An Interview with Sandra Cisneros
Ramola D | May/Summer 2006
Sandra Cisneros's latest book is a novel, Caramelo (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), selected as Notable Book of the year by the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, among others, and nominated for the Orange Prize. Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros received a BA in English from the Loyola University of Chicago in 1976 and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa in 1978. Her books of poetry include Bad Boys (Mango Press, 1980), My Wicked Wicked Ways (Third Woman Press, 1987, Random House, 1992) and Loose Woman (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), while her fiction includes a story collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (Random House, l991), a bilingual children's book, Hairs/Pelitos (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), and two novels, The House on Mango Street (Vintage, 1991) and Caramelo.
Widely recognized for her lyrical, innovative fiction featuring Mexican-American women, Cisneros's books have been translated into several languages and selected for One City/One Book projects in various communities including Los Angeles and Miami. The House on Mango Street, awarded the 1985 Before Columbus American Book Award, is now required reading in many schools and colleges, while Woman Hollering Creek won several prizes including the PEN Center West Award in l99l, and the Lannan Foundation Literary Award. Sandra's honors include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1995), a Texas Medal of the Arts Award (2003), two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships-for poetry in 1982, fiction in l988-and state grants and fellowships from Texas and Illinois. Her fiction and poetry are widely anthologized, while her articles have appeared in publications including Elle, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. She has taught writing at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, among others, and has founded and runs a uniquely free annual writing workshop, Macondo, in the vicinity of her home in San Antonio, Texas.
Ramola D: You said recently while describing your vision for Macondo you want writers here with generosity, you've talked about "ego" in the writing-how can you tell whether there's ego in the writing or not?
Sandra Cisneros: Oh, that's a good question. I guess what I'm looking for is a kind of generosity with the characters and a heart that understands them, beyond holding grudges or getting revenge. I really believe when we write there are moments, a few seconds, when we become the Buddha, when the writing transcends us, when we're writing in the light. It's channelled through us so the writing can be wiser, more loving-and then we go back to being ourselves. But when we're writing in that zone, when it's high, we can get to that place. The writing is capable of being wiser than ourselves. Even though we're just human beings, everybody's capable of becoming a Buddha every day.
Ramola D: How does it become that way? I mean, how does one get to that place?
Cisneros: I think you have to get very humble, and fearless, for the writing to be wiser. You have to be in a zone of absolute humility for that light to be channelled through you. It's not to confuse You with the light, and I think writers of ego confuse that wisdom and talent and light with themselves.
Ramola D: So this is different from one's own ego-for we all have ego, don't we?
Cisneros: We all have ego-sure, we do. And I think what I've learned from my practice of writing is to ask to rise above it, ask for guidance, because it's very limiting when you write from the ego, which of course we all do. But to rise above it so you can get that guidance, so that light will travel through you.
Ramola D: You've spoken of your quest for the spiritual-how does this figure in your life currently?
Cisneros: I think I've always been in search-the way we all are, all our lives-for a spirituality that would resonate for me. I was raised by a free-thinking mother and a lazy Catholic father-he wasn't a lazy man, but a lazy Catholic, it was more cultural than practiced. And my mother was free-thinking, very critical of organized religion, but spiritual in a private way, she allowed us to follow our hearts, which was wonderful.
And I saw so much discrepancy between what the Catholic Church preached and how much harm they actually did to women and children. But I felt close to things of the spirit, to nature, art, music-all those spoke to me. I wanted some place where my art and spirituality could come together. To me in church they were very separate. The beautiful stained glass windows-although they were works of an artist at his highest potential, nobody told us he was, in that moment of creation, God, working with the spirit of God within him. We'd sing horrible songs, and the Mass was boring. I could never feel anything spiritual with everybody talking. I wanted to be quiet. You know, that's why the library was more spiritual than the church, because it was quiet. To me spirituality is an individual thing, I can't do it with other people around. To this day I like to go to church to light candles, but if Mass is going on, I feel like shouting would you please be quiet, I'm try-ing to med-it-ate! Being a hyper-sensitive person, the noise was distracting for me to get centered. Now I realize that's partly why the Catholic Church didn't do it for me.
