The Portable Humanist Podcast Series

Listen to Vermont Humanities talks while you’re on the go.

A Conversation with Katherine Paterson about “My Brigadista Year.”

Katherine Paterson, the author of “Bridge to Terabithia,” “The Great Gilly Hopkins” and other beloved books, joins Vermont Humanities Executive Director Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup to talk about her trips to Cuba and her 2017 Young Adult novel, “My Brigadista Year.“

This talk is part of our Fall Conference: Democracy 20/20. View the list of free upcoming conference sessions.

Episode Transcript

Katherine Paterson: It was a story that had to be told and I thought needed to be told to the young people of America. Although you never can tell a reader how to read, I was hoping that they would become inspired by these young people in Cuba that took on a humongous task and succeeded.

Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.

Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books, including 17 novels for children and young people. She has twice won the Newbery Medal: for Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and for Jacob Have I Loved in 1981. In 2000 she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.

Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup recently sat down with Katherine to record a conversation about her 2017 Young Adult novel, My Brigadista Year, for our Fall Conference. Each fall we offer a series of talks around a particular theme; this year we’re studying democracy.

You can view all of the recorded conference sessions for free at vermonthumanities.org/democracy.

Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup: – Hi everybody, my name’s Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup and I’m the Executive Director of Vermont Humanities. Today, we’re here to talk with Katherine about democracy and literacy specifically through the lens of the Cuban literacy campaign of 1961, which Katherine wrote about in her middle grade novel “My Brigadista Year” which came out in 2017. Katherine, can I start by just asking you to explain what the Cuban Literacy Campaign was all about? Can you set the context for us?

Katherine: Fidel Castro took power after he and his troops ragged troops got rid of Batista, a dictator, who’d been there for a number of years and he was supported by many governments, including our own. And he addressed the UN in 1960 after he was less than a year in power. And he said in one year, Cuba is going to become a literate nation. Of course, everybody sort of hoo-hoo’d at that, but he came back to Cuba and he called for volunteers. He said, if you could read and write then you need to teach someone else how to read and write. And he, he got 750,000 followers human volunteers, more than half of them were women. And almost 200,000 of them were between the ages of 12 and 18. So the, these young people and some of them of course were not so young went out and left their comfortable homes in the cities and went into the mountains and the villages and the factories to teach people how to read and write. But they were told that they were not to be arrogant about what they knew. They were to learn from the people that were teaching. They were to work alongside them in the fields or in the factories or in the big sugar plantations or coffee plantations. Then at night, they were to teach literacy. At the end of the year, the UN observers at that time called Cuba the first totally literate nation in the Western hemisphere. And that includes our own. And even today, Cubans are 98, 99% illiterate. And I think The United States was 82% literate, the last time I checked and we hadn’t changed that in 10 years.

Christopher: That’s amazing. Those are amazing numbers. Can, you know, one of the things that I was surprised at was how many of the brigadistas were young people. Can you talk a little bit more about who these people were and why did these young people volunteer for this? What motivated them and, and why did their parents support them?

Katherine: It was a very exciting times for Cuba. They had been under that Batista for a long time and the morale was very high and they wanted to make it a new nation. And Fidel said, if you’re going to have a strong nation you have to have a literate nation. And these young people truly believe that. And it was a great adventure and they had uniforms and, and songs and everything which was quite of course, appealing to young people. But there was just such a wonderful spirit of comradery and adventure. And for almost everyone whose story, I heard their parents at first, when they were young women particularly objected to their going and they had to be somehow persuaded that they would be safe and they would be contributors to this new nation.

Christopher: And as we find out it wasn’t particularly safe for, for many of the volunteers. I’m wondering Katherine, could you, could you read for us a passage from the book from chapter nine.

