Consider this lineup of characters.
Cathy, “queen of cats,” her house overrun with felines.
Marin, “waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”
Alicia, pulling out all the stops to get a university degree, despite her father’s objections.
Earl, a jukebox repairman, with several boxes of 45 records and a series of women friends coming and going.
Esperanza, the protagonist, who wants a house of her own, not her daddy’s, just hers, hers in every respect.
These characters and others draw us into the sometimes raw, sometimes lyrical world of The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros’ 1984 debut novel. Through a series of vignettes, Cisneros creates a portrait of a mixed-race area in Chicago. In the course of the novel, Esperanza matures, gaining a sense of selfhood as well as a sense of community. An old woman with psychic powers confronts her: “When you leave, you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.” Esperanza comes to recognize the wisdom of this advice.
The novel, which has become a classic, has sold close to six million copies. But one could misunderstand the nature of this success, says Cisneros. “Everyone thinks that my first book was an overnight success, but I would tell people, ‘That was a long night.’ Because people don’t realize you write the thing over a decade, and then it takes a decade for it to get its recognition.”
If the road to writing a novel is long, the path itself, for Cisneros, isn’t obvious; it’s one of continual discovery. “I think all writing is a question and we’re walking towards the answer. You don’t know the question until you get the answer, and you don’t get the answer till you get to the end.” With Cisneros’s fiction, readers too must enter into this mystery of discovery, into her complex prose replete with similes, metaphors and analogies – which often make for sheer poetry. Note, for instance, the poetic quality of this passage from her second novel, Caramelo.
Doubt begins like a thin crack in a porcelain plate. Very fine, like a strand of hair, almost not there. Wedged in between the pages of the sports section, in the satin puckered side-pocket of his valise, next to a crumpled bag of pumpkin seeds, a sepia-colored photo pasted on thick cardboard crudely cut down the center. The smiling Narciso seated leaning toward the cut-out half.
Consider the simile “like a strand of hair,” the rhyming phrase that follows, the concrete language, the rhythm and the suggestive “cut-out half.” Her fiction is often infused with passages exhibiting this fine compression and a lyrical quality that make readers take a moment to appreciate the beauty and reflect on the meaning. Much of Cisneros’ work draws on her personal life, but what memory calls up is always transformed or transmuted into art by the power of her creative imagination.
Cisneros may be a poetic fiction writer, but she approaches the two genres of poetry and fiction with distinct aims in mind. “You write poetry when you can’t see, when you want to write about a molecule of time. You write a story when you have something on your mind that you want people to listen to. I grew up with a lot of people talking at the same time, and we never listened. So when you could say something that people would listen to, that was a story to me.”
In addition to her two novels, Cisneros has written a collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek, and several volumes of poetry. Her second nonfiction book, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, will be released in October 2015.
I phoned Sandra Cisneros at her home in Mexico. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
You make use of personal experience in your fiction. Can you comment on the role of memory?
I tell my younger writers not to write about the things that you remember, but the things that you wish you could forget. Those are just huge in your heart. And that way you can get right to the seed of a story. That’s usually where I begin. Some memory I wish I could forget. All you have to do is write from some very true place in your heart. You cut to the chase when you write about things you feel frightened to think about, the things that haunt you. I think that’s important for writers to remember: Write from some true place.
Your characters are complex. How do you go about creating them? In Caramelo, for instance, how did you arrive at that most memorable of characters, the Awful Grandmother?
I remember reading The Floating World by Cynthia Kadohata. This novel has an awful grandmother, one who does not live up to the stereotypes of grandmothers that we think about in books. She is just the opposite. I got inspired by that book, and it made me start thinking about my own relatives, about works by women writers of my culture and how I was just saturated by all these nice grandmas, and I thought, “That’s not the grandma I know!” I had an awful grandmother myself. I thought she’d be more fun for readers to read about than someone who’s nice. When I’m creating characters, I try to think about the usual, the typical, the stereotypical, and how can I shatter that? That’s usually how I get going.
Your work explores ethnic identity, gender and class. How do you manage these themes so they emerge in the storytelling and are not imposed from without?
I don’t think about these things when I’m writing. I really try to shut off the thinking part of my brain. If you want to think, write an academic paper. Don’t think about such things until you edit. And then you can add, embellish, and the next thing you know, if you’re very honest, all of the other stuff comes with it if it didn’t come before. That’s the other side of the telescope when we write. We don’t have to worry about such matters as we’re writing.
Being a fiction writer calls for a certain vision. What is that for you?
I think that writers are observers and not out of choice. We’re like unsuccessful social beings; we’re stuck on the margins. I think women especially get marginalized from things that happen in their family or their culture. And I think the more marginal we are as human beings, the better observers we are. Being stuck as a girl made me invisible. It’s what you want to be as a writer. You want to be a spy, and I think that being a girl in my family and in my culture allowed me invisibility. There I could watch, not because I wanted to, but that’s where I was stuck. And also I wasn’t a successful human being socially in school, and that also allowed me a kind of invisibility, which was painful at the time, but very good training for being a writer.
Marginalization, especially of women, is certainly an important theme in your work.
I think we have special vision as writers according to whatever wounds we’ve suffered. We have special vision to see people who are also suffering those same wounds. I’ve paid attention to people who were marginal. I’ve paid attention to people who were ignored, or people who weren’t popular, because I knew what that felt like. I think being an only daughter with so many boys around allowed me a special vision of looking and seeing and maybe understanding men in a way that I might not have otherwise had I been an only child. I’m pretty much into women’s stories, but I really don’t think about gender when I’m writing. I just write from what’s coming from my heart. I think we write about the same things our whole life. I’m still writing about marginalization issues, and I feel that in every book, I’m getting closer to the bull’s eye, because the older you get, the farther away you are from particular events, so the clearer you can see yourself.
Your work deals with the lives of Mexican Americans caught between two cultures. Can you comment on the conflicts both men and women face in your fiction and how they resolve these conflicts?
I’m not a critic of my own writing. I don’t think of myself as someone who can answer that question. I only know that I write from very deep emotions, and I never know what I think until after I write it.
As a Chicana writer, do you seek to help create a Chicana identity for your Chicana readers?
Early on I did, but not anymore. Now I don’t think about creating a Chicana identity; I think about writing from a place that’s just mine. What do I know that no other writer knows? I write from that place. And to that extent my work is very much grounded in my culture because that’s who I am. I have to write about what I know. I try to write in such a way that someone coming from as far away as Japan could read my work and understand it. I want it to be understood by someone who knows nothing about it.
And yet your work is often bilingual. Isn’t there a risk there?
I write very honestly what I hear a character saying. And when I can’t translate what they’re saying, I play the Spanish. I do try to be very careful about using Spanish so that people coming from a different culture could read my work without knowing a syllable of Spanish; they could understand what I’m saying through the context. I try always to translate, as much as possible, the syntax and the word choice. I really try not to gratuitously use that language. I use it when there’s no other choice.
Your prose style is vivid and engaging. It’s been called “poetic.”
I like poetry because it’s so succinct. Caramelo is full of so many little details, but I hope every line’s poetic. When I’m writing fiction, I try to make the lines as beautiful as poetry. My friend is a fiction writer, and he always says, “You need to do bigger strokes. You’re painting like a miniaturist.” And that’s true. I do linger and pay attention to little details. But I don’t try to write poetry; it just comes out. If I were talking to you about anything, similes would come out because it’s the way I see the world. When I think of the writers that I like the best, writers like Marguerite Duras, Harriet Doerr and Jean Rhys, I hope to write as lyrically as they do.
So you don’t compartmentalize poetry and fiction. There’s a real carryover between the two for you. Any recommendations for beginning fiction writers?
I think it’s good training for fiction writers to write poetry and vice versa; I think it’s important for us to write in different genres. Doing so keeps us flexible, and it gives us powerful ways of describing the world. I always ask my students who are poets to write fiction and fiction writers to write poetry. Writing poetry forces you to pay attention to the unit of the syllable. As fiction writers we’re used to thinking about plot; but we should think also of the syllable. That’s why I take so long to write fiction because if I change the order of the words in the sentence then I have to change the whole paragraph because I’m listening very attentively to the arrangement of the syllables.
Your work is very strong on scene. How do you create scenes? What’s your process? Anything beginning writers can take away?
One thing I do is save what I call “buttons.” By buttons, I mean little scenes, little dialogues, things that I’ve written notes on, things that I remember, or things that I heard on the street. I have a little file of buttons, and I try to write a button a day. Just a scene. I don’t write from the beginning. Even if I don’t know what I’m writing, I just write a scene. It could be a scene that I wish I could forget or a scene of dialogue that is so strong that I want it included in the book, but I may not know where it’s going to go yet. I’ll look and see what I feel excited about, what brings me a lot of fun to write about. That’s what I write about that day. I don’t work in linear order, just whatever is exciting and fun. I also think of writing as doing these little squares, these little embroidered pieces, and then you put them all together.
In terms of sheer volume and range, your novel Caramelo breaks away from The House on Mango Street, which is a collection of vignettes. But you’re mostly known for your first work. Care to comment?