Whereas Buddhism allowed me to go inward and be quiet, in the same place writing does. The library was maybe my first meditation home because my house was so noisy. And books were a way of calming. And imagining and allowing, beginning a meditation practice of sorts. I don't claim to fully know what Buddhism is, I'm just a baby Buddhist, learning, and a Guadalupana. It's allowed me to go back, take things I've discarded from my culture. Which is the Catholic Church's Virgin Mary-but I don't feel my Virgin Mary is the same Pope John Paul prayed to. I feel my Virgin Mary is very tied in with the Americas, she's an embodiment of God, she's God. Though I feel God isn't a person or thing, I really feel God is an energy, that's what I mean by the light.
Ramola D: As not a single god but a greater energy, an intelligence, in the universe?
Cisneros: Yes. Maybe not Buddhist even, because Buddhism is about coming to our own higher consciousness. Buddha was a man, his image is there to remind us that we're capable of being Buddha too. And I feel both, this design, energy that's there, I don't know, for lack of a better word, the small word "God" will do. And this light and energy, it's us. If I said "Love" it would sound so Age of Aquarius-but it really is that light of absolute love. It's as palpable as when the sun is in your bones, when someone you love smiles at you, or when you're filled with great emotion, you feel that current in your heart that's real, it's visceral.
Ramola D: And it enters your writing-or ideally it does?
Cisneros: Yes. It enters your writing, I mean you want to be at that place where you allow it to flow, but I think if you're small and don't let it come in, that's what I mean about pieces being ungenerous, small. And you can't fake that either, it's either there or not there.
Ramola D: Do you think that writing, the arts generally, works or inevitably unfolds in an essentially spiritual place?
Cisneros: I think it does. I don't think people may be conscious of it as such. But whether you name it or not doesn't take away from it being there. I think art is an illumination-anything you follow with your heart is going to take you to some spiritual place. But not everyone will understand it as spirit. For years I didn't understand the ability to connect to a higher self, or how much my intuition played into things. Things that came to me when I was waking, I didn't know how to use them. My dreams, things that seemed like coincidences, were just that, whereas now I see them as connections to a pattern, an order.
Ramola D: You've said you meditate with an intent to writing in mind.
Cisneros: I'm not one of those people who meditates regularly. No, sometimes I just get silent when I need to focus or write or speak. Invariably I get sleepy so I call that horizontal meditation! And I need to put my intent out there. I say I need to do this today in my writing and take a nap. When I'm waking is when I understand or get a vision or voice. I go to my desk and it gets clear. I sleep so much, I think my natural state is sleeping and dreaming. And then writing is just being awake and dreaming, so it's still dreaming.
Ramola D: You've said you like to start writing intuitively. What usually provides impetus for story?
Cisneros: I usually go with my heart, with something that's stayed in my heart, something I feel emotional about, very passionate and strong about, or confused about. For example, the story of Caramelo started with a memory-of a trip we took when I was a child, to Acapulco, and of a little mulatta girl I saw on the street as we walked to the beach. And I asked myself, why did this little girl stay in my memory for so many years? I mean I only saw her for a few seconds. So the question was-why did this stray memory of a girl with skin the color of caramelo lodge itself in my heart all these years, why was it important?
Ramola D: You've said you didn't start Caramelo with a plot, that you often allow writing to find its own form. Do you ever think consciously about writing experimental, unconventional fiction or conversely, classic fiction-do you make decisions about how or what you're going to write?
Cisneros: I don't think about rules when I'm writing. I think about the writers I like and they teach me. And Dennis Mathis, my personal editor, teaches me a lot. But we have some of the same taste in fiction. Although I've gone off and done my own thing too-I read more women's work.
Ramola D: So you don't really follow theories, you don't think postmodern when you write-
Cisneros: I don't know what postmodern is, you know, I have never understood it.
Ramola D: Your novel seems to embody it. You have all these related stories within stories-
Cisneros: But I think my novel embodies reality. My novel has always been based on oral speech-and is oral speech postmodern? That's just how we talk! So I wouldn't say it's postmodern, I would say it's the way people talk. And whether people call it that or not, or whether it is or not, is not any of my business. That's not my job or interest.
