Sandra Cisneros has spent her whole life searching for a place to call home, documenting her journey in essays, poems, and novels, the most famous of which is The House on Mango Street, her semifictionalized account of growing up in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. In her new memoir out October 6, A House of My Own (Knopf), the 60-year-old author recounts more than 30 years' worth of personal stories about the places she's lived and the writing they inspired. Over the phone from her home in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, Cisneros spoke about her life in Chicago, the reasons she left town, her relationship with Studs Terkel, and speaking her truth.
He deserves it! Studs is my hero. Though I did take some issue with the books included.
What are your favorite Chicago books?
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, a little-known novel she wrote after she won her Pulitzer prize for poetry, this beautiful story cycle about a young African-American woman growing up on the south side. It's one of my favorites.
But with that I have to say I don't believe in "best of" books. It creates a hierarchy, and books are not hierarchy, books are medicine. We read what we need to heal us. There are personal prescriptions, but there's no such thing as "best."
So how do you react when your work ends up on best-of lists?
I feel whoever made that list made their personal prescription and maybe that prescription will be right for someone else, but maybe not. If not, that's fine. Every book could be the best, it just might not be the best for you.
Was it gratifying once readers and critics started recognizing your work?
It took a long time; my overnight success was, like, decades. My memories when I was living in Chicago were struggling with getting to and from school or work and just writing on the side. I was mainly a poet, though all the time I was a poet I was writing The House on Mango Street. I aspired to getting the esteem and respect of other writers. Would Studs Terkel ever blurb my book? Would Elena Poniatowska, Dorothy Allison, would my personal literary heroes ever blurb my book? That would be, to me, like heaven. And all those people have since blurbed my book. So, OK, I can get hit by a bus now. I did it.
Was attaining that level of respect behind the impulse to put together a book of personal stories?
I didn't know I was putting it together. People only measure your books by what's published; they don't look at things that are published in little magazines. And I've always been writing these things on the side or writing them as lectures or sometimes they were just published in textbooks. I didn't realize I had this many, and I didn't see the theme until I started putting them together in the last couple years. When I was putting the book together, I thought it was just going to be about how I became a writer, and it was brought to my attention by my editor that the theme was houses. And I thought, Oh, of course, that makes sense. This is just what keeps popping up in my life and my work.
"I feel like I have these two parents, Mexico and the United States, and they're just in a really lousy period of their marriage right now."
Why has that idea of home inspired so much of your writing?
Because I've always felt homeless. As a migrant writer you don't feel at home in your home. You don't feel at home in your neighborhood, you can't possibly think that this is where you're going to stay forever, this crummy neighborhood. All those things that migrant communities get, which is the leftovers, you can't possibly think that's home. Even if you've been there 13 generations, as my friend has—her family was in the region she was born in before the Pilgrims landed, but they're still made to feel like foreigners. That sense of exclusiveness and dismissiveness that we're seeing propelled by frightened politicians that are really reacting to people's fears is the America that I find every time I step across the border and come back to my other home. I feel like I have these two parents, Mexico and the United States, and they're just in a really lousy period of their marriage right now. I feel like a kid living with my father having a hard time with my father so I said, I think I'll go live with my mom. That's how I feel, because I have such a love and allegiance to both, but I'm having a difficult time with my father right now. Father America is not a great dad.
You'll be making appearances at the National Museum of Mexican Art on November 14 and 15 as part of your book tour. What's it like coming back to Chicago? Does it feel like not much has changed?
On the contrary, I feel like it's devastatingly shifted to look better to the outsider and the tourist and so much worse for the native Chicagoans. If I was a student there now I would have a really hard time. I know this because my family has a hard time, and most them have had to leave Chicago. It's getting worse. The things I wrote about in The House on Mango Street about the neighborhood, the shifts in city services, the neighborhoods of color, it still goes on. I'm so sad and sorry about that. One of the reasons why I left Chicago was because it's difficult to get from point A to point B without being exhausted and having enough energy to write at the end of the day. I didn't feel safe walking from car to my house in the neighborhoods I could afford. I think it's gone the way of looking more attractive than the Chicago that I remember, but issues of housing and education and safety have really become worse.
