Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle is a novelist, journalist and poet. Her latest book, “All the Way to Havana,” was published this August and tells the story of a Cuban boy and his parents on a road trip to the city of Havana. Engle spoke with Henry Santoro about her inspiration for the book, the importance of perseverance and why young people need poetry and prose.
Henry Santoro: I've interviewed several authors over my career, and they all say you’ve got to write what you know. A common theme in your books is family, and in the case of “All the Way to Havana,” it's a family making its way to the city for the birth of a relative. Is there any connection there to you and your family?
Margarita Engle: No, I was trying to show a typical family road trip — one that any child might experience in any country, and yet show it in the context of Cuba. I actually did not write what I know in every sense because I don't know much about cars. I know that the old — the classic cars that Americans think of as a luxury are not a luxury in Cuba — they're survival. They're falling apart, they're noisy, they're rickety. Under the hood, there might be Russian parts, homemade parts, things made out of cardboard or tape. You might find a boat engine under the hood or a washing machine engine in a motor cycle. So, what I'm really writing about is the perseverance.
HS: When did you fall in love with writing and verse?
ME: I wrote poetry when I was a small child. Around age 6, I'd say, I graduated from just reading to wanting to write poetry also. And then through through my young adult years, I studied the sciences — became a botanist, an agronomist and worked in that field, so I've done a lot of technical scientific writing. But I came back to poetry as I got older, and the older I get, the happier poetry makes me. I just think this is an amazing refuge from daily life where we can slow down and really pay attention to all our senses.
HS: How and when do you know what age group your books will be targeted to? Do you know from the very beginning or does that just take shape as the book takes shape?
ME: I wrote this one at several levels. I hope that for the very young child, it will be seen as that fun family road trip — kind of a universal experience of a family reunion. For a little bit older, I hope they'll really see the perseverance of the people who keep the cars going, and that's true for poor people everywhere, not just Cuba. That's something to admire, not something to make fun of them for having an old car. And then for a little bit older or even adults, I wrote this book as a plea for peace, trying to show that universal family reunion in the context of, you know, Cold War hostilities that need to end, the U.S. trade embargo that needs to end. So, people who know a little bit of the history might see see that I'm kind of making a plea for neighboring countries to be friends, Cuba being one of our closest neighbors.
Click on the audio player above to listen to the entire interview with Margarita Engle.