Two sets of words.
It is impossible not to be entranced by Enchanted Air, a book that is as beautiful and buoyant as it is acutely observant. In this work of memoir in verse, Margarita Engle transports readers back to the early 1960s: Told in short free verse pieces, Enchanted Air follows Engle’s early adolescent years traveling between Cuba and the Los Angeles. When Margarita and her sister travel to see their mother’s family in Cuba, Margarita feels like a truer version of herself than the one who lives in smoggy Los Angeles – as if she had an “invisible twin who never left this island.”
The vacations are curtailed when the Cold War casts fear and suspicion in the United States. With their Cuban mother and Ukrainian American father, Margarita struggles with a profound sense of fragmentation. But in spite of tense sociopolitical relations, Engel shows how hope can always be found in books, writing, travel, and art.
And of course, since I’m always interested in the connections between literature and the real, lived experiences of immigration, I’ll be connecting this book to the experiences of transnational teens today: specifically, Palestinian American teenagers growing up in the U.S. during the Israel-Palestine conflict, just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Engle’s book and the accounts of these American teens will hopefully shed light on each other and ever-evolving definition of “American.”
I can feel the hot air
steaming from the horse sweat
a smell that will always
remind me of courage.
The book’s power and beauty lie in the simplicity of Engle’s poetry. Her verses are grounded in striking concrete images, like the street vendors in Havana, the plants her mother nourishes, a mule’s skull found in a forest. Engle’s words leave just enough ambiguity to invite the imaginations of young adult/middle grade readers.
The graceful language moves young Margarita’s story forward across three years. She comes of age during the extreme national apprehension that surrounded the Bay of Pigs attack and the Cold War. Margarita feels torn between two worlds in conflict, giving rise to some of the most complicated questions in the text. Relics of the 1960s resurface anew, their emotional significations powerfully revived by Engle’s text: Drills at school, fear of nuclear war, suspicion toward Cubans. Some of the most powerful moments occur when Margarita’s family reconciles the war to remain a family. Margarita’s abuela, for example, sends flowery, cryptic letters from Cuba to avoid censorship.
When nomadic gitano/Gypsy caravans
pass across the land in horse-drawn wagons
I feel like every creature on earth
just might be mysterious linked,
as we wander from one place
to another, constantly learning
about one another’s ways.
While the division of being a part of two conflicting words gives rise to some of the most complicated questions in the text, growing up biracial isn’t Margarita’s entire narrative. Readers will connect with Margarita as she navigates the numerous entanglements of coming of age: Arguing with parents, fitting in at school, finding comfort in art. Nor is Margarita’s biracial identity necessarily a struggle – it’s a part of her that she questions in light of the war, certainly, but her close-knit family is no less whole because of it.
This is the direction that “diverse books” ought to be taking – showing that one’s humanity isn’t dictated by one’s marginalized identity. Rather, it’s a finely interwoven context that helps breathes life to a character’s story.
Real-world connections and implications
Even though Enchanted Air is set in an often-romanticized past, it reflects a not-so-faraway reality. Children of transnational identity in times of global conflict didn’t just exist in the 1960s. Parallels can be drawn between young Margarita’s experiences and Thea Renda Abu El-Haj’s interviews with Palestinian American teenagers after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Similar to how Margarita’s feels about Cuba and Los Angeles, many teens felt more comfortable calling Palestine, not the United States, a homeland. The U.S., many said, was the place they lived, but belonged to nonetheless.
Following the attacks, the teenagers felt even more alienated, outsiders in a country that they belonged to as citizens. Hostile treatment left the teens feeling endangered and betrayed, like when a teacher asked a male Arab student “Are you planning the next 9/11?” More conflict arose for student Samira, who hesitated to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school: “I feel like they’re pledging for – there are American troops in Iraq killing Arabs. So when I think about it, it’s like me praying for troops to kill more Arabs. That’s how I think of pledging to the flag.” Similarly, Margarita hears of revolution in Cuba and, with fear, thinks of her family, the parts of herself in a war-torn world.
Reading Enchanted Air poses questions on how we understand (or misunderstand) the growing number of transnational children living in the United States, who have more complex relationships with nationality and belonging, far beyond binary one-or-the-other identities. El-Haj points out that social studies classrooms sorely need to reexamine their approach to definition “American.”
To best support immigrant and first-gen young people, El-Haj argues, we need to reframe “American” to embraces ambiguity and multiculturalism – the kind of ambiguity, complexity, beauty, and hope that Engle’s poetry conveys best.
Enchanted Air is a must-have for any bookshelf that wishes to reflect, in captivating verse, this multiplex, rich, transnational world.