Books As Medicine: A Conversation With Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros burst into the literary world over 30 years ago with the coming-of-age tale of Esperanza told in the inventive vignettes of The House on Mango Street. Cisneros’ latest work, A House of My Own (Knopf 2015), a back catalogue of published works and talks, as well as new meditations, is an expansive tour of her life as a writer, featuring the many places she has called home, including Chicago, Greece, Texas, and Mexico, from where she spoke to me, for Electric Literature, while multitasking.

Sandra Cisneros: I am outside on the balcony underneath some laundry so while I speak I am going to fold some laundry, OK? I am always doing something while on the phone. It’s more productive that way.

J.R. Ramakrishnan: You seem to be a very productive person and writer.

SC: Oh, I am the slowest writer in the world.

JRR: In the collection, you’ve included a gorgeous and very personal foreword you wrote for the reissue of Galeano’s Days and Nights of Love and War. You mention breaking past writer’s block by using what you refer to as Galeano’s favorite form, vignettes, which seems to be your form too. Is writer’s block ever an issue for you these days?

SC: When you are concerned about your listener or reader, that’s when you get writer’s block. As soon as I get this, I know I am going to do a terrible job because I am not focussing on writing as if I was speaking without censors.

This is the most censorious time in American history.

This is the most censorious time in American history. The Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail had a wonderful quote about how in Iraq, they censor you before you get published. In America, they censor you before you write because it’s all about approval. You get frightened about saying things especially in this historical time where you have to be very grey to say anything different from the masses and media. The American warrior culture has everybody so cowed since 9/11. You can’t speak up. You can’t have a difference of opinion without being ostracized and exiled.

This is a time for poetry. Poets are the ones who are always called to speak the truth, to say the most courageous things and write from that room that bypasses the personal censor, which is the worst of all.

JRR: I was struck by the clarity of the recollections of the original work, especially in the introductory essay to “The Girl Who Became a Saint — Teresa Urrea,” and in particularly the distinct memory of landscape, especially the “drunk and slanted and sleepy” clouds of your drive to Clifton, Arizona. Did you write this from memory of the trip, which happened five years ago, or notes?

SC: It was both out of memory and journal notes. When I went, I did something I rarely do. Usually my journal notes are so cryptic that nobody but me can understand them. On this trip, I was very detailed about what was happening and about the geography. I don’t usually write those kind journals unless I am writing them to someone else. For some reason, I was very detailed. When I found the notes, I decided to flesh them out for the introduction.

JRR: I really enjoyed “The Author Responds to Your Letter Requesting My Book Be Banned from the School Library” and especially your thoughts on books being medicine.

SC: It’s funny you should ask because today I just had to make a list for a magazine’s best books column. I wrote an introduction saying I don’t believe in best books because I firmly believe books are medicine. What heals me might not work for you. They asked for six but I got so excited I came up with 25.

JRR: What about reviews from critics?

SC: I don’t think about critics or my fans or family. I wouldn’t write anything if I did. But when I was proofing this book, I thought these are really stories about my life and wondered what they’d think about it. What if they didn’t like it?

I was recently reading a biography of one of my favorite writers, Hans Christian Anderson. Whenever he had a bad review, he would lie prostrate in the grass and cry. Then he would have to leave town and the country.

Oh my god, what if I got a bad review, would I lie prostrate in the grass and have to leave the country? Then I thought about it and said nah, you can’t please everybody. It’s the best I can do, it’s important to me and I put it together. I hope my readers like it. If it’s not their prescription, they can put it back.

JRR: In the essay, “White Flower,” you write that you often feel like a therapist when you do readings because people wait to tell you their stories. In the early days of writing The House on Mango Street, did you ever imagine that so many different people would see so much of themselves in your work?

The more specific you can get to your otherness, the more universal you become.

SC: One thing I have learnt is that the more you reach into the different things that make you who you are, the more you hold up a mirror to what makes you different from others. This way they can see themselves better. It’s a strange process. I discovered it while I was in Iowa when I had to think about what made me different from my classmates. When I write from that place of difference, a strange alchemy happens. The more specific you can get to your otherness, the more universal you become.

JRR: The collection contains essays about the writers you’ve read, met, and admired. Which contemporary writers are you reading at present?

