled vines and birds so brilliantly-colored they seem faintly unreal. It’s a sensual experience. At times, painfully realistic, at times, dream-like, her novels—Singing To Cuba (Arte Publico Press, 1993), Skywriting (Bantam, 1995)—are suffused with poetry and fearful politics.

Engle’s novels center on Cuba and the struggles of relatives within and without the tumultuous island nation. In Singing To Cuba, a farm wife from California visits relatives to tell them they haven’t been forgotten. In Skywriting, a woman raised in the California desert meets the Cuban half-brother she has never known and finds her life transformed: “I knew my half brother Camilo for exactly two hours before he climbed onto a raft of inner tubes and tried to cross the sea.”

Engle was born in Los Angeles, California, to a Cuban mother and an American father who traveled to Cuba to paint. She grew up in California, but made extended visits to Cuba as a child. Skywriting, she wrote in her introduction to the book, was drawn from her own experience of waiting to hear about cousins who had tried to leave Cuba on a makeshift raft.

Her latest book, The Poet-Slave, is forthcoming from Henry Holt. Her short works have appeared in a variety of anthologies, chapbooks and journals, such as Atlanta Review, California Quarterly, and Caribbean Writer. She has been a recipient of the prestigious Cintas Fellowship and a San Diego Book Award. She lives in central California.


VerbSap: You trained as an agronomist and a botanist. When did you turn to writing and what made do it?

Engle: I have always been a voracious reader. As a child, I wrote poetry and fables. As a teen, I experimented with haiku and short fiction. Basically, I have been experimenting ever since.

I studied agronomy and botany partly because I grew up in Los Angeles, and longed for the beauty of wilderness, and partly because I grew up during the idealistic, rebellious era of the "flower child." When I was finished rebelling, I decided to grow crops and feed the hungry. As it turned out, I never got around to joining the Peace Corps and "saving the world," my original goal. Instead, I fell in love and married an agricultural entomologist, Curtis Engle. We have two children, Victor and Nicole, now in college. We stayed
in California, and I became a professor of agronomy, and later, the director of an irrigation water conservation project.

While my children were little, I decided to stay home. During their naps, I rediscovered creative writing, and realized that I could never be satisfied with the dry style I had been using for technical and research reports. I began publishing some of my haiku, and writing editorial columns for Hispanic
News Link Service in Washington, D.C. I loved the freedom of being able to express myself in a variety of ways. When you are a scientist, other scientists tend to be horrified if they "catch you" writing anything creative. As a writer, there are no limits.

It was really my return to Cuba in 1991, after a thirty-one year
absence, that stirred so much emotion, I found I needed a place put my feelings. I wrote Singing to Cuba, published by Arte Publico Press, then set it on a bookshelf, and hoped my wild emotions would behave. They didn't. So I kept returning to Cuba, and after Bantam published
Skywriting, I tried for years to write a historical novel about Juan Francisco Manzano, the Poet-Slave of Cuba, who wrote poetry while he was still a slave.

VerbSap: In Singing To Cuba, the narrator says: “Miguelito explained that he would like me to write about his life for him, because he lived in a place of terror where such an act would be too dangerous for his family…My cousin wanted to be heard. I couldn’t sing for him, not the way he would sing, but at least I could write a naïve and simplified version of his words.” Did such a sentiment fuel your own writing?

Engle: At the time when I wrote Singing to Cuba, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc had just collapsed. Outsiders with foreign currency were being allowed onto the island as tourists in a desperate attempt to prop up an economy that was in freefall. Possession of the Bible was suddenly
legalized, as a way of making the island appear to be normal, with ordinary freedoms allowed, but it was an illusion. Cubans were hungry. They were scared. They had no idea whether their future would resemble the
dismantling of the Berlin Wall, or the slaughter at Tiananmen Square. No one dared to speak in public, because there were secret police on every street corner, and in private, even a relative might turn them in for saying the wrong thing, reading the wrong magazine, asking the wrong question. During the Pan-American games in 1991, Cubans weren't allowed to talk to the foreign tourists who swarmed across Havana. Everything was surrealistic.

I felt certain that eventually many of the people who were experiencing that strange era from the inside would be able to tell their stories in their own voices, but during the interim, I felt compelled to contribute whatever I could about things I had witnessed, even though I was an outsider. A cousin in Cuba once told me that no one born on terra firme could ever understand an islander. He was right, of course. I was born
and raised on a continent, terra firme, as the medieval explorers would have said, firm land, as opposed to the isolated, mysteriously floating image of islands. I have never been trapped on a tiny fragment of land surrounded by sea. I know that my voice is a product of the immense geography and vast freedom of expression available to me in my homeland, the United States. Still, I had to try.

