After a decade of absence, the Mexican-American author and activist returns to discuss her new book, what it takes to 'compost' grief into light, and the long road for writers of color.
Image courtesy of the Gwinnett County Public Library
“We tend to think of orphans as being the protagonist of stories we read when we’re kids, and yet here you are: you’re an adult, you’re supposed to manage, you’re supposed to get over it, you’re supposed to go on with your life, and you feel like a lost child,” Sandra Cisneros says about losing her mother and the “primordial fear” of being left parentless. Out of these sentiments of grief evolved the Chicana novelist and poet’s first book in a decade, a fable-like tale for adults, “medicine,” as she calls it, for the broken-hearted. Have You Seen Marie?, a short volume illustrated by the painter Ester Hernandez, draws from an unlikely meditation in the form of searching for a lost cat in the days following her mother’s death, an experience that contributed to her efforts to “compost” pain into light.
In this interview with radio host Richard Wolinsky, Cisneros explores creative revival in the wake of grief, and her process of finding intimacy with the deceased and those who mourn through writing, performance and quiet ritual. Best known for her 1984 coming of age novel, The House on Mango Street, Cisneros addresses her unique style of weaving together poetry and prose to capture her early years growing up as a Mexican immigrant in Chicago and her adult life in San Antonio, examining the act of border crossing through both culture and form. As a public figure, particularly one straddling the North-South divide, Cisneros also considers the role of the artist in confronting the violence, fear, and insecurity of our present age. “I have to be the ambassador of everything,” she says. Fresh from the publication of Have You Seen Marie?, Cisneros is at work on a collection of essays on writing, spirituality, and personal power. In spite of her wide-reaching, if unexpected success, Cisneros maintains, “Each book gets harder, each book gets harder and harder. I always feel like crying when I have to write.
–Interview published courtesy of Richard Wolinksy
Richard Wolinsky: Have You Seen Marie? is your first book in ten years. What’s been happening since your last book, Caramelo, was published?
Sandra Cisneros: I’ve been working on essays and poetry, creating two foundations, and just living my life. I’ve also been traveling and promoting the books in other languages. This story is actually a couple of years old. It was a story that changed as I read it out loud; it would change as I performed it in different cities and different places.
Richard Wolinsky: It was almost a theater piece.
Sandra Cisneros: All of my works are performance pieces, as is true for many writers of color, writers who have indigenous roots—because our basis is spoken word. My writing is based very much on the spoken story. Perhaps even more so the spoken story in another language, transcribed into English, which is what gives The House on Mango Street its peculiar lilt. For our community, a lot of times people can’t buy your book. They need to hear the story out loud.
Richard Wolinsky: I want to talk about the relationship between Spanish and English, because when I look at well-translated Spanish—anything from Gabriel García Márquez to García Lorca—there’s a certain poetry there that is unique.
Sandra Cisneros: It’s a poetic language, in particular the Spanish of Mexico which has a wonderful animistic attitude you might not see in the Spanish of the peninsula. I think it has to do with the indigenous way of looking at nature.
Richard Wolinsky: Have You Seen Marie? stems from dealing with the death of your mother. As you said in an interview, middle-aged orphans don’t seem to get much press anywhere.
Sandra Cisneros: I think one of the great primordial fears we have once we become conscious of our aloneness as children is the fear of losing our mother. We have that from the moment we realize we can lose her just in the supermarket. As a child, it was more terrifying than arithmetic. When I lost my father, I thought I learned about grief and transition. However, nobody tells you what it’s like to lose your mother. They don’t tell you that you’re going to feel like an orphan at whatever age you are as an adult. We tend to think of orphans as being the protagonists of stories we read as kids, and yet here you are: you’re an adult, you’re supposed to manage, you’re supposed to go on with your life, and you feel like a lost child.
Richard Wolinsky: When did your mother pass away, and how did this book—which on the surface is about searching for a cat—emerge?