Katherine: Laura, our heroine has gone to the mountains and her students and the family she lives with are beginning their lessons. That night, Louis, Veronica and I sat at the kitchen table under our bright lantern and began the first lesson in the primmer because Louis was so eager to learn how to write his name. I wrote both their names in large chalk letters on the piece of slate Veronica had put up for a blackboard. The first lesson you may remember was to learn the vowels. O E and A. I pointed out the A’s in Santana and Veronica, and soon we would do the other vowels. I and U which are in Louis, I promised. I didn’t realize that one of the first lessons would be how to hold your pencil. Veronica watched me carefully as I wrote the initial letters O E A, but Louis eagerly grabbed up his pencil and clustered in his fist as though it were an axe poised to chop up his workbook. Today I said, Veronica had to teach me how to light the stove so I wouldn’t set the house on fire. Tonight, please let me show you the best way to hold a pencil, so both the pencil and the workbook will survive your attack on the alphabet. Louis looked up puzzled, but when he realized I was joking he laughed and let go of his tight grip on the pencil. Then he allowed me to demonstrate a more gentle and effective method of wielding his new tool. Lessons were erased daily from the slate but never their names, which Louis always look at longingly night by night until after he knew his vowels and consonants indeed all the alphabet. I wrote his name in his workbook and suggested he practiced copying it. Then came the night. I erased his name from the slate and urged him to try his hand at writing it where I had written it two weeks before. The chalk was tight in his hand and his tongue peeked out the corner of his mouth as painstakingly he wrote for the first time, his own name for others to see. At the final A he let out something between a gasp and a laugh. “You did it,” I said, “you wrote Louis Santana.” “I wrote my name,” he said, “and my wife and my teacher can” “both read it, right?” “My name Louis Santana.” “Now everyone who can read will know that “I’m Louis Santana.” “Wait, let me get my camera.” I fetched my uncle Roberto’s camera from my rucksack. Now stand there. No, don’t hide your signature. Stand a little to your left so I can see both your smile and your name. I’ve taken many photos since, but none I treasure more.

Christopher: Got me crying already.

Katherine: Well the thing about writing your own name was very important to these people, because if you couldn’t write your name, you had to sign everything with a thumbprint or an X, and that was humiliating. But to be able to write your own name. Well, all of us, our names are very important to us.

Christopher: I’m reading another book right now by another Vermont art author M.T. Anderson “The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing,”

Katherine: Yes, oh my.

Christopher: Which is quite a book, but that same moment occurs for Octavian, who is an escaped slave and enslaved person. And he, he is joining the British army and returned for his promise freedom. And they tell him to make an ex but he signs his name because he knows how to read. And that’s quite a moment for the British soldier who signs him up to join the army. So, Katherine, why did you decide to write about the campaign almost 50 years after it occurred? What relevance did you see in this story for young people or for adults today?

Katherine: Well, I know there’s more than one reason, but one reason that occurred to me is that I didn’t know anything really good about Fidel Castro. And when I discovered that Cuba was more literate than The United States, because of him it has a better medical system beforehand, because of him. I thought, why is it that we, when we admire someone we want them to be perfect. And when we just dislike someone we refuse to see any good in them. And I think that’s one reason we were having so much trouble in our country right now because it’s very hard of us to look at people that whose ideas we oppose and see in them, the good that’s there. The other thing was it’s a remarkable story that you could turn a company, a country from a large percentage of illiterate people to a whole literate population in one year through the work of volunteers. I mean, that is an amazing story. And it’s a story that I kept asking people in this country had you heard this story. And very few people had. Thought it was a story that had to be told.

Christopher: Well, you know, here at Vermont Humanities we strongly support the goals of programs like the Cuban literacy campaign. And I found the book very inspiring. And indeed, you know, we believe and have believed since the beginning of Vermont Humanities that universal literacy is a common good and society that we should all strive for. That’s one of the things that our founder Victor Swinson said in the very beginning of this organization, you know, our conference this year is about democracy, but the Cuban revolution did not set up a democratic society for the people of Cuba. You talked about that a little bit, but nevertheless Fidel felt very strongly that everyone in Cuba needed to know how to read to support human society. Can you talk a little bit more about the contradictions that are inherent in that goal, in the context of the history of Cuba?