SC: I am reading a lot of Diana Athill’s work. I love the exquisiteness of her writing and her humor. She gives me courage as I grow older to write about things without avoiding the most personal. I’m also reading the books that she edited, especially my favorite writer Jean Rhys. I just discovered the biographer Claire Tomalin, and finished reading Aziz Nafisi Republic of Imagination and Things I’ve Been Silent About. I like that title because it reminds me of June Jordan’s Things I Do In the Dark.

JRR: You’ve included the 10th and 25th introductions to The House on Mango Street. What do you think of this book now?

SC: I am very happy that my first child is still working for a living and supporting its mother but it’s not my favorite book anymore because I see it as a work from my juvenilia. It came from a spiritual place. It taught about working from the heart. I am always more excited about my next book — the one I haven’t written yet.

JRR: Would you speak to how your spirituality continues to influence your work?

SC: My work has always been an investigation into the things of the spirit but everything is coming together now because I live in Mexico, which is very spiritual and a spirit-filled place. I am excited about how alive everything is because I am paying attention.

Today I had to meet somebody and I was late. I live at the top of a hill that looks down on the soup bowl of the town. I ran down and passed this little doorway where a lady makes homemade corn tortillas. It’s not a shop but her house. I hadn’t eaten breakfast so I poked my head in there, and asked if I could I buy one tortilla. She said, “Yes, take it.” I’m not from here so I’m a little shy about these things so I asked, “How much does it cost?” She said, “You can have it.” I picked the one on the top of the pile. It was bubbling up and hot and was the most delicious tortilla I’ve ever had.

I can’t imagine going to a bakery in Paris and asking “Could you give me a piece of a baguette?” They’d hit you over the head with a baguette in Paris! Here this lady is making tortillas in the doorway of her room for extra money and gives me one for free. That happens a lot in Mexico. What a beautiful lesson that is.

JRR: You’ve promoted emerging writers, as well as Latino writers, through the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation. Recently, we have had more vocal dialogue around the need for diversity in publishing but also the uproar over a white poet getting into The Best American Poetry 2015 with a Chinese name.

SC: I didn’t hear about that scandal.

JRR: May I email you something about it?

SC: Please do.

SC response later via email: Sheesh! Much ado about nada, if you ask me. I’m happy to hear Sherman Alexie was selected to edit the collection, but didn’t Rita Dove also get a lot of flack for the Norton anthology because she included so many unknowns and folks of color?

But more to the point, I don’t believe in “Best of” anything. It creates a hierarchy which I despise, don’t trust, and is ultimately divisive and snarky.

I include here what I wrote for the The Week Magazine: I cannot presume to call any book “best,” because I am of the firm belief all books are medicine. Therefore, let me share my personal prescription of books that have soothed, salved, restored, rescued, resuscitated, or transformed me.

That’s why I don’t buy “Best of” books. Ever. Not my prescription.

JRR: Perhaps more generally, what do you make of the state of affairs for writers of color, particularly emerging ones, in 2015, perhaps as compared to when you started out?

SC: It’s a difficult time for anybody to publish. Things have got worse for poets and very hard for younger writers or those with first books. I often advise great writers to do something I wouldn’t have considered years ago which is to self publish. It’s just a difficult time economically for publishers. They can’t take the risks they took 30 years ago.

JRR: Much of this collection is about the many different houses you’ve inhabited and the idea of home.

SC: I had no idea that this theme of home was going to crop up so often. I was just writing about what I was writing about at the time. But now that I look back, it seems like everywhere I’ve gone even when I’ve lived somewhere even temporarily, I always nest. If I don’t like the art in a hotel, I take it down and put it in the closet. I have to be in a space that’s beautiful. If it’s not beautiful, I’ll put my scarf on the bedside table. Wherever it is, I have to have beauty so that when I look up I feel happy.

JRR: Is Mexico home now?

It made me feel like this is where I belong. Maybe it’s the most at home I’ve ever felt in my life.

SC: I have only been here for just a little while. I am new at describing Mexico, and it’s a new kind of Mexico I am discovering. Today I was forced to get up early for a meeting. I walked past the market and there was just so much life. In my communities in the United States, everybody is in their cars. Here people are out walking. There are children going to school and mothers who’ve been up earlier that you have, walking with their groceries. There was a huge altar of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mind you, there are Virgins everywhere in this town but it just grounded me and reminded me where I was. It made me feel like this is where I belong. Maybe it’s the most at home I’ve ever felt in my life.

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