Sandra Cisneros: My mother passed away on one of the Days of the Dead, because there are two Days of the Dead—November first and November second—that are celebrated in Mexico. She passed away on the day of the lost souls of children, which seems appropriate because she had so many children.
In March, a visiting writer came to town in relation to my writers’ foundation, and she lost her cat. She didn’t know anyone in town except for me, so I felt obligated to help her look for it. This was just a few months after my mother’s death when I was feeling terrified of running into anybody, whether I knew them or not. When you’re in that state of grief, any little breeze, any hello, any confrontation, any grazing of someone meeting your eyes, might cause you suddenly to burst into grief. You could be looking at a jar of peanut butter in the supermarket, and then start crying. I was in that agoraphobic phase, but because I was hosting this residency, found myself going out for two weeks looking for this animal. It caused a lot of discomfort. I didn’t like the idea of being out of the house. I also didn’t like that I was wasting my time, crawling underneath cars. [laughs] I remember being mad and thinking, “I should be in my office writing!”
The experience taught me to be present in the real Buddhist sense of paying attention to the moment. Once I woke up to what was going on around me, looking at a little girl who picked up the flier, just being astonished by how people reacted, I started thinking, “There’s a story here. Wake up. Start paying attention to what people are telling you. Look at the trees and flowers.”
As much as I was grieving, it was wonderful to be walking under trees, looking at the grackles, walking along the river. I felt very nourished, the way when you’re thirsty and you drink a glass of water. That’s when I took the idea to my desk. While my friend was still searching for her cat, I went back to my desk and started taking notes. Eventually, she found her cat. I started weaving the story, not only of the search for the cat, but of my neighbors who had death visit their house. Every single house has had death visit, which I knew from living there for twenty years. That’s the story I wrote.
Richard Wolinsky: What had you been working on, in the months that passed directly after your mother’s death?
Sandra Cisneros: I created an altar that went up in the Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Even if you’re an agnostic or an atheist, you can create an altar, because an altar is simply paying homage to someone’s life and celebrating what they did. You start collecting items intuitively instead of using words, going around the house or to shops and thrift stores and saying, “This reminds me. I know this person would have loved this.” You collect those things and they create a way of grieving, but also laughing and feeling the person’s presence. Once you can open yourself to joy, you feel as if you’ve transformed your sadness into illumination, which is really all that art is. All we want to do is transform the negative emotions into light. We want to compost them into light.
Richard Wolinsky: You’ve spent time refining the story over and over in front of audiences. At what point did you realize that you could find an illustrator, that it could become a book?
Sandra Cisneros: When you speak words that are relevant to people, they automatically shut up and you know you are in the presence of some very magical words. It’s a gift when someone can listen and be quiet and not interrupt. When I was reading this story on the twenty-fifth anniversary tour of House on Mango Street, I could tell it was medicine. For certain people in the audience, there would be this silence. Their eyes would well up with tears. They were listening, and I thought, “I’ve just opened this genie bottle and let out some powerful force here.”
So I knew it wasn’t going to be a short story in my next collection. That’s when I asked Ester, because I had shared the story with her. She was broken-hearted about the death of her mom, so I tried to convince her even though she’s not a book illustrator—she’s a famous painter—to join me on this collaboration of creating a powerful little book that’s not quite an adult book, not quite a children’s book. It’s not a quite a fairy tale. We wanted a little book that would fit in your hands, that you could put in your bicycle bag, or your purse, that you could give to somebody who was in a state of immense sadness.
Richard Wolinsky: Ester came to San Antonio and apparently took hundreds of pictures.
Sandra Cisneros: [laughs] She even waded through the river with me. I said, “Oh, Ester, if you’re going to write about the river, you’ve got to get in. Come on! Roll up your pants and leave your shoes.” She climbed in with me and my dogs and waded through the water. Then we walked all over the neighborhood in the heat, talking to people. We would go up to strangers and ask, “Can we photograph you?” Sometimes we’d knock on the door of a particular person who’s included in the story and ask them to pose. We had a lot of fun. It was a way for us to grieve. We even sat under the magical tree that’s in the book and meditated for our moms, because our moms were extraordinary women who didn’t have the opportunities that we had.