I think Caramelo is a much better book. I wish more people would appreciate it. I took 10 years to write it, and the tenth year proofing it. It was like I began with wrestling the angel of death. In The House on Mango Street, there’s a kind of extended family of neighbors. At that time, I really couldn’t handle the reality of all my relatives and my big family. How could I deal with all those people? It’s like writing a Russian novel. So when I was younger, I just made the family smaller, but when I got to be 40, I realized I really hadn’t written about things that I’d lived through, and so in Caramelo, I started with the intent of writing about my family and the way they really are. Caramelo is much more autobiographical than House. It’s my favorite. It was such a difficult book to write, so of course we always like the one that almost killed us, right?
How did you go about creating historical persons and contexts in Caramelo? What was your research process?
I didn’t know a lot about my relatives, and so I would make up what I didn’t know, and for a novelist writing about real people, it’s better if you don’t. A lot of times what I would do is cut out a picture in a magazine. I have lots of photography and a lot of books on photography. I would either cut out a picture or look in one of my books for a photograph. I have a number of books on Mexico, so I would look for historical photos of the time I was writing about. By looking at photographs of someone who looked like my relative but wasn’t my relative, somebody who looked like my father, somebody who looked like my grandmother, a house that might have been where they could have lived – that helped me because the truth shackles you to reality. You can’t use your imagination. I would also turn on music from the period I was writing about to get in the mood, to get the flavor of a different time.
A House of My Own is a departure for you, isn’t it? The nonfiction genre. Tell us about it and what the writing was like.
The book is collected essays from 30 years of my life. A lot of these essays were published in little, hard-to-find journals, or out-of-print ones, not the mainstream places. I wanted to collect them mainly because I thought they’d be lost otherwise, and then I added some new ones and tweaked the old ones. And then I had to arrange them and put them all together and edit. It took a lot of work. I was working on them in 2008, and then I put it down, and I said, “I’m not picking this up again until I have an editor!” It was just too difficult for me. I’m not used to writing about myself; I usually write fiction or poetry. I guess I’ve felt a little bit intimidated in writing the stories in this book because most nonfiction books I think of as being more cerebral, but these are more personal stories.
Do you have any tips for early stage writers?
It’s really important for younger writers to have a community, a kind of spiritual family. Writing is so solitary, and it takes us to deep emotional places. It should. If it’s not taking you to such places, you’re not working hard enough. Fellow writers can sustain you for the long process of creation, for the long haul.
Jack Smith is the author of Write and Revise for Publication and two satirical novels, Hog to Hog and Icon.
- Cisneros has been awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships for fiction and poetry.
- She has received several honors, including the Texas Medal of Arts and honorary doctorates from Loyola University and SUNY Purchase.
- The House on Mango Street won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award.
- Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories received the PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction of 1991 and the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award.
- Caramelo was awarded the Premio Napoli, was short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was nominated for the Orange Prize in England.
- Caramelo and The House on Mango Street were both selected for numerous One-City/One-Read projects in a number of communities across the U.S.
- Cisneros’s books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
An excerpt from Caramelo:
The night the Awful Grandmother dies, Mother orders us to open all the windows of the house. All of them. Even though it’s January. Even though it’s the middle of the night. Even though the Grandmother dies in the hospital and not the kitchen bedroom. Because the moment the Awful Grandmother closes her eyes and lets out her last hiccupped sigh, it’s as if skinny Death with her dog haunches scampers along the railroad tracks where Madero arrived and organized his Mexican revolution, sweeps herself over the downtown parking lots, across the homes of the south side of San Antonio to our house on El Dorado Street, because Mother says, – I can’t sleep, it stinks in here like rotten barbacoa.
I can’t smell it, but do what I’m told, open the windows just the same. Barbacoa reminds me too much of that one Sunday I bit into a taco and found a piece with hairs on it. What part of the cow head did I get? The ear? The nostril? An eyelash? What disgusted me most was the not knowing.
And then I start to think about all these things I shouldn’t think about. The fatty piece of barbacoa. An eyelash. Hair in a man’s ears just like the hair in a man’s nose. The hairy legs of flies. The spiral of sticky flypaper dangling above the meat counter at Taqueria la Milagrosa on South Halsted Street droning, droning, droning that death song – instead of the things I should think about – love and heartily sorry, but I don’t feel anything for my grandmother, who at this very moment is no doubt fluttering above our heads searching for her route out of this world of pain and rotten stink.
Excerpt from Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros © 2002 by Sandra Cisneros. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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