Katherine: Well, I find it very interesting because we know from our own history and I can, you know, I come from a whole long line of Southerners that slave owners and Southerners you’re not one African American slaves to learn how to read. And you know in the wonderful autobiography of Frederick Douglas his mistress is secretly teaching him to read and his master finds out about it and explodes in anger. He says, you teach him to read. You’ll never be satisfied to be a slave. And he said, even though it ended his lessons with his mistress, you learned a most valuable lesson. That reading was going to be his pathway to freedom. And I think Castro said you couldn’t have a strong nation without a literate nation. Now, of course there are people who read things that Castro would not approve of. There they’d have a serious shortage of paper and because of our embargo but so they can’t print as many books as they want to. You know people I’ve met had read Martin Luther King had read a lot of books that you’ve wouldn’t think they would have had access to in a dictatorship. But once you read your mind is free, he took a risk. That Batista certainly hadn’t taken and most dictators they’ll not take. So I just find that an interesting contradiction in his in his character. Maybe he didn’t set out to be a dictator. Maybe he’s set out to be, to save you as a Cuban nation. And then fear turned him into a dictator because too much of the world was against him, especially his big neighbor to the North.

Christopher: I’d like to ask you if you could, to read another section from the book. In this section, one of the main characters is learning about what he needs to do to pass his literacy test. It’s from chapter 10.

Katherine: So this is an older couple that had joined the lessons. They’re neighbors. And at first they didn’t join, but now they’ve joined. And the old man is trying to learn how to write his name of course. Teaching Joaquin how to write his name became something of a challenge. He looked at what I’d written on the slate and said, “That’s not my name.” “Yes it is,” I said, “J O A Q U I N.” That is the way to spell Joaquin. “No,” he protested. “It could be J O H C I N.” “You taught us ca ce ci co cu it should be like ci,” “like you taught us.” No, Joaquin, I’m sorry. I didn’t teach you that. I told you it’s ca co cu but the C before I and E is pronounced like a S sound. C I is pronounced C you would want to pronounce Joaquin Joacin would you? Of course not. So the proper spelling of your name is J-O-A-Q-U-I-N. Why? “I don’t know why,” I said. I didn’t decide it. Maybe somebody long ago in Spain decided on this funny way to write it. It’s strange, but that’s the way it is. And if you want someone to look at what you’ve written and write, and read Joaquin, this is the way you will have to spell it. He shook his head. “Makes no sense,” he grumbled. No it doesn’t, and I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just the way it is. When I write my letter I will tell Fidel it is wrong and tell him to change it. We want our freedom from Spain many years ago those stupid imperialists have no right to tell us how to write our own names. On Sunday when I read this story aloud, from my diary all my friends laughed with July. “It’s perfectly right,” Lindian said, “you must encourage Joaquin to write Fidel and tell him so.” Writing a letter to Fidel was not a joke. It was part of the final exam for those who had completed the primmer. There were three tests. The first test required students to write their full names and addresses. Then they were required to read and write six simple words, three simple sentences and a short paragraph. For the intermediate test, the words and sentences to be read were harder. The final test, consisted of a paragraph with white difficult words. In English it went something like the revolutionary government wants to turn Cuba into an industrialized society. Many industries will be started. Many people will have jobs. There will be no more unemployment. After the paragraph was read, the student was required to write out answers to several questions related to the paragraph. Then he or she had to turn the paper over and write out the paragraph as the teacher dictated it. Finally, the student was to write a letter to Dr. Fidel Castro. When our leader announced the literacy campaign he said he wanted every student who completed the primmer to write him a letter. So the letter became part of the final test.”

Christopher: That must’ve been terrifying for people. When they were trying to pass that test to know that they were writing a letter to the leader of the country who they and they probably felt like he was going to read their letter. Every single one.

Katherine: I don’t know if he did or not but they certainly thought he did. And those letters were preserved. They’re in a museum in Havana.

Do you think that that Fidel did read the letters?

I have no idea.

Christopher: What do you, Katherine, what do you think Fidel hoped to gain from declaring victory over illiteracy? Because they really, they thought about it as being a battle right? That they were conquering illiteracy.

Katherine: Yes.

