On a beautiful Saturday morning, I sat down with author Sandra Cisneros to discuss her new book A House of My Own, her return to the Texas Book Festival, and her advice for writers. At the breakfast table with a wedding taking place just yards away from us on the banks of Lady Bird Lake in Downtown Austin, we begin our candid conversation.
LATINO: Tell me about your new book A House of My Own.
Sandra Cisneros: I knew this was going to be very different from any book that I’ve created because with other books I’ve always had the little scrim of a character or personas. This is me. I was happy to do it that way because I wanted to clarify a lot of mistakes and assumptions. On the other hand, I also have to understand that there’s a vulnerability to this collection.
LATINO: You recently placed your work in The Wittcliff Collection at Texas State University. What was the significance of that?
The significance was that if I don’t put them under a cover and if I can’t find them, imagine if you can’t find them. I was losing them. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep every single essay that I had written because some are not worth keeping but I wanted to also understand myself at this point in my life. It was like opening a shoe box of photographs and placing them in a kind of way to see where I had been and maybe to assess where I’m going.
LATINO: Is there anything in Latino literature not being written?
Everything’s not being written. Everybody has something that’s never been written. There’s never been a writer like you at this time in history, in the place you live, and in the body that you have. If you would just tap into that, you’d learn about the most time-worn subject like love and you’d write about it from a new place, if you own yourself.
LATINO: Is there classic literature that you think is important for young Latinos?
I would never say which one that is because everybody’s classic literature is an individual choice. Books are so personal. I think of books as medicine. How do I know your prescription? Everybody has to search for their great classics. Is it Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the great books that changed me? I was metamorphosed when I read it but I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody. On the other hand, I’m really happy to draw spotlights on Merce Rodareda (included in A House of My Own). Women need to read that, especially people who have lived in war-torn countries but that might not be the book for someone from Idaho.
LATINO: What about people who want to write books? What tips do you give to writers?
First, I would tell them to write about things they can’t talk about. Write about the things you censor yourself to think about. Write as if you can’t publish it in your lifetime. Write as if they are talking to one person who could see them in their pajamas. Consider writing and not publishing because the writing will be more honest, transformative and medicinal. Write about the things you wish you could forget. The things we chat about are so superficial. You really want to go to the scary parts of yourself. The real reason you write is for self-exploration and self-transformation.
LATINO: Let’s talk about the Texas Book Festival.
This is my third time. I was here for the first one when Laura Bush organized it. I told George Bush that I was keeping my eye on him. He said, ‘You can’t say that! But you just did.’ Man, weren’t those prophetic words?
LATINO: How do you remember that first book festival?
I was in my early forties. I think that I had been awarded the MacArthur. I felt like I had gotten my Green Card. Texas does not give a warm welcome to us outsiders. I felt like I was being claimed by Texas.
LATINO: After winning the MacArthur or after the Book Festival?
Both and then there was The Texas Medal of the Arts. I was really scared at that one. The war had started and I was forsaking what I was going to read – an open letter to Laura Bush. I was Daniel in the lion’s den. I wanted to include it in this book but I can’t find it. (Michael) Moore had just been booed down at the Academy Awards for his peace sentiment. I knew that I had to present myself in a way to disarm my adversaries. The first thing I said was, ‘I’m the granddaughter of a military man who served in the Mexican Army. I’m the daughter of a Mexican man who served in the U.S. Army.’ The only indirecta that I put in (the open letter) was that Mexican women knew what it was like to have a husband who’s having a hard time at his job. I suggested creating a Peace Pentagon of people to help him in his work. They did not boo me. That was a testament to how diplomatic I had to be with that letter. The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was to deliver that letter to a pro-military, pro-Republican audience when the war began.
LATINO: Did you write that letter thinking that you weren’t going to share it?
I never think of it when I’m writing. When I edit, I edit as if my enemy is going to read it. That’s different. I didn’t talk about editing. You write it as if no one is going to read it in your lifetime but you edit it as if your enemy will read it.
LATINO: How do you feel about being back in Texas for this Book Festival?
It’s better coming as a visitor. Visitors are treated well. For so long, I had adversaries where I wasn’t trying to create adversaries.
LATINO: Let’s talk about the network of writers you created – Macondo Workshops.
I came to San Antonio and expected to have a network of writers. When I found myself without a team, I had to create my own league. I created it because I needed to be able to invite the writers who I wanted to see and be nurtured by.
LATINO: What were your favorite moments?
I dreamed of having a [reading] event where there’d be standing room only. I did that when Leslie Mormon Silko and Elena Poinatowska performed together. To me, it was a ‘now I can die’ moment.
Melanie Mendez-Gonzales is an online media entrepreneur and the Founder of QueMeansWhat.com.
The Compadres/Comadres: Fernando Reyes, Frank Herrera, Rosa Santana, Max Navarro and Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr.