Sandra Cisneros on the Me Too Movement, Narrative Voice, and The House on Mango Street
In Conversation with Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera
Changing languages, nations, media—these are the directions of literature today. Is it possible to write in English with Spanish meanings, or vice versa? What is it like to write in English in México—or Spanish in France? How can a place influence the rhythms and tones of words, phrases, and books? I enjoy teaching Sandra Cisneros in Puerto Rico, where changing languages is not unusual or exotic, but a part of daily life. Amid the violence and absurdity and incongruity of monolingualism, in her work my students often hear their own voices, discover a model to tell their own stories. In July 2018, I caught up with her in San Miguel de Allende, México.
Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera: When you enrolled at the University of Iowa for the MFA program, was there a transition period or did you go right out of undergrad?
Sandra Cisneros: I wish that there had been. I was really too young to go from undergraduate to graduate school. I was 21, because my birthday is in December. And I was also too young as far as the ways of the world. When I look back and think about it, I feel like I was 12. It was really a big kick in the nalgas for me to go there.
I had experiences as an undergrad that I want to write about that aren’t a secret. I do need to write about these things that were very damaging to me. When I was an undergrad, I had an affair with my professor, which, you know, professors think that’s what you can do. But it really was unfair to the student because the professors are in a position of power. And I talk about it with young women; it’s not a secret. But it was very, very damaging to me, especially since this relationship was—how do I put it—he was very tenacious in keeping this relationship going when I was trying to cut it off by going to Iowa. But he was very persistent. I wasn’t able to detach myself until after I finished at Iowa. I had this secret life when I was a junior through Iowa that tormented me and that I wrote about in my poetry. And it’s why my writing is always dealing with sexuality and wickedness—and it was conflictive for me who had grown up as this virginal girl from the barrio who had been so protected with six brothers and a conservative father.
And then I had an affair with a writer-professor, or a poet-professor. And at that time, with all the poets, it was just accepted that, you know, boys will be boys. It was not seen as sexual harassment: there was none of the “me too” movement. All of this abuse of power was happening but there was no way to call it out. There was no way to have a voice and protect yourself, which is why I am so supportive of the “me too” movement now. But at that time, I was too young. I may have been at the age of consent, but it wasn’t a relationship of people with equal power.
It damaged me for decades.
I want to write about it in my next collection of essays. My last book was more about houses thematically, so there was no place to talk about it. But I am not ashamed or proud. But it is something that influenced and damaged me. And it certainly became a theme in my writing. I couldn’t write about it or have people listen or guide me during the time that I was at Iowa. When I tried to write these confessional first-person poems—of course I was writing in voices that weren’t mine—trying to imitate Richard Hugo and James Wright. But I wasn’t getting anywhere with these big man voices. And I was going through things that were really tearing me up inside. Eventually I wound up going the opposite route, taking a younger voice and a different shame. I was ashamed of the life I was living but I couldn’t write about it. To get past my own auto-censura I went to a younger voice, a younger self, and a younger shame, and that’s how House on Mango Street was born.
JHM: I am glad the MFA took you out of that horrible situation at Loyola.
SC: No, it didn’t! I went away—four hours—but this man, this poet, kept pursuing me. And kept visiting me, until really the end. When I cut it off, I was in a car with him and he got physically violent. He drove the car up to the curb and almost ran into a telephone pole. I realized that this man could kill me. I had to just pretend to go along with it. And I cut it off once I was safe.
There was a lot of drinking in his life. I just needed to get out of it.
I wrote a letter to his wife when I was at Iowa. This was the most honest piece of writing I did. But he was very obsessive and tenacious. I was just a kid.
It was my first real serious relationship. It left me damaged for a long, long time. Even now, in my 60s, I have to work to be forgiving and to forgive myself, and to ask forgiveness because I think they are all interrelated.
I think that there were a lot of disastrous relationships and beautiful relationships that shape who I am at 65. I have to acknowledge them all and I wanted to write about them. I’ve written about them in some ways in my fiction and poetry but to write about them in nonfiction I have to be in a place where I am not angry. And I am in that place now.
JHM: Did that change in cultural surroundings, from Chicago to Iowa, shape how you write and experience emotions?
SC: Being in Iowa took me out of what was familiar. At 21 I hadn’t been anywhere, except to Mexico. I thought all of the United States was like Chicago. Going to Iowa was a real kick in the pants. I felt such discomfort there. And that’s not to say that I hadn’t felt that discomfort in Chicago, but I couldn’t name it. Being in Iowa made me see my neighborhood, my gender, my ethnicity, the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the way I grew up, as foreign. And so I had to examine it. What it is that makes me very different from my classmates? And from that discomfort and from that sense of vergüenza that I felt at being from a casa humilde, House on Mango Street was born.