Christopher: What did he hope to gain from that?

Katherine: Well, certainly respect for himself and for his regime. Don’t you think? And also the loyalty of his people. They had given, he had given them this great gift of learning, how to read. And so I would imagine that was a huge boost the morale of the country.

Christopher: You opened the book with an epigram from the poet, Jose Marti. It says it is the duty of man to raise up man. When you look at the history of the Latin American revolutions in Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other places, you can see that art and culture was very important to the leaders of the revolutions but also to the common people in those places. And you can certainly see that in your book were singing and dancing, painting and poetry, especially the poetry of Jose Marti were very important themes. Why is that? What is it about art and in particular Cuba and that poet Jose Marti that was so important to this group of revolutionaries?

Katherine: Well, Marti was the first great revolutionary of Cuba. I mean, there’s statue to him, just an enormous building which is his monument as where Fidel and the current leader gather when they gather the thousands of people, who’ve come to hear them speak it’s in front of that statue. So he’s, as I say, somewhere in the book he’s not only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He’s also, they’re great poet and literary artists. Why is it that our country doesn’t value the arts? I think that’s the big question.

Christopher: Yeah.

Katherine: Because most countries do. And certainly in Latin America, the arts are honored and loved and the artists as well. But our, you know, you go to our cities, the statutes are to war heroes. You know, I mean, you have to look really hard to see a statue of a poet.

Christopher: Even in Vermont.

Katherine: Even in Vermont.

Christopher: I mean you would think in Vermont we would have, we would have statutes to Robert Frost at the very least.

Katherine: At the very least.

Christopher: But I know there are, there aren’t any.

Katherine: In Barre, we have the statute Robert Burns because the Scots got the money together and paid the Italian sculptors to do a statue of Bobby Burns which is a gorgeous statue. So we do have Bobby Burns who’s not a Vermont artist but a poet all the same.

Christopher: Well, Barre does celebrate Robert Burns day because that statue is there, right?

Katherine: Yeah.

Christopher: Yeah. You know, one of the, the many interesting things about the book is that it complicates, it complicates the narrative the accepted U.S. narrative about Cuba, right. So John F. Kennedy makes a very brief appearance in the book when the characters talk about the Bay of Pigs invasion that attempted to overthrow Castro. And it happened during the time of the literacy campaign, the invasion was not successful but the counter-revolutionaries that they supported up in the mountains are really the villains of the story. And they’re disrupting the literacy campaign with violence. A young Brigadista Manuel Ellis would say was killed. And that’s talked about in the story and I know there’s statues to him in Cuba today that he is considered a martyr of the revolution. Why was it important to you to show the violence that the United States encouraged and inspired against the Brigadistas?

Katherine: Well, it’s part of the story it’s not part of the story we like because it doesn’t make us look so good from the Cuban point of view it was pretty important. You know, if Kennedy had welcomed the revolution I think our whole history with Cuba would be quite different instead of opposing it because by opposing it, he is in fact supporting Batista and his terrible ruin which was all tied up with the mafia situation when the American mafia was part owner of the casinos and Batista was raking off profits from the casinos. Cause he was hand in love with American mafia. So why, why did we embrace Batista instead of Castro? Is were we, that afraid of communism in this little island to our south?

Christopher: I want to go on and talk a little bit about what it was like for you to write this book. So after the book came out, you were nominated for, and you won the 2018 International Latino Book Award for best fictional youth chapter book. And as you pointed out to me your ethnicity on the awards website is listed as Caucasian. There has of late, you may have noticed that a fair amount of discussion in the literary world about who is allowed to write which stories. And very often people are taking the position that white writers should avoid telling stories about people of color. Many other people respectfully disagree and believe that being able to step into the shoes of others is the very definition of a good writer. Clearly the panel at the International Latino Book Awards felt that you wrote a great book. Can you talk to us a little bit about what your thought process was like when you were considering writing this book?

