In 1984, a young Mexican American author from Chicago published a novel called “The House on Mango Street.” It didn’t take long for the book to capture the attention of the nation and beyond, sending Sandra Cisneros to the top tier of American novelists. The book is now a staple of school reading lists, and is widely considered a contemporary classic of American literature.
Since then, Cisneros has won considerable critical acclaim for her books, including “Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories,” “Caramelo” and “A House of My Own.” In February, PEN America announced that Cisneros will be awarded the third PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, citing her “formidable and awe-inspiring body of work, which includes fiction, memoir and poetry.” Cisneros will accepted her award Tuesday, which comes with a $50,000 cash prize, at the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony.
Cisneros spoke to The Times via telephone from her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You're the third writer to win this award after Adonis and Edna O’Brien. How does it feel to be in that kind of company?
It's astonishing, because I don't feel like I've finished with my work yet. I feel like I'm just beginning. But on the other hand, the Texas Institute of Letters gave me a lifetime achievement award, so I guess I'm qualified.
I always am the most surprised when I get any award, but I think at these heights, as we would say in Spanish, the most astonishing part is the “lifetime” part of the award. I truly don't feel that I have arrived where I want to be yet. I feel like I'm just getting started.
You live in Mexico now, after years of living in the U.S. What made you decide to move to San Miguel de Allende?
I came here by chance to do a lecture, and I just kept coming back, and feeling comfortable here, because you hear Spanish and English. People come from all over the world, it's a small town, and you don't have to drive a car, and that all appealed to me. Also, I have roots here in this region, not in this town, but in this countryside, near the airport is where my mother's family is from. At that time I really needed to get out of San Antonio; I was just very distracted by too many things. So I rented a house here and unlike most people, who buy a house in 48 hours, it took me three years. So I was kind of slow by San Miguel standards
Do you find that you feel more at home there than you did either in Chicago or San Antonio?
I feel, at this age, at home in myself. It's not a matter of finding a place that's perfect, because no place is perfect, but finding a place that's conducive and nurturing to me as a writer. I didn't feel that in Chicago. I didn't feel that it was a good place for me to write. It was exhausting for me to live in Chicago, and San Antonio was exhausting in another way. It was conducive in the beginning because of low overhead, when I first got there in 1984. For an artist you need low overhead and you need a community of writers or artists that become a spiritual family. I had both in San Antonio for a time.
I had the spiritual family in Chicago but I didn't have the low overhead. Coming here, I almost became too much of a nurturer and a connector when I lived in San Antonio. I started two foundations, and I just found myself distracted from my own writing by looking after the careers of other writers. I really needed to find a house with a big wall around it, and some place that I could retreat and recharge, and I find that here in Mexico.
Has living in Mexico changed the way that you write at all, or maybe the way that you think about literature?
Well, I certainly look at the United States in a different way now.
From this side, it looks a little more civilized over here. I think we have a president that people have confidence in here, and we have optimism here. And we have unity, in Mexico, compared to the United States. I think that one of the things that changed for me living here, Mexico doesn't look as perfect as it did when I would come as a tourist. Once you live here you start seeing all of its flaws and its problems. But at the same time you see up close how all of the native Mexicans endure, their strength, their capacity to endure, their collective generosity with one another. You do see the flaws too. There's good and bad everywhere; there's certainly good and bad in Mexico. I'm encouraged, and I feel humbled and inspired by the Mexican people.
Is your spirituality a big part of your writing life?
I think all writing and all art is a spiritual act. I always talk about writing from a perspective of being spiritual. I don't mean it in connection with any religion, but I mean spiritual in the sense of being really present and alive in the moment.
Similarly, you've been an activist for so long, not just with immigrants' rights, but with feminism as well. Do you think that writers have a moral obligation to also be activists, or is it something you felt you yourself have a moral obligation to do?
I think everybody is an activist at some level. Maybe they're not aware of it, but anytime that you stand up in justice for someone you love, is that not activism? I think it is. And I think that we're living in a time that I see that expansion through different groups that are standing up and organizing or speaking or writing or making some effort to make change.
When you go to rallies or you go to demonstrations you see all different kinds of people and all colors and all ages and that's the beautiful part. There's a lovely quote by Langston Hughes, a poem called “Make America America Again.” I think he was ripped off! I think that they altered that by saying Make America Great Again.
This year is going to be the 35th anniversary of “The House on Mango Street,” which is obviously taught to a lot of young people in schools. How do you feel that so many people consider that a book that has changed their lives, especially for young women and young Latinx readers who feel empowered as readers and writers and people because of that book?
