Mia Leonin says she felt raw while writing “Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child,” and she suspects readers will feel the same.
“Even though that’s uncomfortable, when we are raw it’s because we’re open. And when we are open, we can heal in new ways,” she says.
The Rockhurst University graduate’s fourth collection of poetry reads much more like a story than verse. A narrative quickly develops about a 10-year-old girl, Micaela, who lives in an unnamed Spanish-speaking seaside village.
Micaela’s mother is negligent, and the girl is left to fend for herself much of the time. Even after the girl is sexually assaulted by one of the mother’s many “suitors” — as the story describes the men who frequent their tiny house — she is still on her own.
The child’s desolation is oppressive and haunting. And even though the reading feels quick and effortless, the weight of the book’s 99 pages is a burden — one feels the need to act on the girl’s behalf when clearly no one else will.
Ben Furnish, managing editor of BKMK Press, says the book is longer than collections he regularly selects, and he never publishes illustrated collections.
“We knew we had to let the book take us where it needed to go, even when it meant breaking boundaries of what we typically publish in our poetry collections,” he says, “because Micaela, the girl at the book’s heart, inspired us with her resilience even amid the brutal experiences she survives.”
“It’s a fabled world, and I never say it’s Miami or Lima, Peru, or Havana, Cuba, but I’m hoping that people will recognize that kind of suffering can happen in any childhood, including a middle to upper class,” Leonin says by phone from her home near the University of Miami, where she teaches writing.
She refers to the work as a story-book for adults, complete with soulful illustrations by artist Nereida Garcia Ferraz. Leonin and Ferraz became acquainted after Leonin bought a painting from the artist.
Both women are Cuban-American, and they began a conversation that led to Leonin sending poems from the collection to Ferraz and, in return, receiving visual interpretations of the work.
Ferraz says, “I’m fascinated by memory. I’m fascinated by the relationship between mother and child. I am really curious about the space that Micaela inhabits in the book. All of that was very attractive to me.”
She says the drawings were inspired by a wide arc of experiences. She worked from her own childhood memories, but also thought of students she’d met.
“I wanted the drawings to have almost a sketchbook quality,” Ferraz says. “That kind of intimacy. And I wanted her to be like an open young girl, aware of where she was.”
According to a note in the front of the book, the “pack-saddle” child of the title refers to the origins of the word “bastard.” Leonin writes that it’s from the Old French fils de bast, which folk etymology translates to “a child conceived on the packs pulled from a horse’s saddle and used by travelers as a makeshift bed.”
Micaela is a bastard child, though her attacker made her mother no bed on the day of Micaela’s conception. It’s as if the child was born with unfinished business, tormented by lack of information about her own origins; her mother refuses to answer questions.
Micaela wonders if she might once have been a bear, tiger, or some other animal.
“At night, she strokes the dark hair on her forearm/and asks: Who was I before I was born?” Leonin writes.
She inquires after her father all over the village. When wondering no longer satisfies her, the girl wanders far from home to a cave inhabited by dangerous gypsies. Maybe they can answer her questions.
A gypsy looks into Micaela’s mouth and tells her: “You have no voice, no lengua, no langue, no language, no tongue… What you have, chiquilla, are words—many, many words… There are many stories in you, but you don’t know any of them.”
Leonin explains the difference between having no language yet possessing unknown stories: “I think when we know where we’re from, we have a connection to that. Usually via family and often via stories and family tales. I think that connects us to the earth and grounds us to an extent. I think the woman is telling her that she doesn’t have that.”
Typically, a fable is characterized by human-like animal characters and a moral. In spite of its title, Leonin’s collection almost doesn’t fit the definition.
But Micaela does try to cultivate what she’s missing. She develops an intense fascination with the Spanish enye — the tilde placed over the letter “n” in certain words — which causes her to examine the typographical differences between words. She learns that cana means a shock of white hairs, but the addition of the enye, caña, changes the word to mean sugar cane.
As the girl’s fascination with this tiny but enormous distinction grows into an obsession, Ferraz adds more and more enye-shaped brushstrokes to the pages until, finally, Micaela’s face is covered by them.
It’s in the girl’s preoccupation with punctuation, in the way that an inanimate object overruns the page and develops a life of its own, that it’s similar to a fable that includes willful animals.
The element of a moral, however, is harder to pinpoint, even for Leonin. But she says it has to do with empathy.
“I feel like right now our country is suffering greatly from the inability to see other perspectives.”
And, when literature is working well, Leonin says, “it allows people to extend their imagination toward the story and recognize there are people in our very own communities who are hidden in plain sight, especially children and animals and other marginalized populations.”
Mia Leonin and Nereida Garcia Ferraz Cuban bookmaking workshop, 7 p.m. Thursday, September 20 at MidAmerica Nazarene University’s Mabee Library, S Mur-Len Rd, Olathe, Kansas 66062; free, but space is limited, call 913-971-3567 for a reservation.
Reading at The Writers’ Place with Gustavo Adolfo Aybar, 7 p.m. Friday, September 21 at 3607 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, Missouri 64111; $5 suggested donation.