Ester comes from a migrant family. My mom never finished the ninth grade. She became politically conscious thanks to Studs Terkel and the radio. She started reading all the books we brought home from college and was a great fan of Noam Chomsky. She was a real lefty and yet was not able to meet her dream of becoming an artist. She got drafted into motherhood big time—seven kids—and that wasn’t the life that she had planned. So she opened the path so that I could be the artist that she wanted to be. My mom was a frustrated woman, like so many unhappy women who didn’t get the opportunities they wanted. Now I’m on this book tour and installing the altar at museums, and my mom is being celebrated. I feel her spirit is with me. She’s having a hell of a time.
Richard Wolinsky: Have You Seen Marie? is also a love story about San Antonio. It presents a view of the city I’ve never seen.
Sandra Cisneros: People come to San Antonio and go downtown to the River Walk and think that’s San Antonio. They should walk downriver towards the mission, the south side, or go west or east to the communities that are not as prosperous and really take a look. These kinds of stories the Alamo forgets to remember.
Richard Wolinsky: What brought you to San Antonio? You grew up in Chicago.
Sandra Cisneros: I was running away from home.
Richard Wolinsky: Really?
Sandra Cisneros: I’d lived my whole life in Chicago and ever since childhood I’d wanted to get away and travel. When I was twenty-eight, I got very lucky. I won an NEA grant, my first big-time grant. My dream was to go all the way south to Patagonia, like Che I suppose. But I’d never been to Indiana let alone to Patagonia, so I worried, “I can’t go down there, I’m afraid of everything.” I thought I’d better go somewhere where they’re used to seeing women traveling alone, so I reluctantly bought a one-way ticket to Greece, which is where I finished House on Mango Street. I lived in Bosnia. I lived in Sarajevo before the war. I lived in the south of France. I learned a lot during that trip and after a year and a half returned with this desire to continue traveling, but without any money. I was back at square one in Chicago, so took the first job that would take me, which was an offer in San Antonio.
Richard Wolinsky: What was the job?
Sandra Cisneros: The director of a literature program at a cultural arts center. I didn’t know anything about San Antonio or Texas, just that it was this state we used to drive two days through to get to Mexico. It was that big. The job seemed perfectly made for me, but it was disastrous. I quit after a year, but it was a detour that turned out to be my destiny.
I think there’s a rule that once you want to live somewhere, you can’t find a job. Once I decided I wanted to live in Texas, I couldn’t find a job to save my life. I wound up living for a decade as a migrant professor. I taught at Cal State Chico, UC Berkeley, Irvine, many different places. I would take the money I earned back to Texas, where it was cheaper to live. That’s how I was able to buy time to write during the summer or during the semester.
Richard Wolinsky: The House on Mango Street is not your standard novel. Your books sit outside…
Sandra Cisneros: …they cross borders. I try to cross borders. I wrote The House on Mango Street at the Iowa Writers Workshop, but not for my thesis. I was in the poetry workshop, so I didn’t get any credit for vignettes on the side; I wrote them to keep my spirits alive. I dog-paddled through a depressive period writing fiction for myself, and submitting poetry for my thesis.
Richard Wolinsky: Eventually, The House on Mango Street was published by a small Houston press in 1984. How did you come across them?
Sandra Cisneros: They were publishers of a small magazine, Revista Chicago Riqueña, that used to come out of Indiana. I knew about them because they had published my work. They asked me if I had more, and I said yes, but most are here and I tapped my head. The book was asked for before I finished it.
I just feel that the East and the West are two different worlds. I sometimes get saddened when I see that very few writers of color are reviewed in East Coast presses and magazines or published.
Richard Wolinsky: Then it took seven years before Random House finally published it.