VerbSap: Your prose and poetry is filled with powerful images of the natural world. The narrator in Singing To Cuba calls herself “just a nature poet.” How important is being out in nature to you and to your work? What are your greatest sources of inspiration?

Engle: Nature is an essential part of my daily experience. If I don't go for a walk outdoors, no matter how dismal the neighborhood, life is devoid of the beauty of plants, animals, the sky. This is actually terribly ironic, because in Cuba, children who hope to go to college have to do "volunteer
work" on farms during their vacations, and most of them end up hating the very thought of spending one minute in the countryside. The red soil and lush green sugarcane fields that look so exotic and magical to me, are simply mud and grueling manual labor to them.

VerbSap: Do you find writing easy to do or is it a painful process? Your books have innovative structures, entwining tales from the past and the present. Do you map out your longer works in advance or do they grow as you write?

Engle: Writing about Cuba is utter joy, and at the same time, incredibly painful. Any reviewer who refers to my books as political has failed to see that for me, they are simply fictionalized family histories, deeply emotional, completely irrational, love stories, in a sense, because I fell in love with Cuba as a child, and I have remained in love with the island
ever since. Like a homing pigeon, I have my querencia, my nest that I always return to, even if it is only an imaginary place in my mind, a place that doesn't really exist, because I don't have to live in Cuba. I don't experience it the same way someone born and trapped there would, longing to
leave, longing to see the outside world. I already know that the outside world is neither paradise nor an inferno, just as I know that the same is true of Cuba.

Innovative structures are not intentional. I think that because I
fell in love with Cuba as a child, elements of fairy tales seep into everything I write about the island. Folklore, fantasy, fables, all those wonderful aspects of a sense of wonder that we lose as we age, come back to me when I sit down to write about Cuba. I can actually write very simply and pragmatically about other places, but that deep desire to write about other places only floods through me on
rare occasions, and with Cuba, it is always there, a sort of haunting.

I do start with outlines, but the outlines are alive. They are
vine-like, with creeping tendrils. They grow and change. Sometimes they turn into strangler figs, completely suffocating the original plot, so that I find myself starting over. For instance, yesterday I was trying to write a long poem about loneliness. Halfway through, I realized that it was
actually an ode to the wonderfully peaceful aspects of solitude. That surprise changed it into a very short poem about the spirit of wonder.


VerbSap: Is it fair to label your prose “magical realism?” If so, do you think there something about the duality of the style that particularly suits it to describing the Cuban and Cuban-American experience?

Engle: I am comfortable with the label "magical realism." I don't do it on purpose, it just grows out of the strangeness of life, an acceptance of the childlike spirit of wonder, an acceptance of not-knowing. In other words, my prose and poetry are both happy to live in a world where humans lack
understanding. Science strives to understand, but at the same time, a scientist knows that some things will never be explained, either that, or we are not yet ready to explain them, because God has not yet chosen to reveal those particular aspects of truth in a way that we can comprehend. We don't have the vocabulary. We still speak a primitive language that
might someday seem absurdly naive.

VerbSap: When is your imagination most active? What feeds it?

Engle: I am definitely an early morning person. Like Billy Collins in his poem, Morning, I have a tendency to think, "Why bother with the rest of the day?" Thank God, we live in a semi-rural area where roosters, mockingbirds, dogs, horses, goats, coyotes, and wild peacocks all join voices to welcome the sunrise. I love that pre-dawn serenade. We keep farmers' hours. By noon I can feel a heavy door in my mind starting to swing shut. By mid-afternoon, I turn into a sponge. All I want to do is read, read, read, not write. In the evenings, I read children's books, the simpler and sillier the better!

VerbSap: Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming book, The Poet-Slave?

Engle: The life of Juan Francisco Manzano, known as El Poeta-Esclavo, The Poet-Slave of Cuba, has been my obsession for quite a few years. I struggled to write about him in prose, and it never worked. It's as if his ghost kept shaking his invisible head, saying, no, no, no, that's not the
way I would do it. As soon as I switched to a novel-in-free-verse format, his spirit approved, and the project came to life and took flight. Now, it has wings of its own. His life is a powerful statement about freedom in general, and the freedom to write in particular. I hope that all who read it will feel moved to pray for writers all over the world who lack that
freedom.


Margarita Engle's fiction, Nightwriting, and nonfiction, No Two Alike, are available in VerbSap.


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