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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Margarita Engle in a multi-award winning author and poet. Her novel-in-verse, Tropical Secrets (Henry Holt) was honored with the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teen readers. The unusual topic of the plight of Holocaust refugees is told from the perspective of several characters, each with a distinct voice. Engle’s evocative language in this beautifully crafted story. The main character, Daniel, is a young refugee who hopes to find his parents, but his sense of despair and loneliness as he arrives in Cuba is overwhelming. This breathtaking book pays homage to refugees of Cuba and those who supported them. Not only will readers learn about a little discussed historical event, they will fully engage in a beautifully told story whose characters resonate long after the last page is read.

Margarita spoke passionately about her work when accepting her award at the Association of Jewish Libraries Convention. I'm delighted to share her thoughts about writing Tropical Secrets.

What inspired you to write Tropical Secrets?

I was moved by the image of refugee children traveling alone, without knowing what to expect. During the late 1930s, when German ships filled with Jewish refugees were turned away from New York and Toronto, they anchored in Havana Harbor. Despite turmoil and tragedy, most of the refugees were granted asylum. Cuban teenagers and American Quakers volunteered to teach them Spanish. I visualized music as common ground for young people who cannot yet speak the same language.

My personal connection to the story is found in my own family history. My father is an American artist of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry. He traveled to Cuba after seeing National Geographic photos of my Cuban-Catholic mother's hometown, Trinidad de Cuba. They met on Valentine's Day, 1947, at a colonial palace in Trinidad that was being used as an art school (It is now El Museo Romántico, the Museum of Romantic Art., and the entire town of Trinidad, Cuba, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Even though my parents could not speak the same language, they passed drawings back and forth to communicate. Sixty-two years later, they are still married, despite all the differences in their cultural and religious backgrounds. Love conquers all!

How did you learn about the history of Jewish refugees in Cuba?

A long time ago, I read about the St. Louis, a ship that, tragically, did not receive asylum. It was turned away from Cuba, and returned to Europe. Many of those refugees perished in concentration camps. Years later, Tropical Diaspora, a nonfiction study by Robert M. Levine, gave me a better understanding of that era in Cuba. I felt haunted by the image of a safe harbor, and the kindness of strangers. I chose to use fictional characters to depict a real historical period. I chose free verse because it allows me to distill complex situations down to their emotional essence. I also used free verse because it offers an uncrowded page, and I hoped that would be inviting to reluctant readers. I also hoped it would be inviting to family literacy programs, where the combination of fast, easy reading and a mature theme might be suitable for various ages.

Tell me a bit about the research required for writing the book.

Unlike my books set in earlier centuries, there was little need to dig through archives. Tropical Diaspora, along with the references listed in that volume's bibliography, provided abundant details, so for me, the real work was simply imagining. That's not as easy as it sounds. The early drafts had emotional gaps that were noticed by my perceptive editor, Reka Simonsen. She edited the manuscript very gently, by asking questions. How did this character feel when such-and-such happened? What were his memories? How did he suffer, even though he was a survivor? I realized that I had tried to protect my young characters from suffering. In some ways Tropical Secrets is a joyful story with a hopeful ending, but the element of pain and loss cannot be omitted. So for me, the real research was suffering along with my characters, by imagining their experiences.

In the process of your research did you learn anything that surprised you?

I was shocked to learn that Nazi spies had been sent to Cuba to stir up anti-Semitism, in a deliberate attempt to insure that refugee ships would be turned away. I was also amazed to learn that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan, Cuba rounded up and imprisoned non-Jewish Germans on the island. This meant that the red J on a German Jew's passport suddenly served as protection against arrest. It seems like one of the clearest 'there-but-for-fortune' lessons anywhere in history, demonstrating how easily anyone can become a target, and how easily targets can change overnight, once the doors of hatred and fear are opened.

How did you feel when you learned that Tropical Secrets won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teen Readers?

I was thrilled, and I still am! I am profoundly grateful, not only for the honor itself, but for the chance to meet so many wonderful librarians at the AJL conference in Seattle, where the award was presented. It was really one of the warmest, friendliest professional conferences I have ever attended. What an incredible experience

Margarita, congratulations on your STBA award! Thank you for sharing your fascinating writer's journey with us.

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