Friday, August 7, 2015

Margarita Engle's "Enchanted Air"

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino author, and The Lightning Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Awards and Honors, Américas Awards, Jane Addams Awards and Honors, International Reading Association Award, Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and many others.

Engle grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. Her new book, Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings, is a verse memoir about those childhood visits.

Engle applied the “Page 99 Test” to the new memoir and reported the following:
Enchanted Air is a verse memoir about my Cuban-American childhood. It is essentially a travel memoir, showing our summers visiting relatives in Cuba during the Cold War. Page 99 is typical of the portion of the book that occurs in Trinidad, my mother’s hometown.

After a big lunch of yellow rice
and black beans, all the grown-ups
fall asleep in rocking chairs.

Children are expected to rest
at siesta hour, but Mad and I know
that this is our best chance
to explore.

The central patio has fruit trees
and flowers to study, and the walls
display intriguing old black-and-white
photos of ancestors, wide-eyed pictures
that make me feel
just as drowsy
as a grown-up,
all filled up
with years.

This poem recalls the quiet curiosity of childhood, a time when every detail of life is still new. During the siesta hour in my great-aunt’s house, my sister and I stayed awake, exploring. In this poem, I wanted to recapture that spirit of wonder by creating it anew, in present tense, rather than as a nostalgic memory. Writing a childhood memory at an adult level might be different, but Enchanted Air is intended for young readers. I hoped to show a moment when boundaries vanished, and curiosity worked as a form of time travel.

Siesta/Nap is representative of the spirit of Enchanted Air, because it shows a bond between generations, a bond that was broken by history. Of course, while I was writing this book a couple of years ago, I had no way of knowing that diplomatic relations would suddenly begin to resume, with embassies that have been closed for more than half a century re-opening only a few days before the publication date. Writing Enchanted Air was an emotional experience. Reading it now is even more emotional. A memoir that began as a plea for peace and family reconciliation has turned into a celebration of possibilities, an ode to hope.
Visit Margarita Engle's website.

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My Book, The Movie: The Lightning Dreamer.

My Book, The Movie: Mountain Dog.

The Page 69 Test: Silver People.

--Marshal Zeringue