Katherine Paterson is one of America’s greatest literary treasures; her works include novels, picture books, chapter books, and nonfiction. Her honors are myriad, from Newberys (two golds and a silver), a National Book Award, and….well too many to name. Just go here, here, and here to see them all. This remarkable woman, on her journey as a writer, is always exploring new vistas. Her latest, My Brigadista Year, centers around Lora, a thirteen year-old Cuban who joins Fidel Castro’s national literacy campaign in 1961. In the form of a diary, the novel is a fascinating exploration of a little-known aspect of recent Cuban history. When I was approached about interviewing Katherine about the book I jumped at the chance. Thank you so much, Candlewick for this opportunity and Katherine for the wonderful answers to my questions.
- It seems as if the remarkable emphasis on basic literacy during this time period in Cuba was what inspired you to write this book. Can you speak to the importance of this globally today?
Sources vary, but Cuba is still regarded as one of the most fully literate nations in the world at 99.8% literacy. After the campaign year of 1961, the UN observers declared Cuba a fully literate nation. This compares (and, again, sources differ) to an 86% literacy rate in our country with 21% of the population reading below a fifth-grade level. The Huffington Post says that 19% of high school graduates cannot read or write. Most of our large prison population is also illiterate. Globally, I’m most concerned with literacy and education for girls and women. If the women of a nation are educated, the whole nation benefits. But we have a lot of work to do here at home. So why am I writing books instead of teaching someone to read?
- How did your own visits to Cuba inform your writing this book?
Through the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), I got to know Dr. Emilia Gallego, who, every two years, leads an IBBY Sectional conference on literacy and books for Latin America. It is held in Havana and she has invited me to speak there, first in 2001 and again in 2015. I had wondered for years about Emilia because, in a country where people have to be careful about what they say and do, she is an outspoken force of nature. I learned, just before my second trip to Cuba, that she had been a teenage volunteer in the 1961 literacy campaign. It seemed to explain a lot about my friend. All the women I had read about or listened to in the film Maestra said how being a part of the campaign had been a turning point in their lives. They had begun the year as sheltered girls and came out as strong women who knew they could make a difference in the world.
- Can you reflect on the idea of writing from the perspective of someone not of your culture? What are your thoughts on how you did it and when and how others should or shouldn’t?
I would never venture to tell anyone what she could or could not write. But believe me, I hesitated to write this book. I am not Cuban and have only visited Cuba twice. I do not speak Spanish. There is plenty of ammunition for anyone who would challenge my credentials. But the story of the young volunteers in the 1961 campaign is an amazing one that hardly any young person in this country has ever heard, and I wanted to share it. I hope readers will notice that I chose to tell the story from just one character’s point of view, in first person. Lora is thirteen years old, and she is limited in her experience and thus her point of view is also limited. In the epilogue, Lora is a grown woman, but she is still living in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. She loves her country, but she doesn’t think for a minute that it is perfect. She doesn’t plan to flee and she would rather not go to jail, so she is careful about what she says.
- Cuba is currently on our radar for a variety of reasons. Do you have any thoughts about the US’s relationship with the nation today and how your book can help young readers better understand it?
We don’t like to hear good things about people we consider evil, but some good things happened in Cuba under Castro’s dictatorship. Everybody learned how to read and write. Education is free from pre-school through PhD programs. Excellent health care is available to every citizen. The US-imposed embargo has been an economic burden for over fifty years, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. My friends love Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont for his efforts through the years to improve US-Cuban relationships and were thrilled when President Obama came to Cuba and the ambassadorial relationships were restored. Of course, everyone asked when the embargo that has long crippled Cuba’s economy would be lifted. I had to say that was up to Congress, not the president. We took three steps forward and now we’ve gone two steps backward, but I have hope that we’ll be moving forward again before too much longer. And like Jella Lepman, who established IBBY, I believe that books can be bridges to peace, and I truly hope mine will be.
- You thank the “real-life Emilia and Isabel.” Anything you can tell us about them and your connection to them? Inquiring minds are curious!
I introduced Emilia above. Isabel is a professor of classics at the university and acts as Emilia’s and my translator. Emilia, for all her brilliance as an educator and writer, has very spotty English, and we won’t even talk about my Spanish. Naming the two little girls after these two wonderful women was a loving joke. To my great joy and relief, Emilia loves my book. Part of her letter responding to it is, with her permission, on the back of the jacket.
- Is there anything else you wish to let us know about this book?
I can’t tell a reader how to read my book, but I do have a wistful hope that some young Americans reading it will see the selfless idealism of those young Cubans and be inspired to give of themselves to the greater good of our country and our world.