Books Poetry Poetry Friday Reading Themes Universal Republic of Childhood

[Poetry Friday] Breaking Barriers through Fierce, Brave Words in Margarita Engle’s “Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words”

poetry friday

Myra here.

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.

Which poem caught your eye?

11 comments on “[Poetry Friday] Breaking Barriers through Fierce, Brave Words in Margarita Engle’s “Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words”

  1. I love how she uses words to show how words cannot limit or even fully express our emotions. How we tremble with feeling that can’t be translated. Wonderful poetry, all, but my favorite were the first and last.


  2. Thank you so much, Myra! Your review makes me very happy.


  3. I feel a pang for the last speaker, who cannot find the words for his loneliness. Somehow the first speaker conveys that he will manage his emotions even without right-sized words. Thanks, Myra (and Margarita)!


  4. I know this new book will be beautiful, and heartbreaking, to read, Myra. You’ve shared a bitter taste of the words, and they are lovely. That final poem, Wordless, touches many in our country. I often think of those so brave to move to a country with a new language, isolated by that fact and more. Thanks, Myra and Margarita. Can’t wait to read!


  5. I have to say, that first poem packed a real whallop. Looks like Margarita has outdone herself again…thanks for sharing!


  6. Myra, these are all amazing poems. My favorite is the first one, “A Life of Limits.” This looks to be quite the series. I must search it out; I love verse novels, and this set appear to be rich in history as well. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Myra, you did a wonderful job of enticing us to read Engle’s book. The first image poem holds a lifetime of emotions:vast, deep, turbulent like the rushing water in the picture. The last few words of Word Warriors remind me of the freedom inside the words we write. You gave me much to think about.


  8. Oh, the first and last poems! Margarita does such an amazing job of expressing intangible emotions through very tangible objects. Such a gift:>)


  9. I will be getting this book! Thanks for introducing it to us, Myra! =)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That last one – oh, my! I am anxious for this to be published, Myra – definitely a book for my library.


  11. maryleehahn

    The Los Angeles riot poem really cuts to the heart of American society today.

    Can’t wait to read this book!!


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