Katherine: Well, I really had to think about it because I’m not Hispanic at all. I mean, when I did my DNA, there just wasn’t any there! But it was a story that had to be told and I thought needed to be told to the young people of America. Young people will rise to the occasion and that wonderful thing I’ll never forget when John Lewis was at the Flynn and somebody said, aren’t you pessimistic? And he said, how can I be pessimistic when I see what young people are doing today. And when I wrote the book they’re wasn’t this great movement of young people on behalf of the environment or racial justice. And now there is. And that is a wonderful thing to see young people and against crazy gun situation we have in this country. So we really have three of our largest problems in this country is the young people who are standing up and saying no more. And that’s thrilling to me that wasn’t happening when I wrote the book. And I think in a way, although you never can tell a reader how to read, I was hoping that they would become inspired by these young people in Cuba that took on an enormous task and succeeded. So I didn’t have any right to write the book. And when I came back from Cuba, I was telling my friends about my trip and about how inspired I was by the people that I was close to there. And one of my friends said, “well, you need to write about it.” And it just seemed to be a first person book which I don’t usually write. So not only did I write about a country to people that I’m not a part of, but I wrote it in first person. So there you are. And you know, I lived in Japan, I lived in China and I’ve written about both of those countries. But once that hue and cry went up that we had no right to write about cultures that were not our own…even though I had spoken both of those languages and lived in both of those places, I was sort of scared off about ever writing about them again. But there again, I wrote about Cuba. So, but I don’t want to be confined to writing about 87 year old lady should live in old folks homes in the hills above Montpelier.

Christopher: I’m going to take that one step further. I’m looking at some data from the cooperative Children’s book center. That’s at the school of education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Katherine: Yeah.

Christopher: And they did do research every year on diversity and children’s books. And this is the data from 2018, that, and this is about who’s the heroine or the hero in a particular set of children’s books. So in 2018, they found that about 50% of the children’s books published that year were about white children. Only about 10% were about African American children, 7% about Asian Pacific Islanders, only 5% Latin X and only 1% American Indians. And the real kicker here is that 27% of the books published in 2018 had animals as their heroes or heroines, second only to white children. And so you know, one of the, you know, it’s great that that “My Brigadista Year” does have a young Latina heroine, is about Cuba. Are there things that writers should be doing particularly white writers? Do they have a particular responsibility for talking about racism in the publishing industry or talking about whose stories get told? What do we, what do we do to help increase representation so that we are hearing more stories like this one?

Katherine: Well, I think one thing we need to do is add editors who are not all white. In children’s book world almost every editor I know is a white female. So there’s not a lot of diversity in publishing is part of the problem. The houses that have gotten African American editors are the ones who are publishing the books written by African Americans because those editors have made an effort to go out and find African American writers.

Christopher: I’d like to, I’m going to loop back around to Vermont. And then we’re going to wrap it up in just a couple more minutes. But, you know, I mentioned to you when we were talking last week, that my graduate study was in international development. You know, a field that usually leads to jobs and organizations doing literacy work or hunger work places like Oxfam or USAID or the World Bank often in countries like Cuba. But instead I’m working on literacy here in Vermont I don’t personally tend to see much daylight between community development work that happens in Latin America or Africa and community development work that happens here in the Northeast kingdom. Can you talk a little bit about how the work of Vermont adult learning informed and inspired your interest in the Cuban literacy campaign? Cause I know that’s a piece of the story that maybe people don’t know.

