“I have a feather pen,
and a window
with a view of sky.”
-Tula in The Lightning Dreamer
This summer I “discovered” verse novels and thought Where have I been? I immediately plunged into a love affair that is still going strong even after the romance of summer has faded. The love began with the first verse novel I read, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Newbery Honor-winning poet
What really drew me in was the marriage of history and verse. I adore memoir and historical and literary biography, and have quite the dinner party sitting on my shelves, from Lincoln to Rasputin, from Lewis and Clark to Sarah Bernhardt, from Agrippina and Marie Antoinette to Dorothy Parker. With The Surrender Tree, Margarita immersed me in 19th-century Cuba, a place I had never been before, introducing me to Cuba’s wars for independence and to Rosa, a courageous healer who tended to runaway slaves in caves and secret hideaways.
I was so taken by this world and this struggle that I continued my reading with the focus of today’s post, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist.
This gorgeous book did not disappoint! Here’s what it’s all about, from the starred review by Booklist:
Engle’s historical novel in verse is a fictionalized biography of the 19th-century Cuban abolitionist poet Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known as Tula. Told in multiple voices, Engle’s elegant verses, rich in simile and metaphor, focus on the poet’s life as a teenager. Forbidden access to books because her mother believes reading and writing make women unattractive, Tula escapes to a nearby convent. There, she discovers volumes by the rebel poet José María de Heredia, whose words feed her own rebellious spirit, which is exemplified by her rejection of two arranged marriages. “I long to write like Heredia,” she muses, “but what do I know of great cities and the wide lives of men? I’m just a silenced girl. My stories are simple tales of emotion.” Seen as an outcast and a madwoman, she is sent to the country, where she falls in love with Sab, a freed slave, and continues to write about equality for slaves and for women. Engle’s richly evocative verses conjure up a time when women, like slaves, were regarded as property to be sold into loveless marriages. This is the context for a splendid novel that celebrates one brave woman who rejected a constrained existence with enduring words that continue to sing of freedom. Grades 7-12. –Michael Cart
I’m so pleased that Margarita agreed to read us some selections from The Lightning Dreamer.
Visions! The night is filled
with fierce spirits and gentle ones.
Invisible beings spin and moan.
Floor, ceiling, and walls
whisper, wail, and shout…
Phantoms beg me to transform
my strange dreams
in the garden.
I rise up out of a nightmare
and grasp a feather pen,
QUESTIONS for MARGARITA ENGLE
I interviewed Margarita here about her picture books, so please check it out for more info!
To set the stage for The Lightning Dreamer, could you give us some background on your main character, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Tula) and the rebel poet who inspired her? Particularly, what were the circumstances that Tula faced that led her to become a rebel poet?
Tula’s mother thought reading and writing were unladylike. Girls were not supposed to express opinions. Marriages were arranged by families, and were based on profit. Much like the characters in Jane Austen novels, Tula was only expected to learn social skills, embroidery, music, and dancing in order to “make a good match.” From early childhood, Tula was rebellious. In autobiographical letters written as an adult, she spoke of writing secretly, and burning her early work, so that her mother would not find it. She also spoke of stories she wrote about vampires and giants, and plays she helped orphans perform at a convent. She was profoundly influenced by the poetry of José María Heredia, one of the founders of a secret society that promoted freedom for slaves, as well as freedom from Spain. Tula added her own feminist component to this mix: voluntary marriage, instead of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls.
Although most people have probably heard the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword,” the word “rebel” still usually conjures images of rough men with guns rather than gentle people with pens. Since “rebel poets” figure heavily into your books, and in The Lightning Dreamer in particular, could you speak a bit about the importance of these writers? Why did they rebel in this way? What did they risk? What effects did they have on the status quo?
The entire island of Cuba was slave territory. There was no free North where abolitionists could become orators and lawmakers. Censorship was strict, and penalties were severe. As a result, the most outspoken abolitionists were poets and novelists, who veiled their opinions in metaphor. For instance, when Tula wrote a poem about setting a caged bird free, we can read that poem as a plea for emancipation of slaves, and a plea for voluntary marriage.
The Lightning Dreamer consists of poems written in the voices of several characters, including Tula, her brother Manuel, her mother, and her family’s slave, Caridad. What challenges did you face in writing from all these perspectives? How much did your research inform each character and how did you create those for whom you had little research?
