Sandra Cisneros to close Winter Words series in Aspen
April 4, 2016
Author Sandra Cisneros grew up in Chicago, lived for years in Texas and recently settled in her ancestral home in Mexico. She's also found herself at home working on borrowed typewriters in residencies in France and Sarajevo and on the island of Hydra.
As a beloved and influential fiction writer, home is often the road, where she offers readings and wisdom to crowds like the one that will greet her at Winter Words in Aspen on Tuesday night.
These many homes and the journeys between form the loose unifying concept of Cisneros' lushly illustrated new memoir, "A House of My Own." The book culls together three decades of her nonfiction writing — speeches, one-off essays for magazines and newspapers, tributes to writers and friends and family members and, naturally, a reflection on "You Can't Go Home Again," by author Thomas Wolfe. The result is a nontraditional memoir that offers a personal look at Cisneros and how she relates to the world.
When her mother died in late 2007, Cisneros began digging through her own uncollected writings. She was surprised at how much nonfiction had piled up.
“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 see my work as peacemaking.”
— Sandra Cisneros
"I have been writing nonfiction all along, but I didn't realize it," she said from a recent visit to Chicago. "It's always been this backburner thing."
Over the ensuing years, she compiled the reams of writing in a binder and shaped it into an original book of its own – filled with interjections, footnotes, new introductions and a few disagreements with her younger self.
"I would look at my younger self and say, 'Oh no, I can't believe she said that!'" she said. "So it was fun to interject."
Cisneros has written novels, collections of stories and poetry and was awarded a Macarthur "Genius" Grant in 1995. (She and her fellow Latino recipients have founded an informal caucus called "Los Macarturos" — when she spoke to The Aspen Times, she was in Chicago with two members: affordable-housing developer Paul Roldan and anthropologist Ruth Behar.) But she is still best-known for her first novel, 1984's classic "The House on Mango Street." The coming-of-age story about a Latina girl in working-class Chicago remains a staple on teenagers' bookshelves. In the new book, she writes of her emotional difficulties grappling with the groundbreaking publication, and surprising success, of her debut novel.
She still often hears from readers, during her travels and in letters, who were touched by the book. Cisneros is most moved, she said, when she hears from readers around the world or from different cultures that she never imagined reaching with the novel.
"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," she said. "When I get those letters, I truly believe I was working with some spirit guiding me and in a state of grace."
The period of writing "A House of My Own" coincided with Cisneros moving from her longtime home in San Antionio to the land of her ancestors in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, from which her grandparents came to the U.S. fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution.
After moving to San Miguel in 2013, she befriended Aspenites Blanca and Cavanaugh O'Leary, who have a home there. When a lease broke on her San Miguel home, the O'Learys welcomed Cisneros and her five dogs into theirs. She finished "A House of My Own" there.
"How many people would take in a woman with five dogs?" Cisneros said with a laugh. "And I meant to live in (the O'Learys') 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."
In "A House of My Own," as she writes about leaving the U.S. for Mexico, Cisneros laments the culture of fear that she saw take hold in the U.S. in the new millennium after 9/11. She refers to the U.S. as "'los Asustados Unidos,' the United States of Fear." Since the book was released last year, the Mexican and American biculturalism that her work has often addressed and represented has come under attack by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters. She is hopeful that the work of writers and efforts of readers can bring people together even as political leaders attempt to divide them.
"Any time anyone sees their world changing, their first instinct is to cling and to resist and be fearful," Cisneros said. "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 see my work as peacemaking."