Ramola D: You have a lot of detail in stories like "Bien Pretty" and historical detail in "Eyes of Zapata" and Caramelo, which suggests a lot of research. You also have these wonderful characters from different fields, art or politics, like Wenceslaus Moreno, Enrique Aragon-
Cisneros: Oh, Enrique Aragon I just invented, he's a fictitious person.
Ramola D: But you put him in a footnote!
Cisneros: So did Borges! Borges had all these invented footnotes. Enrique Aragon's not a real person, he's an invention. That story about Fidel Castro is an invention. I heard he was in love with this girl, he used to be allowed to watch her sleep, in Mexico. That's true, but that's all I know. I made the whole thing up, with so much detail you'd think it was real. Even Fidel probably thinks it's real! But it's based on a snippet I heard, that somebody knew somebody who knew somebody else, and she said... like that.
Ramola D: Does this happen on the page and you go along with it? Or is it conscious?
Cisneros: Well, you know, I read a lot of biography. I put in people I like and do research-I write about stuff I know-and one of my "Ten Times Ten" is I have all these collections of rebozos so I have to do something with that. Another is I am fascinated with Zapata, so I have to write this short story, find out why-I'd already read the Zapata books, done the research. I read about my passions, I write from my passions too.
Ramola D: But you enter the story in a different way, through the eyes of his wife. So the question becomes, how much of the history do you keep, what do you invent?
Cisneros: Oh, all the history is right, Inez was just a footnote, a name. I had a few details, that she mothered his kids, and the dates of her children, but I had to invent her as a character. I didn't have to invent too much because I'd always been the other woman in my relationships with men. I wrote about what I knew-being the other woman. If you put yourself out there and you're married to your art, you're going to be the other woman. You know he'll have other women, because you'll always be busy with your art.
Ramola D: And your art came first, you knew that informed your essential sense of being. You felt married to your art?
Cisneros: Oh, yes. Well, I didn't know I was. I would just joke and call my art that wife-beater!
Ramola D: You've been an intensely experimental writer, in terms of telling story through voice and place. Have you always explored experimental writing?
Cisneros: Dennis and I both loved experimental writing, even as grad students in Iowa. I read the Latin Boom writers, he read the Eastern European and Asian writers. I've always liked writing in translation, looked for something new. The writing in vogue in the US was boring to me. I was always looking for, you know, the gay writer from Sri Lanka, or in Buenos Aires, like Puig, these outsiders in macho cultures, or the white woman living in black West Indies. I'm always looking for the outsider, the marginalized writer.
Ramola D: Because of their interesting perspective, their difference?
Cisneros: Their perspective-also, I'm looking for something in the writing that's going to teach me to be a better writer. Someone like Clarice Lispector, and Jean Rhys-you've got to look at these great writers because how can you become great if you're looking at mediocrity. I was looking for writers to inspire and teach and mentor me.The women writers came a little late in my life-I was looking at lots of work of males, because they were the ones translated. The women writers I had to find. I'm still finding them. Now I'm going through a phase where I'm looking more at work in translation.
Ramola D: What are you reading currently?
Cisneros: Well, I just bought a whole bunch of Merce Rodoreda's books, a writer I like, the Catalan writer from Barcelona. I came back from Europe with a sackful of her work in Spanish. I like the work of Mayra Montero and Rosa Montero-these writers are women from Spain or Latin America whose works haven't been translated into English. I'm forced suddenly to read in Spanish. And I just finished reading Reinaldo Arenas, I love his work-I only read one book, and I thought wow! But I read him in translation-
Ramola D: Which book was this?
Cisneros: I read Before Night Falls because I saw the film, and I just went to Cuba. So I want to read him in Spanish. This is going to force me to read in Spanish, I think that's going to be a great influence.
Ramola D: Your use of Spanish currently-your translator Liliana Valenzuela says she felt it had changed. You'd used just words or phrases before, in House on Mango Street or Woman Hollering Creek-
Cisneros: That's because I lived in a place where the Spanish was very divorced from the English-but it's not so here.
Ramola D: It's not so here, in San Antonio, so you're using sentences in Caramelo, but it's still translated, or the meaning contextually evident. Has your intention regarding accessibility changed-do you still think of being comprehensible to the reader you've mentioned before, the Japanese businessman?