I had a lot of documentation for Tula’s voice, as well as a limited amount for her brother and her mother. In letters, she wrote that her father longed to move back to Spain and get away from the slave society of Cuba, where he feared a rebellion, but she never made it clear whether he actually owned slaves. We do know that her maternal grandfather was a plantation owner, and therefore a slaveholder. I developed the fictional character of Caridad to represent an entire segment of society that was quite common in Cuba: freed slaves who continued to work for their former owners. That was the most difficult voice, and yet, I can’t help but feel that it is an important one, because later in the story, Sab also represents that same group. Sab, however, is a character developed by Tula in her groundbreaking abolitionist novel titled Sab. I did not invent him, and although I simplified many aspects of his voice, I did not invent his feelings, which are taken directly from Tula’s writing.
I continue to dream up my own
set of rules–for life, for poetry,
for the orphan theater.
In my plays, all are equal.
Each orphan receives
a speaking role,
because every child
has a voice that must be heard,
even if adults only listen
while children are perched
on a stiff wooden stage,
chirping like new-hatched birds
that have not yet learned
how to sing.
Many of your verse novels feature strong women who were ahead of their time, including The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba, and Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian.
What draws you to these people and themes and compels you to write about them?
I love to read historical accounts, such as the letters of Avellaneda and Fredrika Bremer, or the stories about Rosa la Bayamesa’s courage. I’m often surprised by how many fascinating historical figures have vanished from our society’s memory. Internationally, Tula was one of the best-known women writers of her time, but at present, she is well known only in Cuba and Spain. Somehow, it seems like an injustice, as well as a loss. It’s as if history books only have room for one feminist voice at a time, or one abolitionist voice at a time, when in reality, there were many, and Tula was one of the most original. In Cuba, other rebel poets paired their abolitionist views with a campaign for freedom from Spain, but it took a woman to envision freedom from arranged marriage.
Books are door-shaped / portals / carrying me / across oceans / and centuries, / helping me feel / less alone.Tula in The Lightning Dreamer
Why verse novels? What attracts you most to this form? How did you come to write your first one? What is the biggest advantage of writing in this form? The biggest challenge or limitation?
I never planned to write a verse novel, but I tried for years to write The Poet Slave of Cuba in prose, and it never worked. When I shifted to verse, it began to flow. At that point, I fell in love with the form, and I have never returned to prose. For me, one of the most treasured aspects of a verse novel is the unstated. I feel as if I can say a great deal about history simply by omitting facts and figures in favor of emotions.
Could you share the titles of some of your own favorite verse novels that have inspired you and that you would recommend to young readers
Witness by Karen Hesse, is the one that I had in mind when I decided to try The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano in verse. Witness has so many voices, all describing one incident from different points of view. I was trying to show one enslaved poet’s life not only from his own viewpoint, which was well-documented by his own writing, but also from the points of view of those who oppressed him, and those who helped him.
Now, there are many wonderful examples of YA verse novels, but a decade ago, when I was writing The Poet Slave of Cuba, I had not seen very many. I still thought of the form as something ancient, passed down from the Iliad and the Odyssey to Juan Ramón Jiménez’ Platero y Yo.
Just a few of the abundant recent verse novels that I would enthusiastically recommend to young people include Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes, Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box by Juan Felipe Herrera,
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost, To Be Perfectly Honest: A Novel Based on an Untrue Story by Sonya Sones, and May B. by Caroline Starr Rose.
That should keep us all busy for a while!
Margarita, thank you so much for your insights and recommendations and, most of all, for your books!
Thank you! It’s a joy to share my passion for poetry, history, and people like Tula, who changed the world using no other weapon than words.
- Margarita’s Website: www.margaritaengle.com
- Excellent interview with Margarita by Robyn Hood Black
- Margarita’s essay on Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda
- List of Margarita’s books on Amazon
Help me build my library!
Do you have a favorite verse novel? Let me know in the comments!
The lovely Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference is hosting Poetry Friday today.
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See more poems in my poetry video library.
Selections from THE LIGHTNING DREAMER: CUBA’S GREATEST ABOLITIONIST © Margarita Engle. All rights reserved.