I could feel it, see it. Being in Iowa truly exacerbated that discomfort.
I’ve written about it in an essay “Notes From a Native Daughter” published in Chicago Magazine. It’s about the discomfort of class and color and sometimes gender. I felt that discomfort in my own city, too. Iowa put it into focus. And it was shortly after being there, after being there a semester, that I was able to name and write about that place of difference. And to write about that vergüenza became a kind of challenge, a weapon for me against my classmates.
I wanted to write something that they couldn’t tell me I was wrong.
It gave me a voice, after being silent for a semester. This is what I know. You can’t tell me I’m wrong.
Since then, when I teach writing, I ask people to think about things that make them different from anyone in the room. And even what makes them different from anyone in their family or their community or their gender or their sexuality. What do they know that no one else knows? Can you write from that place? That’s what gives you voice.
When we were talking about houses, I realized I didn’t have the house that everyone else had. I was ashamed to invite anyone over to my house. It was really a moment of absolute and overwhelming—me emocioné, me impactó tanto—that I felt like running out of the room and quitting the program. But I think the other side of shame is rage. And I am really proud that I come from a line of women that have that coraje because, after I got over being upset, I was able to ask myself, what do I know that no one else knows?Even now, in my 60s, I have to work to be forgiving and to forgive myself, and to ask forgiveness because I think they are all interrelated.
And with my students, I ask them: what are ten things you know that no one else in this room knows? What do you know that no one else knows? And what do you wish you could forget? And then I say, write from that place.
JHM: Do you find that there are certain places that nourish your creativity more than others?
SC: Yes I do. And there are certain places that snuff it out. Like Chicago for me was one of those places. If you read my essay, “Notes of a Native Daughter” you’ll see why. I just didn’t feel at home in Chicago. When I come to Mexico, even though I live in a little sort of glass bubble in San Miguel, I feel happy here. I feel happy walking down the street. I feel happy going to the bank or going to mail something or buying a loaf of bread, running into people I know. There’s a joy just in being. I feel happy when I wake up and I smell the most pleasant memories of my childhood. Waking up in Mexico is a very distinct smell. It smells like orange rinds and fresh-baked bolillos and sewage and the soap they throw on the cement to scrub the sidewalks, it’s all kind of mixed in together. And it’s very fresco, and the sky is this wonderful blue. It’s fresco y puro. It’s a joy to wake up here. There’s also the duality of darkness, fear—you can’t have one without the other. But on the other hand, I was called to be here. I really feel ánimas—spirits—or whatever’s out there called me to be here. I don’t why I’m here. I don’t know if I’ll always feel it.
I don’t feel completely safe in Mexico as a woman. But I feel I belong.
I’m very much reminded that I’m a woman in this country. I’m also reminded that I’m a woman of a certain age. Now I am madrecita. And in Mexico there’s nothing that’s more holy than madre. I am addressed as madrecita. It’s nice to arrive at a certain age and have more respect than a man your age.
Here I feel that I’ve ascended to the level of diosas. Like the Virgen de Guadalupe. There’s a respect.
JHM: What is it like for you to travel in Europe and in Latin America—do you have many invitations to lecture?
SC: The French, well. I just feel like the French don’t get me. I am kind of like an orphan when it comes to Latino Letters because my books aren’t sold in the country I live in—or elsewhere in Latin America. I’ve only recently been invited to congresos in other Latin American countries. I’m kind of a misfit, an unnatural daughter because you can’t get my books here. While I don’t speak Spanish perfectly, I present in Spanish with some English thrown in. I tell the audience, “you’re going to help me if I get stuck”. There are sometimes when I don’t have the vocabulary for, say, “dumpster” and things like that. The audiences are always very supportive and helps me.
JHM: That happens to me in class sometimes.
SC: Soy más como una curiosidad. I don’t know how people see me. My books aren’t available. I don’t know if people know who I am. It could be that they do in departments of Border Studies and that kind of thing. I am kind of a stuck in a hole.
I have a new little chapbook from Sarabande Press and my friends here who own a business want to present the book at their shop in Mexico City—Colonial Roma—and I said, “Who will come? Does anyone know who I am?” I know that in my little bubble of San Miguel there are a lot of expats, but I don’t know that Mexicans know who I am.
I was invited to Managua and this year to Peru, and I wonder why they are inviting me.
JHM: The topics you write about, I imagine that they are painful to put on paper: misplacement, hybridity, displacement, the powerlessness of being Latina in the US. Many have not heard voices like yours. You can tell the mine is rich—and it’s clear you’ve been there, and brought it out. Your work is like a glimpse at the future.
