I am glad to be joining the Poetry Friday community, hosted this week by the lovely Violet Nesdoly.
I was very excited to receive Margarita Engle’s newest novel-in-verse Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words which will be available in August of this year. I thought that it is a perfect book to share for our current reading theme this May-June: The Universal Republic of Childhood. With a historical figure such as Chinese-African-Cuban Antonio Chuffat – he may very well have served as the posterboy for this universal theme that effectively transcends cultural boundaries.
Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words
Written by: Margarita Engle
Published by: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, August 2016 ISBN: 1481461125 (ISBN13: 9781481461122). Advance Reader’s Copy sent by the author.
I have long been a fan of Margarita Engle’s historical novels-in-verse. I have read practically all of her books: from The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom which primarily features historical figure Rosa la Bayamesa, The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba which introduces the reader to Swedish Fredrika Bremer and The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, based on the life story narrative of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, also known as Tula or La Peregrina (The Wanderer). The Author Afterword indicates this to be the final volume in her loosely linked verse novels regarding the struggles against forced labor in 19th century Cuba.
In Lion Island, Margarita once more brings to life a little-known historical figure in the person of Antonio Chuffat who was initially shown to be a 12 year old boy who eventually grew into his own armed with words and filled with the conviction of the power of narratives. Chinese indentured laborers have been suffering from inequitable eight year contracts alongside African slaves as they worked in Cuba’s vast sugarcane fields. While this was happening, Chinese Americans were also fleeing anti-Asian riots in California and settled in Cuba – their taste of democracy has led to the revolutionary notion of changing labour practices through written petitions sent to China. It was Antonio Chuffat who served as the scribe or the “warrior of words” during that period in history.
I am continually amazed by how Margarita is able to bring such personalized rendering of history. It seems like she has a portal to the past that allows her to minutely examine and transcribe anxieties, indecision, heartaches. Here are a few of my favourites from the novel. I took photos of the page and edited it using an iPhone app.
Similar to her other verse novels, Margarita easily navigates her words around alternating voices. When Antonio was only starting with his love affair with the written word, there was the sense of boundaries, unworthiness, and the seeming inability to capture the world through words.
When one wakes up to injustice on a daily basis, how do words come.. to heal, to soothe, to instigate change?
The above is told in the voice of Fan, one of the fictional characters in the story whose beautiful voice allows for glimpses of beauty, hope, and freedom.
I like the very idea of stories growing claws and voices growing fangs – when used with great caution and deliberation, they are able to pierce and make any reader bleed.
While Enrique Yi Tong happens to be another fictional indentured laborer who has written his petition through Antonio Chuffat, I thought that the description of loneliness with its trembling borders is simply too beautiful not to share.