Katherine: That’s a piece of the story, it is indeed. When I first came to Vermont in 1986 and very early on I got involved in the adult learning center in Barre. I didn’t tutor, but I, I spoke, I read. One of my early speeches in Vermont was to a wonderful gathering of you adult adult learners from all over the state. And I was terrified because I was the person who invited me had heard me speaking sort of hinted that it couldn’t be my usual kind of having every word written out and in a notebook. And I thought, well, if I had to make a speech with out of manuscript in front of me I’d that’s just not the way I work. And I was really terrified. But it was just a was just a wonderful occasion. And so I got to be friends with these folks and Mary Lain was very prominent in the work at that time. I think she was head of the whole shebang and Mary and I got to be friends. And it was through Mary that I first heard about the Cuban literacy project. Cause we were at the say house event and catching up with each other. And I said, “Oh, Barry, I’m going to Cuba in a few weeks.” And she said, “Oh, I’m so jealous.” She said, “Pat gets to go there all the time. And by the way, Eric Sena is a, he wrote to all my friends in Cuba because she has worked so hard to for better relationships with Cuba. And anyhow, she said, you know, when I began working in Vermont about adult education, I tried to take ideas from the human, from the Cuban literacy campaign of 1961. And I thought I’m going to Cuban I don’t know anything about Cuban literacy campaign of 1961. So I said, well, I never heard of it. Tell me about it. And she said well, you know, Jonathan Kozol wrote this book about it. And she head me in that direction. Then I began reading about it. And I had this friend in Cuba that I kept saying to my Guatemalan friend, well, I shouldn’t be in jail because she was so outspoken and so such a powerful woman. And when I wrote my speech for this conference, I was going to give, when I went to Cuba, the Isabelle who was translating for me she said, “You know, Emilia was a Brigadista, didn’t you?” Oh, well that explains it. I had known my closest friend in Cuba was a Brigadista. But once I knew the story of those young women who went out and became really powerful women through that years experience I thought, well, that’s certainly explains Emilia now, she was a Brigadista. The book is dedicated of course to Emilia Brigadista. And I got a wonderful letter from Emilia, which made me feel that it was okay that I’ve written a book. That she said that she didn’t hadn’t believed that anyone who wasn’t there would have known what it was like.

Christopher: I can imagine that those young people, many of them probably became leaders in their communities for decades.

Katherine: They absolutely did.

Christopher: You know I think that that’s probably a fairly good place to stop. It’s been a delight to spend this time with you. Can we close out our time together with one more passage from the book from chapter 17, it’s right up close to the end, but I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler.

Katherine: I’d love to read it. Thank you. “If you really want it to Laura smile, her beautiful smile,” Louise said they’re Joaquin and Dunia, “you have to pass” “your final exam and write your letter to Fidel before” “she leaves.” We were slated to leave on December 20th. There was now the second week of December. Dunia was almost ready but she would insist on repeating a lesson even when I felt sure she was ready to move on. She sense that I was losing patience with her. I didn’t mean to, but I so needed her to pass. And I was sure she could. If she tried hard enough. One night when Joaquin and Louis were noisy at work, she whispered in my ear. I must wait. All men, they feel the loss of their machismo. Don’t you see? I could only sigh and nod. So I cheered, hardly went on December 15th. Louis declared that Joaquin was at last ready to take his final exam. The old man passed not brilliantly like his daughter in law or almost perfectly like his son but he passed and receptive writing the long awaited letter to our country’s leader. December 15, 1961, Dr. Fidel Castro, City of Havana, comrades, Fidel. I can read and write even the big words and the squiggles on the ending, but why must I write my name like the old Spanish oppressors? We won independence. We won the revolution. We have won the war against your illiteracy. Now we must free our spelling, your comrade Joaquin Acosta. “That’s a wonderful letter Joaquin,” I said. “I’ll write a better one next year.” “When I know more big words,” he said, “that will surprise” “him, won’t it?” “I’m sure it will,” I said eager to get back to my final student. Dunia while you’re discreet, three days before she agreed to try her exam, we never told anyone that her grade was higher than her husband.

Christopher: I’m crying again. It’s such a magical moment, I think for anyone, right? Whether you’re five or 50 to have that moment when you really feel like you can do it. That you, that you are a literate person. And what that does for you as a human is, is just remarkable. Thank you so much for being with us in conversation. I hope that everyone will go to their local bookstore and pick up my “Brigadista Year” or take it out of your library. Many of the libraries are doing curbside pickup and Katherine of course has 30 other books if you want to check out some of those. So thanks for being with us and, and we’ll see you again soon.

Katherine: Thank you so much for having me, I really enjoyed it.

That’s Katherine Paterson, reading from her book, My Brigidista Year. Visit vermonthumanities.org/democracy to watch all of the sessions recorded for our Fall Conference about democracy.