"I think that because I
" 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
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
It was really my return to Cuba in 1991, after a thirty-one year
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
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
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
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
Innovative structures are not intentional. I think that because I
I do start with outlines, but the outlines are alive. They are
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
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