Sandra Cisneros: My idea was always to start with a small press and then move up to a national press. I had those goals for my career from the time I was a very young woman. I wanted to win a local award, then I wanted a state or national award. Small press, big press. Some women fantasize about their weddings, their husbands, and children. I fantasized about what I wanted to accomplish with my books. You know how women have this clock when they want to have a baby? I had this clock where I wanted to win a national award by thirty, be at a big press by thirty-five. I was always working with these self-driven goals.
Richard Wolinsky: When Random House finally decided to publish you, was that around the time they became aware of all of these Hispanic writers? When Oscar Hijuelos got published for the first time, and Julia Álvarez?
Sandra Cisneros: We were all publishing each other. Gary Soto and Dee Cervantes published my first book of poetry with money out of their own pocket, out of their own labor, because no one else would. Dr. Alarcón, a professor at Berkeley, created Third Woman Press to fill the gap where no one else was picking us up. There are still many writers out in the Bay, extraordinary writers like Gina Valdez, a poet who I just saw in Portland. We have young people like Eduardo Corral, who won the Yale Younger Poets Award. José Antonio Rodriguez, published by Luis Rodriguez. But there are only a few of us who are paid attention to in New York. There are legions behind us who are not.
Sometimes I wonder, should we pool our resources and do our own press here? I just feel that the East and the West are two different worlds. I sometimes get saddened when I see that very few writers of color are published or reviewed in East Coast presses and magazines. Sometimes we have to pick up the slack ourselves and create those foundations and give those awards.
Richard Wolinsky: Tell me about Caramelo, which took you nine years to write.
Sandra Cisneros: Nine years to write and a whole year to edit. It was a decade of my life. I wanted to show everyone, “Yes, I can write a big fat book,” because sometimes House on Mango Street gets dismissed as “that little book.” Caramelo did win some international prizes, but it hasn’t yet gotten the attention I think it merits in the United States. I feel that it has yet to do its work in the way that House on Mango Street took a long time to do its healing work. I think Caramelo, which is dedicated to the immigrants, will do its work–perhaps not in my lifetime, but eventually.
Richard Wolinsky: As I understand it, the turning point in your writing was when you said, “Screw that, I can’t do a linear novel. I’m just going to write what I need to write.”
Sandra Cisneros: As I said, I was in the poetry workshop, not the fiction workshop, when I was in grad school. My very good friend Dennis Mathis was in fiction and he’s worked closely in nurturing my nontraditional style of storytelling, which is cyclical and more female in structure. He’s always encouraged me to be idiosyncratic, and to maintain the quirkiness in the way I say things.
Richard Wolinsky: Once you received this advice, did the process get a little bit easier?
Sandra Cisneros: No. Each book gets harder, each book gets harder and harder. I always feel like crying when I have to write.”
Richard Wolinsky: You’re planning to leave San Antonio. Do you know where you’re going?
Sandra Cisneros: I do not know where I’m going. I’m going to be exploring and opening my heart to a town that is smaller than San Antonio, but bigger in the way that towns can be international. I don’t close myself to the possibility of someplace outside the United States, but it would have to be someplace with an indigenous community, because that’s where I feel at home.
Richard Wolinsky: Will you write more large novels?
Sandra Cisneros: I don’t think I’ll write a large novel again because it was like being in jail for me. Even though that’s the funniest book I’ve ever written, it was the saddest period of my life.
Richard Wolinsky: There has also been a lot of anger built up over house painting…
Sandra Cisneros: That came in the middle of trying to write my novel. The last thing I needed was someone asking about the authentic colors of San Antonio. It opened up a historical can of worms.
Richard Wolinsky: What happened with the bright colors?
Sandra Cisneros: It was about historical exclusion. We were being asked to paint our homes historical colors as deemed by a Western palette, a European palette–that was all right. But if my home in a historic district was painted a color that was a color of Mexico, that was a problem. We talked about preserving Spanish architecture, but I didn’t see any Mexican or Mexican-American architecture being preserved. I didn’t mean to create an uproar. I just painted my house what I thought was a beautiful color for the Southwest, colors I had seen in Mexico.
Richard Wolinsky: Does that also have to do with changing consciousness in terms of architecture? More preservation, more people harkening back to brighter colors?