I'm very lucky because there are so many good writers out there, so many good poets and novelists and painters and dancers and great playwrights. I think I just was born under a star, as my father would say. I was just lucky that I wrote the book for the right time. Because I think that all books and all art is medicine. But we glom on to what is going to heal us. And we could come across a book and not have any reaction to it until another time in our life, because it's not the right prescription for that time in our life. I just feel that my little book was written at the right time.
Can you talk about “Puro Amor,” the recent book that you published on Sarabande Press?
I've always been an artist before I was a writer, but Sarabande is a little house and they allowed me to include my drawing. I'm very excited, and my friend Liliana Valenzuela, my translator, did a beautiful job. The book is one I'm especially fond of, because I'm always giving it away in Mexico.
I also like that it's affordable for most people, and it's one short story, and I like to perform it too. I'm performing it with Liliana at the Texas State Capitol during the Texas Book Fair. And I performed it in Mexico City and here in San Miguel with Mexican performance artist Astrid Hadad. She's a political feminist performer and she had a lot of fun presenting the book.
Is this the first time you've had your own illustrations in one of your books?
Yes, and we've already gone back to print, and my dream is that we'll never go out of print. I just like it so much, this book. I was always known as the artist in grade school and in high school and throughout my years in college. Maybe in graduate school people didn't know, but when I was an undergraduate, when the English department needed an illustration, they would always ask me to do it. So I always was the artist.
I'm still working on developing other parts of myself. I feel like I'm just getting started, because I'm collaborating with Derek Bermel, a composer, writing [an adaptation of] “House on Mango Street.” We're going to be developing it into an opera. And then I'm working with my friend in Santa Fe, a designer named Nancy Traugott, she has a line of clothing called Homefrocks. She and I are working on textiles, a series of vintage and vintage-like fabrics, so I'm working with her. Then I'm working on editing this chorus of 60 interviews that I did last year for the Ford Foundation, and putting those together [as] a chorus of voices for performance. I'm just am doing a lot of different things. That's why I feel like I'm just getting started.
What advice would you give to younger writers? Would you urge them to not just concentrate on writing but on other forms of art, or other things that would make them happy?
When I teach writing, I tell people to go to the theater, or go look at an art exhibit, or go see a movie or listen to some music. Because sometimes working different parts of your brain helps you problem-solve, and get out of a situation where you're stuck. I've done that myself, and the older I get, the more I find that helps my writing.
I always give young people this advice: One, earn your own money. Because if you earn your own money you can control your own destiny. And usually when you want to follow the arts, nobody can believe that you'll do anything good with it. They'll talk you out of it, and they'll berate you, and they'll make you feel bad. Because they don't realize you already have a lot of doubts as it is. So earn your own money so you can control your own destiny. That doesn't mean that you'll make money from your art. You have to presume you'll make none! And that way you'll have a day job, maybe two. But your real identity will be in your art.
The second thing is to control your fertility. Again, it's about controlling your destiny. And it doesn't matter if you’re a man or a woman. You can lose your way from your sacred path if you have a child. It's going to detour you from your sacred path, and you really need to take care of your fertility.
And the third thing is that solitude, which most of our society sees as something negative, is sacred. That is the time for you to develop you. And I can't repeat that enough, especially to women, because we tend to love in ways we give away all of ourselves and we leave nothing for us. Maybe I want to add a fourth…
Oh, sure, please do.
Gandhi believed that the highest work you could do is that of service. And another quote of his is, "To find yourself, lose yourself in the service of others." I think the reason why I've achieved success is because I've made art on behalf of those I love and in service to them. And not because I wanted to make any money or win any awards. I think that's a rule, a spiritual rule, that I've learned in my life. That whatever we do with love, on behalf of those that we love, with no personal agenda, it's always going to come out beautiful. I would encourage young people to do work of service, and to not think about their ego but think about dissolving that ego. And the way you dissolve your ego is by doing work that honors your ancestors. And so any time you do anything like that it's always going to better than making money.
I don't know that I can say what I'm going to do with my award money. Can I say what I'm going to do with my award money?
I'm going to help my employees buy their first home.
I just love them, and they're my family here. My spirit family. And I've always wanted to buy them a house, and now I can. I get so worried. If something had happened to me, if I got hit by a bus or something, I wouldn't have fulfilled my promise. I told them, once I have my house, I need to help you get yours. We're all so happy and thrilled about it. I feel like we have an obligation to change the world with one person at a time. Maybe we can't buy a house for everybody, but we can look them in the eye and we can treat them like human beings. I get so thrilled that I'm able to do something for people that I love. And I can't change the whole country, but I can help one family.