Before I could even ask my first question for our interview, Sandra Cisneros and I had already talked about social media (her advice: writers don’t have time to “fritter on Twitter”), conservative Latinos in South Texas, certain politicians whose mothers need to “give them a nalgada with a chancla (a slap with a sandal),” why poetry is like a combination of jazz and knitting, how I could find a Xolo (a hairless dog breed my family and I have long coveted), and so much more.
Four decades into her writing career, the 66-year-old is more than a member of the literary pantheon. She’s also part guru, part patron saint of Hispanic literature—her Macondo Writers Workshop has helped launch dozens of writers—and a total truth-teller. The former San Antonio resident, now living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has been awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” the Texas Medal of Arts, and, recently, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement, among dozens of other honors. The House on Mango Street, Cisneros’s debut novel, has sold more than six million copies since 1984 and remains a staple in classrooms across the country.
Cisneros’s newest book, the novella Martita, I Remember You, has just been published in a bilingual version, with the Spanish translation done by Austin-based Liliana Valenzuela. The plot follows a middle-aged woman named Corina who finds a trove of old letters between herself and two women she met in Paris while they were all young, idealistic travelers. Years later, Corina works for a gas company, reads alone on her lunch breaks, and is married to a man she loves but isn’t in love with. The letters send her spiraling into her past as she relives a life-changing period of hope and friendship.
Cisneros will appear at next month’s Texas Book Festival, where she is a frequent guest.
Texas Monthly: I’m going to do this out of order and jump to what I thought was going to be the last question. It’s one of those big questions with no answer, but I want to hear what you have to say. With all that’s happening right now, where can we find hope?
Sandra Cisneros: I have hope; I’m an optimist. I’m always waiting and asking, “Where’s our Gandhi? Our Dr. King? Our Cesar Chavez?” I’m always looking for those leaders, and maybe it’s us. We each have to make that change we want to see. Someone said that—was it Gandhi? Or was it just a bumper sticker I saw in Austin?
But I think it’s up to us to be very mindful. I know I’ve been guilty of speaking when angry. We have to be mindful of taking care of ourselves. We’re not the Buddha, but what language are we using? What examples are we putting out there, especially when we write?
TM: What helps ground you and keep that anger controlled?
SC: I always go to Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk. I read him, and pow! That’s the chanclada I get if I’m angry or say something I regret. And the poets too. I have Joy Harjo on my bedside. Also Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously. These are my spiritual leaders.
TM: What’s your revision process like, and has it become easier over the years?
SC: It’s irritating at first, death-defying and slow as hell, and I’m always convinced it will kill me. Each book becomes more difficult as I get older because I demand more of myself. If I can, I let a manuscript sleep for a few months or weeks or days. I write lots of other things when I’m stuck: poetry, essays. Or I read or draw. I think it opens up the mind to get off the track and look at something else. I love looking at paintings or watching a documentary or watching another art form, like dance.
TM: I can’t help but think of Corina, the protagonist of Martita, who’s looking back at her time in Paris years later. She’s processing her memories, and I’m wondering if that act of reflection was part of the genesis of the story.
SC: This story was originally part of Woman Hollering Creek, so I wrote it first in the eighties or the beginning of the nineties. It was one of a few that didn’t make it into the collection because it wasn’t finished. So I put it away and thought I’d come back to it later. My life just kind of got swept up after that, but my friend Dennis Mathis, from Iowa [where Cisneros earned her MFA in creative writing], kept asking me when I was going to finish that story. I was always working on poetry, a novel, and so on, but I finally had some time, and I pulled it out.
TM: So you had time because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
SC: Yes. During the last presidency, I would accept any offer to travel and speak because I felt a responsibility to encourage and teach young people. I wanted to protect them from the seeds that were being planted during the Trump administration. That was my ministry. It was scary, but I could do that. Then the pandemic was a way to almost have a retreat and finish things. I had files and files of notes from my editors and from Dennis. All like my head, dusty. So I had to clear everything out and finish it. And I have the age, perspective, and, I hope, wisdom that I didn’t have when I was younger.
TM: How much of the book is drawn from your time in Europe in your twenties?
SC: When I was traveling on my NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] grant, I was 28 or 29. I had a Eurail pass, and that’s how I traveled to lots of different places. Some of the stories in the book are mine, and others are composites of the women I met and the stories they told me. I guess I’m all three women characters but also none of them. I started from an autobiographical place because so many weird things happened to me when I was traveling. But when I came home, no one wanted to hear them!
TM: Corina lives in Chicago, but her memories are all in Paris. But this isn’t a romantic Paris. She’s broke, she can’t afford to tour the Eiffel Tower, so why does she hold on to these memories specifically?
SC: It’s the memories we wish we could forget. I always tell young writers, don’t write about what you wish you could remember, but write about what you can’t forget. Those memories stay, and there’s something transformational about them. Why are there certain people who come into our lives that we just can’t forget? Sometimes people stay with us for reasons we don’t understand until we can write about them. I think of the story as a letter unwritten. You know, like, you think of someone and say “Oh, I would say this or that to them. Where are they now?” You create this whole monologue, but you don’t actually send that letter. Maybe being 66, I see things in a different way than I could have when I was younger. I don’t think I could have written this book when I was 40.
TM: I’m seeing a lot of parallels between Corina’s act of remembering and the role of the writer.
SC: I think we write as a question, but we don’t know the question until we get to the answer.
TM: Congratulations on the recent Fuller Award. You’ve received so many awards by now—do they still make a difference?
SC: You know why they’re important? Because there’s some girl with crooked teeth who never raises her hand in grade school. And when she sees me win that award, she says, “I can do that.” That’s why they’re important. If one person gets inspired and goes out there and lives their dream, then I would have earned my death.
TM: What’s next?
SC: I met my deadline on my book of poetry, Woman Without Shame. I’m working on the lyrics for the House on Mango Street opera, and I want Martita to be performed as a play, so I’ve got a lot of work to do.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Pièce de Révision.” It originally published online on September 14, 2021. Subscribe today.