Sandra Cisneros: The thing that’s curious is that even the Alamo, even the doors of the Alamo had paint. When things get renovated, however, they are literally whitewashed and that becomes the color for all time. I wasn’t trying to make trouble. I was just painting my house a color that I thought was alegre, filled with life and beauty. Little did I realize in a town named San Antonio, I was going to have to translate those colors. We had to wake up the historic review board to the fact that the natives also have history and that history is valid too. What happened as a result is that the panel on the historical review board is much more colorful than it was then.
Richard Wolinsky: One of the issues that keeps coming up is immigration. The flow has turned into a trickle, yet political parties are making hay out of this thing, deporting people for DUIs.
Sandra Cisneros: When we had this last election, no one wanted to talk about immigration. That was a red flag, that neither party wanted to talk about it. Post 9/11, we’ve seen such disastrous policies on the border. I live two and a half hours away from the border, and I’ve seen changes for the communities there. I feel like it’s an occupied zone. We’re losing our rights, and both sides of the border are terrified. The Mexican population and the U.S. population are united in fear.
Richard Wolinsky: It’s easier for them to build on fear rather than to ease it. How do the Mexican drug wars affect San Antonio?
Sandra Cisneros: Businesses on both sides are suffering, and communities. The border was always porous. People have been going and coming back since before the Spaniards arrived. Now we’re seeing communities who have family members on the other side very frightened. I feel saddened for those families divided by violence. The whole border area is under siege.
Richard Wolinsky: When you’re looking at our political situation and the future, do you offer people advice?
Sandra Cisneros: I felt when I turned forty that with all the attention, with the microphones put in front of me, with the media listening, that I had a responsibility to be wiser than my years. So I made an intention at forty to become smarter and wiser. I’m learning a lot by reading teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron. They teach me because I feel like I have a responsibility to the communities that I speak to.
I find that the Virgen de Guadalupe allowed me to come back to parts of my upbringing that I had disregarded, that I walked away from. My family is from the neighborhood, the very district where the Virgen of Guadalupe appeared. That’s where I have roots, in that neighborhood in Mexico City.
Richard Wolinsky: How do your Catholicism and your Buddhism match up?
Sandra Cisernos: Catholicism believes in the Virgen de Guadalupe. The mother of God is worshipped, especially in Latin America. I find her very empowering. I find that the Virgen de Guadalupe allowed me to return to parts of my upbringing I had disregarded. My family is from the neighborhood, the very district where the Virgen of Guadalupe appeared. That’s where I have roots, in that neighborhood in Mexico City. She’s a personal icon, not just a cultural icon. I used to play on the little hill where she appeared. I was raised a Catholic, but with very liberal parents, so I had to find my spirituality. I’ve been looking for it since I was a child. I would find it in pieces of art, music, flowers, trees. Now I’ve come full circle finding God in clouds, flowers, and trees. To me, the Virgen de Guadalupe is just a vessel for me to recognize my own God within myself.
Richard Wolinsky: You’ve talked about the various works you have coming up. Can you be specific?
Sandra Cisernos: I have a collection of essays that have been gathered up from their disparate homes. Some are new, some are old, and I’m putting them together under one roof. I have a new collection of poetry that I’m still finishing. And I recently, I’ve been doing a spoken lecture called “How to Become a Chingona in Twelve Easy Lessons.”
Richard Wolinsky: A what?
Sandra Cisernos: A Chingona! You don’t know what a Chingona is? Well that’s one of those words that would have to be beat out if I translated it, but it’s a very powerful expletive in Spanish. It’s usually used with some [guttural noise] and I wanted a word that would make women feel really powerful. So “Become a Chingona in Twelve Easy Lessons” is a lecture on spirituality on how to come into your own power.
“Bookwaves with Richard Wolinsky” originates in the studios of KPFA-FM Pacifica Radio (www.kpfa.org) in Berkeley, California and can also be heard at other radio stations via Pacifica Audioport syndication.