Where in Mexico do you live now?
San Miguel de Allende. It's a smaller town. I've avoided big cities because I know from living in Chicago that it can chew you up and spit you out and leave you too tired to write poetry, or you have an idea for poetry but you can't write it down because you're stuck in traffic. I want to be able to walk to the market and feel safe, and believe it or not I feel safer here. When I go to Chicago people in Mexico ask me if I'm afraid. There are places in Mexico, of course, where people are fearful, but they're not fearful here of their children going to school and getting shot by other kids. The guns that are here are sold by American merchants, so the Mexicans feel very upset about the sale of guns from the United States that makes the community here unsafe. I told you it was a bad marriage.
As a writer of some note, do you feel like you can make a significant difference when it comes to issues like gun violence?
I think every writer, whether they are a beginning writer or a seasoned writer, needs to understand that every human being can make a difference. Even just what we say to one another—just by speaking we can make change. We have to be responsible. People say, "What can I do? I'm just a drop in the bucket." Well, you don't have to take care of the bucket; just take care of your drop.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s when we worked for peace and worked for women's rights—to now see women's rights all being taken away, that to me is frightening. It's actually kind of a nightmare. It's really frightening to me that we don't have the freedom to critique the United States without being vilified. There is a sense of fear that people can't speak their truth, whatever their truth might be, and what is the job of a writer if not to tell the truth?
The first time I read The House on Mango Street, in high school, a teacher described it as a controversial book, maybe because it is so truthful.
That's not controversial. What's controversial to me is the news. I don't see my work as eccentric; I see it as being true to my heart. Everybody else goes to jobs they hate or live in cities they can't stand or follow rules they know are wrong—those to me are the controversial people. I feel like I'm living my truth every day.
Let's go back for a second to your hero, Studs Terkel. What was it like when you were finally able to meet him?
I told him about my mom, who was his real devotee. He wanted to interview my mom for one of his books about the old neighborhood on Taylor Street. He really wanted her story, he thought she was extraordinary, and she was, but she was so intimidated by the thought of meeting her god that she wouldn't do it. I talked her into at least coming to the studio with me, and I'm shocked that I was able to get her to do that. My mom was very independent and intelligent and would argue, but she never went out into the public space except to buy groceries. To get her to meet Studs Terkel was a huge hurdle for me. I don't know how I convinced her. For me it was more exciting to put my mom next to Studs Terkel than for me to meet him.
I love that photo of the three of you from A House of My Own.
The crazy part is, all the photos from the book were in storage. I was here, and my assistant had to dig through boxes and boxes that were only cataloged by year and find those pictures. It was like finding a needle in a haystack.
What was it like to look back at your life through all the photos and essays?
I think of my mother looking around the house and saying, "Oh, I bought that blender when Carlos was born." Everything was dated by the birth of her children. I date things by the birth of my books—I remember my first chapbook, Bad Boys, I remember Mango Street. Some births are quieter than others. This one brought me a kind of astonishment like my first book. When [Bad Boys] came in the mail I was living in my Paulina apartment in Bucktown, and I remember taking it out of an envelope. It was so thin. They put the staples together with a spoon because the stapler didn't work. And when that book came I just stared at it like a woman who had just given birth to her first child and turned it over and marveled. I couldn't believe it. The same thing happened with this book. When I'm writing I bite the manuscript to see, Is it a book yet? Does it have enough pages? And I don't dare bite this book because it's so beautiful and heavy. Isn't it heavy? I'm impressed, and I wrote it! I have it on my mantel on my fireplace next to my Saint Francis statue, and I just love looking at it and thanking all the powers and ancestors and higher powers that be for helping me. I feel this sense of living in a time when I'm reaping a harvest I've sowed my whole lifetime. v