The End of the Cuba “Embargo” in YA Lit
By Nancy Osa
In the late 1990s, I wrote a young-adult novel about a teenager who protests the United States–Cuba trade embargo and sent it out to major publishers. I may have set a record for rejection letters. No children’s publisher dared broach the subject of U.S.-Cuba politics—not even from a humanitarian perspective. I’ll wager that such a reticent attitude is about to die. Soon, all things “Cuba” will be the next hot topics to follow zombies and vampires.
The true theme of my book, though, was not Cuba’s worthiness of respectful neighborly relations but rather Americans’ right to challenge policy through peaceful protest. Which topic were publishers really shying away from? In the 1990s, acts of dissent had been appropriated and/or stigmatized by publicity-hungry groups—Million Man March, anti-WTO factions, abortion clinic terrorists. Exposing teens to international politics, publishing interests seemed to surmise, might only incite high schoolers to riot.
I argued that young American readers should understand their options for agreeing or disagreeing with their homeland’s diplomatic policies. Information, discussion, and even provocation are necessary elements to learning to think critically. Simply ignoring the far-reaching trade and travel restrictions was a disservice to maturing readers, who, by their nature, are quite open to efforts to make the world a better place. When I was 10 years old, for instance, I formed a club and held a fundraiser to buy a trash can for my local park. On the heels of that success, I embraced various causes: women’s rights, resource conservation, humane treatment of animals, etc. When I reached voting age, I voted, marched, petitioned my legislators, and canvassed door-to-door. Not until my thirties did I think deeply about my Cuban heritage, though, and the implications of our national policies to my personal and cultural relationships. I wondered what it would have been like to grow up informed and in touch with my relatives on the island, instead of ignorant and forcibly separated. This was the impetus for writing my book.
When I submitted my novel to publishers, I knew that many young readers would welcome my story about an American girl who joins a protest rally to improve conditions for her family members in Cuba. I couched the topic in typical high-school drama, with a large dose of humor. It wasn’t vitriolic or pointedly critical of any one faction. Still, mainstream publishing houses, librarians, book buyers, and teachers were afraid to raise the hot-button Cuba issue. I suspect they were equally put off by the topic of protest. That book was never published, but another novel about a traditional coming-of-age ceremony—the quinceañero—was. Both books used humor to engage readers in a debate about factionalism: kids vs. parents, traditionalists vs. progressives . . . America vs. Cuba. The book that focused on dresses vs. pants, however, won out over the one that more literally discussed right vs. wrong.
As we face a new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, I’d like to remind readers and thinkers that people like me have been politely protesting the political stand-off for decades. Twenty-fifteen marks the twenty-third year that the group IFCO/Pastors for Peace has practiced civil disobedience by gathering and delivering goods to Cuban people in need. Communist partisanship is not the motivator; charitable sentiment is.
As someone whose birth was sandwiched between the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, I have always felt helpless to influence U.S.-Cuba relations politically. But when I joined a Pastors for Peace “Friendshipment,” I gained the power to positively affect Cubans on a personal level while protesting the trade embargo. Does this type of humanitarian overture influence diplomacy? I hope so; but no one has suggested that it prompted President Obama’s executive decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. Let’s face it: peaceful protest does not make for sexy news stories. First Amendment rights of free speech, assembly, and freedom of the press, though, should be considered fitting fodder in young-adult literature.
Nancy Osa is the author of Cuba 15 (Random House), a Pura Belpré Honor Book and winner of the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Her most recent work, Defenders of the Overworld (Sky Pony Press), is an unofficial Minecraft fiction series for young-adult readers. To learn more, visit her website.
By Margarita Engle
The great Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz wrote a poem called En Mi Verso Soy Libre—In My Poem I Am Free. She spoke of rising up inside the poem, where she is herself. The same is true for me. I reveal my secret self inside the covers of my verse memoir, Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings.
Even though I am my true self on those pages, now that the book has been published and can be read by strangers, I’ve begun to wonder if I will be misunderstood or disbelieved. My childhood seems so unusual, almost surrealistic. I’m neither an exile nor a refugee. Until 1960, my family traveled back and forth between Cuba and the U.S., ignoring the Cold War.
The question arises: is a surrealistic childhood typical for the children of immigrants? Yes, I believe it is, even without the international conflict that separated the two halves of my bicultural family. Visiting relatives in another country can be an incredible joy, but upon returning to the U.S., a child of mixed ancestry can feel disoriented. In that sense, my unusual story is common, because the same could be said for children who move back and forth between two homes within the same country, particularly if their parents live in different cities, or if one lives in an urban area, and the other is rural. Immersed in blended memories, these children may experience the insecurity of feeling uncertain where they belong, but by traveling they also gain insights into more than one way of existing. Perhaps exposing them to verse memoirs will give them a window into their own possibilities. They could write travel memoirs, too. They could write poetry! They could find a safe home-on-the-page for overwhelming emotions.
During my teen years, it was easier for a U.S. citizen to walk on the moon than to visit relatives in Cuba. Nothing can ever return those years to me intact. They are fractured. Yet somehow, the act of writing about them in verse felt medicinal. Poetry heals. In the author’s note at the end of Enchanted Air, I came out of the anti-Embargo closet, making a plea for normalization of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, travel, and trade. Then, as if in a dream, President Obama announced the first steps toward improved relations. The announcement came during the same week when advanced review copies of Enchanted Air arrived on my doorstep. Joyfully, I revised the author’s note, transforming my plea into a song of gratitude.
With equally dreamlike timing, the U.S. Embassy in Havana re-opened exactly ten days after the release of Enchanted Air. For me, this feels like an era of miracles. Nevertheless, the process of healing the rift between nations will be complex, just as the process of facing childhood emotions to write a memoir is not simple. In Just Write, Walter Dean Myers advised: “I believe your skills as a writer are not so much defined by intelligence or artistic ability as they are by how much of yourself you are willing to bring to the page. Be brave.”
Yes, be brave. There is no other way to face the wounded child inside one’s own mind—a child who never completely outgrows the magic realism of growing up with a memory that contains two distinct ways of perceiving the world. A memory that can turn into verse, where a divided childhood can be made whole, setting the poet free.
Margarita Engle is the author of many books for young readers. Her long list of literary honors includes the Pura Belpré Medal, the Newbery Honor and the 2014 PEN USA. The themes and characters of Margarita’s books often reflect her Cuban heritage, including the titles pictured below. Learn much more on her official website.
Margarita offers an abundant selection of books based in Cuba or featuring Cuban characters, as seen below.