SC: Thank you, Jeffrey. I just came back from Taipei and there are a lot of people in these hybrid cultures. I met with a writer from Taipei whose parents speak Taiwanese and Japanese and she speaks the above with an accent and has inhibitions about not speaking languages perfectly. Her first language is English. We did an interview in the back seat of a car service on our way to a dance performance. There are hybrid cultures happening globally, which to me is the future, and it gives me hope for the xenophobia we are seeing.What do they know that no one else knows? Can you write from that place? That’s what gives you voice.
I’ve thought about people from hybrid cultures as being amphibious—and that our job is to unite those communities that are apart, that have these polarities. Like those who live on land and those who live under water.
And there’s another culture: there are amphibians with wings those are los alebrijes like my friend who went to school in the US but goes to spend her summers in Taiwan and maybe vacations in Europe. And I think that’s the future.
JHM: Reminds me of students at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, who have a very distinct cultural maturity. The students are endowed with capacities that—
SC: Exactly! Students like that have a special gift.
JHM: I love the University of Puerto Rico—hybrid, bilingual learning spaces are so fertile. If Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford and so on, institutions with unlimited resources, were to do what we do here, or if they looked more like the UPR culturally and linguistically, it would be of great benefit to the communities they serve. And the nations they serve, really.
SC: It is a way of seeing the world that is lost on people who aren’t exposed to it directly. Those who are xenophobic, often don’t have access to those worlds.
JHM: Those perspectives, your perspectives, are accessible to students at UPR in very interesting ways, which is part of why I enjoy teaching your work.
SC: Thanks so much. I think there’s a lot of good writing coming up, too. I just finished reading Erika L Sánchez—her poetry Lessons from Expulsion and I’m not your perfect Mexican Daughter. I find her writing so fine. Joe Jiménez is another young writer I like a lot. There are many good writers coming up. Like José Antonio Rodríguez, people who are writing literally from the border. Or they are the border. Erika is from Chicago, so she is the border, growing up there. She’s a younger generation writing about the Chicago experience. I am always emocionada when I read journals. Angie Cruz has a journal called Aster(ix) publishing excellent writing. I love there are so many new writers I don’t know. It’s thrilling and exciting. They are doing a new fusion of cultures, Eduardo Corales, for example. I love his poetry. Natalie Díaz, there is great, great writing coming up. I am excited by all of it.
JHM: How do you feel about literature, as a practice.
SC: Every book is a prescription for what ails you. A book has to change me and make me want to write. It has to inspire me. It has to heal me. That’s why I read and that’s why I write. Literature is best when it makes us stronger human beings.
JHM: I have a quote of yours: “that voice is one of a person speaking Spanish in English. By that I mean that I write with the syntax and sensibility of Spanish, even when there isn’t a syllable of Spanish present. It’s engrained in the way I look at the world, and the way I construct sentences and stories.” What you describe appears in Vivian Cook’s Multicompetence theory.
SC: I hadn’t heard of this. At one point I thought of getting a PhD in linguistics, I am very excited by language. I didn’t do the PhD because it would have taken the time when I wrote my novel, House on Mango Street. But I am excited by language and I have this theory that there’s an archaeology to our language; we could look at our language and unearth other cultures and languages the same as if we were going through the seven layers of Troy. We could look at our language and our parents’ language and beneath that are traces of another community. This would happen for everybody, whether we’re monolingual or bilingual or trilingual. I believe that everybody’s language is based on the stones of the previous generation’s language. Kind of like the churches of Mexico City are built out of the stones of pyramids.Every book is a prescription for what ails you. A book has to change me and make me want to write. It has to inspire me. It has to heal me.
So even if you’re a child whose ancestors came on the Mayflower, your language will offer certain influences of your town, your part or region of the US. Our families have ways of speaking and that way of speaking is also a way of seeing. If we examined phrases that are particular to our families, I believe they will give reflections of the communities we grew up in, and community of our ancestors.
I think it’s true of every single human being.
JHM: I think archaeology is a very appropriate word for what you describe.
SC: Thank you. When I was writing House on Mango Street, I handed in my manuscript and went off to live in the south of France. I zig-zagged on a eurorail pass and I had to write a letter to my friend’s mother, who was my host in Athens. She speaks Greek and her second language is Spanish. We had no common language except Spanish. I had to write to her in Spanish. I composed those letters in a little stone cabin in the south of France. I finished and said, “oh my, this letter sounds like House on Mango Street!” There isn’t much Spanish in House on Mango Street.
That’s when it occurred to me that I had been writing with the syntax of my father’s Spanish without being aware of it. It was there. It was underneath my English, it’s what makes my English unique. There’s an animism that’s probably underneath the Spanish that comes from pre-conquest languages.
