By Marjorie Agosín
Every creative process becomes a journey of self-discovery as well as an opportunity to discover others. When I began to write I Lived on Butterfly Hill, my first middle grade novel, I allowed myself to be guided by my characters, especially Celeste Marconi, as well as by the story I was trying to tell.
I understood that during my entire adult life I had tried to explain to friends and strangers what it was like to leave one’s homeland: to lose the deep sense of identity children as well as adults long for and to try to build a new self in a new country, where no one knows you or your family and where the history of your past is not only a mystery but is often treated with indifference.
Celeste Marconi, the protagonist of I Lived on Butterfly Hill, teaches us of the hardship of being absolutely different. She not only leaves the vibrant and bustling city of Valparaiso at the south of the world in Chile, but she travels to the North of the world to the coast of Maine. Through writing this story, I learned how one finds equilibrium between the north and the south, between one’s own language and the acquired one. Celeste does it beautifully because she never loses her identity. She always belongs to Butterfly Hill and at the same time accepts her new geography, the village of Juliette Cove, Maine.
Many young children are forced to forget their original lands, their languages, their foods and celebrations to became part of a mainstream culture that somehow is also ambivalent. I learned that a child or an adolescent, in order to became whole again in a new place, must have roots; when you have roots it is easier to grow new wings. Celeste Marconi manages to do so. She is strong and the memory of her loving family in Valparaiso allows her to be herself as well as to teach others who she is.
Three months after the publication of this book, the hill where the novel takes place was burned and many people lost their homes and their livelihoods. In the novel, there is a chapter in which Celeste ponders upon the nature of rain: she says there is a rain for the rich where nothing really happens to their secure homes and the rain for the poor where their dwellings turn to mud. With the fires, the houses of the poor suffered, as they were not properly built.
This novel taught me that the middle grade genre can make eloquent comments about social justice, and that it is important to do so. Celeste’s activist physician parents exposed her to the unfairness of economic and social poverty, and she is able to see clearly what is truth and what is just. I also learned to imagine the journeys of unaccompanied minors, not only those from Central America who cross the borders to the United States, but also of so many others, such as the millions of children displaced by wars, especially the most recent wars in Syria where almost a million children are displaced in refuge camps. Celeste Marconi travels alone to the safety of her aunt Graciela’s home on the coast of Maine, where she is lovingly cared for. But her journey alone, her inability to first speak English, made me also think of those much less fortunate than Celeste.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill allowed me to tell the story of the somber years of a military dictatorship through the eyes of a young girl. I also learned that my own generation can read this book to their own children as a way of telling them what happened to them as children, either as exiles or growing up under military rule. Literature seems to be a lighthouse that shines inside all of us, especially in times of darkness. It allows us to understand what is often unspeakable and to feel deeply the pain of others, especially the often-silenced voices of children. I have learned much in the process of writing and sharing this book, and hope that others will also learn from Celeste Marconi’s example and teach one another how to be loving and empathic, how to feel and not to judge.
Marjorie Agosín has won multiple awards for her writing and has added a unique personal perspective to this novel. Agosín was raised in Chile by Jewish parents. Her family moved to the United States to escape the horrors of the Pinochet takeover of their country. Coming from a South American country and being Jewish, Agosín’s writings demonstrate a unique blending of these cultures. She has received the Letras de Oro Prize for her poetry, presented by Spain’s Ministry of Culture to writers of Hispanic heritage living in the United States. Her writings about, and humanitarian work for, women in Chile have been the focus of feature articles in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Ms. Magazine. She has also won the Latino Literature Prize for her poetry and is a Spanish professor at Wellesley College.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill is now available.