I am happy to join the Poetry Friday Community, which is hosted this week by the ever-lyrical, highly-artistic, herbal-healing, Tabatha Yeatts from The Opposite of Indifference.
As we continue with our current reading theme, I was irresistibly drawn to this novel-in-verse that Margarita Engle very generously sent me a year ago. I just know that it would find me at the right time, and it did. Published in March 2013, this novel-in-verse has already received multiple recognition: it was chosen by the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature as a Best Multicultural Book of 2013, named one of School Library Journal’s Top Ten Latino-themed Books for 2013, one of the Best 15 Latino Children’s Books of 2013, and selected as 2014 Pura Belpré Honor Book just to cite a few.
The Lightning Dreamer is based on the life story narrative of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, also known as Tula or La Peregrina (The Wanderer). It is worth noting that Tula is also the Tagalog word for poem. How curious is that! Similar to her other novels-in-verse, this is an imagined depiction of Tula’s life crafted only after a rigorous research by Margarita, whom I believe to be one of the best historical fiction novelists of our time.
The book opens with Tula’s very evident love for words. I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app.
Reading this very first poem from the book made my heart open of its own will, allowing Tula’s words to rush through. The story speaks of a time when young girls are not only disallowed from having an education, they were also banned from reading books (because men don’t like ladies who have their own minds), and were expected to marry well at a young age as arranged by her family. Tula escapes to a land of words and poetry, finding solace in a convent library where the nuns apparently have greater freedom to “indulge” in reading:
This was an eye-opener for me. I was a Catholic school girl the whole of my elementary and high school years, in a private school for girls run by nuns (the Augustinian Recollect Sisters) in Intramuros, Manila. Our school was founded in 1750. Teodora Agoncillo, the mother of our National Hero, Jose Rizal, went to school there when she was young. One can even go as far as call our old school a historic site of sorts. I didn’t realize though how nuns were afforded this freedom in the 1800s, which is the historical setting in Tula’s narrative. It was in the convent library that Tula discovered the banned books of the rebel poet, Jose Maria Heredia, allowing Tula’s voice to discover its own cadence and rhythm, the winged words flying from her contraband paper and pencil, given to her by her brother.
I rejoiced with Tula as she tentatively allowed her vampires and werewolves to run freely in her stage plays with the orphans. I ached for her as she defied her mother’s and grandfather’s wishes to marry a man she does not love, and wept as her heart broke from an unrequited love. Sadly, the love of her life, Sab, is in love with another woman as can be seen in Sab’s voice below:
How Tula eventually earned her literary name La Peregrina, I shall leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that this novel has awakened my sensibilities and reminded me of our own silenced history when the Philippines was under the Spaniards’ rule from 1521 to 1898; our country colonized for 333 years. This may be the reason why Tula’s attendance in secret rebel meetings and poetry readings moved me in more ways than one. In fact, I also wonder about the silenced women’s voices in Philippine history: our katipuneras and female revolutionaries, and who is telling their stories, if at all.
I invited Margarita for a Skype interview with my higher degree class at the National Institute of Education, and my heart was filled when she said yes.
My course is on the Use of Multicultural Children’s Books to Promote Socio-emotional Learning and we discussed Margarita’s Summer Birds and I also made mention of The Wild Book where she wrote about her grandmother’s word blindness, or dyslexia, which was of interest to most of my teacher-students who are specializing in Special Needs Education.
During our Skype interview, she spoke of her intention to resurrect these stories from the forgotten archives of history, particularly the voices of women like Gertrudis Gomez de Avellanada in The Lightning Dreamer, and Maria Merian in Summer Birds. She also talked about the methodical and rigorous research process that accompanies her creative writing. And as always, I marvel at Margarita’s empathy and her astounding ability to live Tula’s life through her first-person narrative. It takes a remarkable individual to slip into another’s skin and paint another’s voice through unforgettable verse.
One of the lines from The Lightning Dreamer that deeply moved me, and which I felt was the perfect verse for our current reading theme, as we continue to celebrate the voices of the silenced, is this:
Find this book and fall in love with Tula. Fall in love with poetry.
The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Book provided by author. Book photos taken by me.