A Q&A with Sandra Cisneros
April 4, 2016
If You Go …
Who: Sandra Cisneros
Where: Winter Words, Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, April 5, 6 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Sandra Cisneros, author of the classic novel "The House on Mango Street" and most recently the nonfiction collection "A House of My Own," will speak on Tuesday, April 5 at Winter Words (6 p.m. in Paepcke Auditorium).
A Mexican-American Chicago native, Cisneros three years ago left her longtime home of San Antonio, Texas for San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There, in the home of Aspen's Blanca and Cavanaugh O'Leary, she finished her latest book.
Aspen Times arts editor Andrew Travers spoke with Cisneros recently by phone from Chicago. This is an edited transcript of their interview.
ANDREW TRAVERS: 'A House of My Own' weaves together your non-fiction writing from the last 30 years. What was the process of putting it together? How did you find a shape for the book?
SANDRA CISNEROS: I have been writing nonfiction all along but I didn't realize it. It's always been this backburner thing. I usually have one big project and then someone invites me somewhere and I write something for that audience. But when my mom died in 2007, it really was at the end of – as they say in Mexico, when someone dies, part of you dies, too, and a part of you is born. So it was a very painful time. Then in 2008 I found myself really lost in many ways and it started from being in between lives and in between projects, digging around and looking at older works. I found I had a lot of essays – more than I thought, and when I put them all in a three-ring binder all together I found that I had years' worth – almost 30 years. So I thought, 'Wow, if I just added more, finished and cleaned up some of these,' I thought, 'that could be done quickly.' We always think when we're getting into a project that it's going to be quick. And this was 2008, and didn't finish until last year. I had to write new ones and I had the job of putting them all together, not repeating myself and finding that shape.
After 2011 I started focusing on it. I made my first formal visit to San Miguel in 2011 [at the San Miguel Writers' Conference], went back in 2012 and moved there in 2013. I was ending my relationship with Texas. A place you live in is like a relationship with someone you're involved with emotionally. And it was a relationship that no longer brought me joy. I no longer felt at home in my house or in Texas. You have to feel at home. I felt displaced. It was the universe's way of saying, 'Your time in Texas has ended. We have something else for you that is as good or better.' And I had a mystical experience with ancestors telling me I was not my house. And I thought, 'Oh, well the only thing that's ever been a sure thing is my intuition. And the ancestors gave me a GPS and they sent me off. So I thought, 'I'm in Mexico, it's scary. But people have done scarier things. My ancestors fled during a war with children and came up 100 years ago with no skills except as laborers. My grandparentts could not read or write or speak English. And they did it with kids. So I think I have some advantages. And then there have been people on the other end to welcome and open the path, like Blanca and her friends who helped recruit me.
AT: The epilogue of "A House of My Own" is signed at Aspenites Blanca and Cavanaugh O'Leary's house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Can you tell me about your relationship with them?
SC: She was a fan of my work and people had told me about her. Some Mexican people who knew her kept telling me about 'La Senora Blanca,' as they called her. To me, La Senora Blanca sounds like a little old lady with her hair in a bun, like the lady in 'Babar the Elephant.' So I had this picture in my head of that little old lady. So, of course, when I met Senora Blanca, she's nothing like that and I say, 'Why didn't anyone tell me?' Senora Blanca turned out to be this mountain-mover firehouse who is like a lot of the women I know from Texas. I call them mountain-movers, because they get things done, they're some of the most powerful women I know. Like the women of the north of Mexico who take things into their own hands to shape the future – she's my generation. I don't think of myself as a little old lady. I may be vintage and classic but I'm not old.
So it took a long time before we met, partly because she kept leaving town, like a lot of San Miguelentes, she doesn't live there full-time. So when we finally met, we became friends ever since. And she rescued me form homelessness when a lease broke and I was left without a home with five dogs. How many people would take in a woman with five dogs? And I meant to live in her guest house for three months maximum. But I ended up there for nine months. So nine months to be in someone's house with five dogs, I have such gratitude.
AT: What surprised you going back and revising the pieces that ended up in the book?
