Beginning in the 1840s, more than 250,000 men were shipped to Cuba and Peru from China as part of a treaty between the Spanish and Chinese empires. Working in Cuba’s sugarcane fields alongside African slaves, Chinese indentured laborers were often forced to sign one eight-year contract after another. Intermarriage between Chinese men and African women created a richly blended culture with unique religions, musical, and culinary traditions.

Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words, by Margarita Engle

Lion Island is a fictionalized account of the childhood and young adult life of Antonio Chuffat, a Chinese-African messenger boy in Cuba who grew up into a civil rights champion, a translator, and a newspaper founder. It’s part of Engle’s loosely connected series of verse novels about nineteenth-century Cuba—before Lion Island came The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, The Firefly Letters, and The Lightning Dreamer—and even though, as of yet, I’ve only read The Firefly Letters and Lion Island, it’s easy to see connections. 

There are ties of setting, of course—they’re set in the same country and during the same era, and they deal with social and political issues tied to that setting. They both deal very much with slavery and forced labor, and they both deal with the different ways that different people yearn for freedom and agency. They both celebrate the power of words and the change that words—in the hands of talented, smart, thoughtful, and empathetic writers—can inspire and, ultimately, achieve. 

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Lion Island takes place from 1871 to 1878 and is told mainly through the voices of Antonio and two fictional characters, twins Wing and Fan, Chinese-Americans who immigrated to Cuba after the brutal 1871 anti-Asian riots in California. According to Engle’s Historical Note, all of the major events chronicled in Lion Island took place—it’s the emotions and the details that she imagined. This is a case in which it’ll be better for me to allow her characters to speak for themselves—they’re all far more eloquent than I’ll be able to be.

I love the descriptions of music and food and language, and of how Engle shows different cultures coming together and blending into something different, but also how she shows that even through those changes, the characters also retain and celebrate ties to their own personal cultural identities. I love this verse especially, because of how it showed language and even religious belief evolving:

In May, there is a fiesta to honor Guan Gong—
China’s god of war and poetry, now transformed
into San Kuan Kong, which in the mouths
of Cubans quickly becomes Sanfancón,
this changeable island’s patron saint
of runaways, both africano slaves
and indentured chinos. 

I love that Engle touches on the contradictions inherent in various fights for freedom. In this case, Antonio is mulling over what he’s just learned from Wing about the riots in America that claimed his older brother’s life:

How can so much suffering result
from attacks by men who believe in voting
and independence?

I love how she addresses and acknowledges the emotional toll that the struggle for social justice takes. All of her characters, at various points, feel hope, feel grief, feel despair, and feel rage. In Wing’s case, it’s most often rage, and the imagery Engle associates with the emotion is just perfect—powerful, terrifying, almost unbearable, repetitive, but also always changing:

Rage comes and goes in waves
like water, like storms. 

Rage comes and goes in gusts,
like a hurricane’s furious wind. 

I love that she touches on the lack of freedom that Fan feels because she’s a girl:

Wing can go anywhere,
do anything, say whatever
he pleases, but I am a girl,
so I have to speak
and dream
only when I’m
or asleep.

And I love the commentary about and recognition of the difference between chattel slavery and indentured servitude—and of the challenges inherent in trying to help people who’ve escaped enslavement and forced labor. In this case, the relative ease with which Antonio and Fan are able to hide escapees of Chinese descent in plain sight in a Chinese theatre, and his heartache about their lack of resources in terms of helping escapees of African descent:

What about the africanos,
my mother’s people, lifelong slaves
not just eight-year servants—but where
can we hide them?
Certainly not here
where only chinos will become invisible
in a crowd of puppeteers
and musicians.

It’s a book that never tries to simplify an intensely complicated political situation, and, while it’s very much about politics, it’s also very much about the effects that politics have on people. In other words, it’s about politics, but it’s also about individuals—it’s a reminder that every number is a person, that every person has a story, that those stories need to be heard, treasured, shared.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.