If you look at the codices and their translations, you’ll see that the diminutive is there. That’s very particular to Mexican Spanish and Mexican ways of seeing the world.
JHM: I am fascinated by México. It’s a continent—a world.
SC: A universe! But I think that all of those culturas, even though the languages may have disappeared, is still there in our way of being and our way of speaking and the words we choose and the way we look at nature, and the way we speak to one-another. It’s still here.
In our house we would never say, shut the light off. We would say “close the light,” and then when I say it I am always self-conscious as I never know what’s correct. And I think that—close the light—comes from my mother, who grew up with country people who spoke Spanish.
My friends in Iowa would all laugh at me because it sounded wrong to them but it never sounded wrong to me because I grew up listening to them.
There are a lot of things in English that are carry overs from Spanish that are so particular to my family that they sound correct to me.That’s when it occurred to me that I had been writing with the syntax of my father’s Spanish without being aware of it. It was there.
JHM: Are there any readings you return to for inspiration?
SC: I like reading Time of the Dove, I love it in English but I especially love it in Spanish. I am not very good at reading in Spanish so I always have the English and Spanish next to each other. Juan Rulfo I can read in Spanish without the English because the Spanish he uses is so colloquial.
I read Borges, Seven Nights. That’s one of my favorite bedtime books. He writes in Spanish in a way that I want to but do not have the vocabulary. I read him in English and Spanish.
JHM: When I read Borges, I get piel de gallina. There’s nothing like it. Something about it can’t be translated. The rhythm and timber of his language is so powerful.
SC: Yes! And especially those essays—Seven Nights. He was blind when he wrote them and had to memorize them. He was like Homer, blind and reciting things. He must have had tricks so he could remember. I love his transitions, how he goes from one topic to another—how his mind leaps across a chessboard.
Me da mucho ánimo, when I read him, to write nonfiction. So I like to read him. I always wanted to write my own Siete noches. I even did a lecture one time when I took seven pieces of my writing that have to do with night—stories, poetry—to do an homenaje to Borges. But I know I don’t write like Borges. Me inspira.
Another is Ámbar Past’s Dedicatorias. She writes in Spanish and English, her first language is English. Sometimes she has her text in some language that you wouldn’t get, like Japanese. I love what she’s done with Leñeteros Press. When I read her poem, Dedicatorias, I wish I could write like that. I feel like writing poetry when I read her.
JHM: When you’re writing, do you keep anything specific nearby?
SC: I write in two different places in this house. I’ve lived here two years. I decided every room would be my office. When I lived in Texas I had an office. It really didn’t make me happy. Every room has to make me feel like writing. I write in my bed, on the dining room table, in my outer living room. I write on a tiny rustic table with a pop opener on one leg. (I guess you’d say soda opener, pop is what we say in Chicago.)
I always have little altars nearby.
SC: This one has Guadalupe. My great-great grandmother was a woman who could neither read nor write from the campo here in Guanajuato, a photo of her; a photo of my mother and father that’s in A House of My Own with their arms intertwined. And a photo of la Sra. Camacho de López, my textile teacher. I guess I’d have flowers around them. Brightly colored sashes on the repisa.
I always have altares, even if it’s a little altar, with a Buddha and a little ofrenda near me. I try to have them in places that I work. And I also try to light incense when I am working, to remind me my guardians and ancestors are with me in the work I do. I do a meditation to honor them and to make them proud with the work I do.
JHM: Your introduction to House of My Own, about technology, was fantastic. On the road, our digital lives are uninterrupted.
SC: I don’t like opening my laptop when I’m traveling. I like having a notebook and a pen and reading emails on my phone. And my answers are brief because I don’t type with my thumbs. I like to document things on paper. I am not in communication much on the road.I write in two different places in this house. I’ve lived here two years. I decided every room would be my office.
A friend forced me to get an Instagram account. As a frustrated visual artist, I post photographs and a phrase. That suits me when I am traveling.
JHM: How is your relationship with language now, in Mexico?
SC: My chapbook Puro Amor is a short story with the Spanish text next to the English. It is terribly appropriate to where I am now. To have the books bilingual in one edition since I’m living in Mexico. It’s the first time my drawings appear with my writing. People don’t even know I draw. That’s why I’m excited about this book with Sarabande Press.
I got a Ford Fellowship recently, “The Art of Change” fellowship, and with this I’m interviewing the undocumented or those who work with the undocumented. I’m traveling with microphones and a recorder. I’m also interviewing other artists. I don’t know what I’ll do with those, maybe a podcast. Now I’m just in the collecting stage, without knowing what I’m creating. Maybe it’s an opera or play or drama or a chorus of voices.