SC: What surprised me was I didn't always agree with things that I believed [laughs]. This kind of older editorial voice wanted to come in. And I was allowed to change my mind, make footnotes and write introductions, which was a lot of fun because I would look at my younger self and say 'Oh no, I cant believe she said that!' So it was fun to interject.
AT: A lot of us have a personal connection with your work. We read 'The House on Mango Street' when we're young and grow up with your books. What kinds of feedback do you hear from readers?
SC: I get lots of letters from people who are too young to understand my books – sixth graders, fourth graders. I didn't write 'House on Mango Street' for fourth or sixth graders. I wrote it for very sophisticated at-risk youth who had lived intense lives. So I'm a little shocked. But I also wrote it so that they could understand and that the more mature parts would fly over their heads if they didn't understand it. So I get all kinds of response. The thing that's most moving for me is when I hear from a person who is most unlike me – a man, a man from another culture, a reader in Japan or Egypt or Germany. Someone in New York who is not a Latina but identifies with people like me in a new way. That's the most moving. When I get those letters. I was writing it from my heart, and I wasn't thinking about the reader in Japan or the guy in New York in the subway who is looking at Latinas in a new way. When I get those letters I truly believe I was working with some spirit guiding me and in a state of grace. Any time we do something that comes purely from our heart, in the sprit of love for others, then we're working in a state of grace. Whether you're writing a column or raising a child or teaching someone, any time we do something with love and from generosity on behalf of others with no self-motive or intent for self-gain, then we're in a state of grace. I think I wrote that book like that and that's why it's had such along life.
AT: The Mexican and American biculturalism that you address and represent in "A House of My Own" is under attack by some potential leaders in our current political environment and one presidential candidate in particular. How can you address that in your work? Do you feel that's part of your duty as a writer?
SC: It's under attack because people are in a state of fear. And we have been in that sate of fear since 9/11 and before then, but it's more vocal and public since 9/11. Any time anyone sees their world changing, their first instinct is to cling and to resist and be fearful. And the other side of that is rage, which we're seeing manifested especially by a politician who is acting as the megaphone for that fear and rage.
I hope that the work that I do is one of building bridges and helping us all, as readers and as citizens of the United States and the globe to be ambassadors. I always tell my audiences that this is a time where I don't feel we can depend on our leaders, because I don't think they're leading us. So each one of us has to be that ambassador for peace. And we have to build those bridges ourselves because there is so much divisiveness in the world but especially in the United States at this time.
I wish I had the opportunity to be in communication with some of those politicians that are working from such a place of fear and rage. I really do, because as a writer my job is to analyze and to look really deeply at how people became who they are. I wish I could sit with these fearful, hatemongering individuals that we see on television, whether they're newscasters or people in charge of media or politicians or businessmen who think they're politicians. I would like to understand how they came to a place of such fear and rage.
AT: How do you approach talks like the one you're giving at Winter Words in Aspen?
SC: I like to try and find out, from reporters like you, who I am going to meet, who is my audience, what age, how many people, where do the come from? Every talk I like to tailor it. I like to know what languages they speak, is everyone going to understand me if I only speak English? If I don't know that going in, I'll do a poll. So I know who my audience is and I can direct my talk to them.
AT: What are you working on next?
SC: Well, I'm in Chicago now, which always brings up a lot of unsettled feelings. I thought I had said everything I had to say about home. I thought I had said everything I had to say about Chicago and I had just written myself out of home. But I think it's always going to be a topic, especially for immigrants and people like myself who have been nomads for millennia, to write form this in-between place. So maybe I'll write more about Chicago and about my family. I certainly can't live in Chicago anymore. I feel that people have to create home. People who are immigrants and who are marginal in society always have to create home and reinvent home and recreate it over and over again. Maybe that's what the whole nation is doing, because we're all feeling this pebble in our shoe of discomfort – the home our grandfather recognized isn't the home that people see now. And there's this great resistance in the new millennium of letting go of that and welcoming what for many seems fearful but for many of us seems wonderful. It's this new place of being global in a global community. So I think I'll still be writing about home. And living in Mexico allows me to see the United States in a new way. And I hope that I can be of service. I see my work as peacemaking.