The Sounds of Silence: Remembering and Creating in Margarita Engle's "Singing to Cuba"

By Requena, Gisele M. | MELUS, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Sounds of Silence: Remembering and Creating in Margarita Engle's "Singing to Cuba"


Requena, Gisele M., MELUS


   Nobody knows you. No. But I sing to you. --Federico Garcia Lorca, "a
   rebellious Spaniard who'd visited Cuba many decades ago." (84)

While discussing her inspiration by poets and singers, the narrator in Margarita Engle's Singing to Cuba quotes the above words from Garcia Lorca's poem "Absent Soul"--words which capture the novel's themes by articulating the narrator's mission not only to remember her relatives but also to tell their story. In this novel, which vacillates between the first person account of a Cuban-American woman in the United States and the third person story of her uncle Gabriel in Cuba soon after the revolution, remembering signifies more than keeping people and events alive in memories. Remembering means creating a life for these memories by making them come alive on paper, and through this task of remembering and creating, the narrator comes to embrace her identity as a writer--a role concurrently appointed by relatives and self-imposed. By writing her family history and uttering the words her relatives and most Cubans in Cuba are forbidden to speak, the narrator succeeds in singing not only to Cuba, but for Cuba--an achievement Engle simultaneously accomplishes with this novel. Through the fictional, personal story of her nameless U.S.-born narrator, Engle tackles the controversial issues of "Cubanness" and exile consciousness(1) and creates a story which embraces the general Cuban-American experience of disillusionment, loss, and oppression. Stressing remembering and creating, Engle and the narrator break through the silence of the "alligator-shaped isle" (15) and create sound and song with the power of the written word.

Before discussing Engle's work in detail, it is important to place Singing to Cuba in the context of the emerging body of Cuban-American literature. Focusing on the one-and-a-half generation--those born in Cuba but raised in the United States--Carolina Hospital and Gustavo Perez Firmat, prominent Cuban-American writers and critics, have tackled the issue of exile consciousness--a consciousness which emerges in Cuban-American literature as a nostalgia not for what was but for what could have been.(2) This consciousness is most evident in Cuban-American poetry, such as in the works of Lourdes Gil, Hospital, Iraida Iturralde, Elias Miguel Munoz, and Ricardo Pau-Llosa, primarily in their most autobiographical writings. Engle joins the ranks of such Cuban-American writers who use personal narrative voices, for "the autobiographical model employed by Cuban-American writers exhibits a desire to connect with a larger community of Cubans as well as Cuban-Americans in the process of telling their life stories" (Alvarez-Borland 43). However, while most Cuban-American novels, like the poetry, focus on loss, they do so in a broader manner, often employing techniques of magical realism to express the effects of the revolution and the need to find a home. Therefore, the use of double narratives is crucial, as Cuban-American writers express the displacement of the exile/ethnic through multiple voices which reflect the divided self, such as Engle's use of the narrator and Gabriel, and Cristina Garcia's focus on Pilar and her grandmother in Dreaming in Cuban. In fact, as Alvarez-Borland notes of Engle's contemporaries,

   the narratives of Pablo Medina, Omar Torres, and Cristina Garcia are
   representative of a pivotal movement in contemporary Cuban-American
   writing. Medina, Torres, and Garcia belong to a generation of younger
   writers of Cuban heritage who, in the words of Eliana Rivero, `are in the
   midst of effecting the transition from emigre/exile categories to that of
   ethnic minority members' (191). (43)(3)

Focusing on identity, loss, and remembering, Engle is such a writer whose work entails the never-ending quest to reconcile the homeland and the self.

In Singing to Cuba, Engle creates a truly unforgettable story, using a pattern Tomas Rivera stresses in Chicano literature: "Remembering, retelling, reliving" (340). …

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