Cisneros: I'm always thinking of somebody like the Japanese reader. I'm going to teach Spanish to the Japanese if I have to! Or I'll use it in a context-I'll put it in if I need it, but I won't lose the reader. I try to weave it in so that you can follow the thread. But it's usually not anything that important. No!-just gives it a little flavor. And if some things are funny, it just means you might lose the joke. You won't lose the story, just some of the funny things that get said. Different books have different intentions, you know. Caramelo was out of a memory, and a dedication to my father and discovering him, but this next book I'll be working on-well, I have a couple, there's a teaching book, that's from the head, but I'll still have to be creative with it.
Ramola D: This is the one you're working on with Dennis Mathis?
Cisneros: Yes, and then I have a book of short fiction pieces, called Infinito.
Ramola D: You're currently writing those stories?
Cisneros: Well, no. I'm just putting them on little pieces of paper, and throwing them in an envelope-they're just like notes. These are short stories. I don't know if I'll ever do a novel again. It was too much work. I don't know why it was so much work.
Ramola D: Well, this seems like just a major novel, there's so much in it.
Cisneros: Yes, if I did another novel it wouldn't be like that at all. It would be really the opposite. I don't like to do the same thing over and over. People always want me to write House on Mango Street over again-I'm not interested in writing or even reading it over again. I don't need to repeat it. But that's what they want. With every book I try to do something different. The short stories, then poetry. I want to do this teacher's book, theatre, I'd like to do a screenplay.
Ramola D: In workshop, Dennis has talked about Yasunari Kawabata's work-about the role of silence or taking a different route in your writing, not being direct.
Cisneros: I don't know Kawabata's work except through Dennis. I've only read snippets. But I think that's true. Because I think you have to make detours to get to your destination. And you don't know that the detour may be essential. It may take you to a better place, a more wonderful place.
Ramola D: And you don't know your destination, right?
Cisneros: No! So you've got to take a detour. Like for a chapter in Caramelo, 'The Vogue,' where the girls shoplift-I had the beginning and end. But it was flat, it had to rise off the ground. I looked in my notes and found an idea for an essay I was going to write, 'Ten Things You Should Never Do, Nunca, or You'll Be Sorry.' I never wrote that essay, but I had Viva tell her friend 'Ten Things You Should Never Do,' and they were like, "Don't sleep with your big hoop earrings on," etc. It made the foray into their shopping a little more interesting, because she had those rules. But the story didn't have that to begin with, I stole it from my own unfinished writing.
Ramola D: This is part of your button box idea, where you write bits of notes and put them away-
Cisneros: Yes, even though you don't know what it is. An unfinished essay or poem. Maybe a list you find humorous in a newspaper, or a snippet of conversation at Taco Haven, or a menu that's hilarious or mistranslated-you find weird things especially living between two cultures, absurd things. I put the little things in that catch my eye. Like this restaurant my friend took me to that said "Notary Public y se da Limpias"-they do cleansings. I liked the juxtaposition of the two, so I put it in my button-box, my notebook. But see, that notebook will make sense to no-one. I know it's a button, and when I find the right garment, I'll sew it on there. Later I saw a sign, "Notary Public, Grapefruit, Six for a Dollar" over in the Valley in South Texas. I put them together, and someplace in Caramelo, there's a sign with those three things.
Ramola D: You've said that when you were writing Caramelo the little girl from Acapulco kept showing up as different characters, that your editor Dennis helped reconceive her as one character, and that helped pull the narrative together. Would you say there's an artistic energy between writer and first readers, that's become part of your writing process?
Cisneros: Dennis is a very particular reader. He's a fiction writer, so he can see where the cloth is getting a little sloppy, he just pulls it taut-he suggested it, and suddenly I could see a design. I could see, oh my, this is going to weave into Part Three, and this is why the mother and the father-all these parts, the argument, the end, it made the whole thing come together.
I think there's a parallel. We're both from Illinois, the same background-working class. His is a different kind of working-class, small-town. And mine was aspiring, pretending to be middle-class. It was middle-class on my father's side, so he had the pretensions of a middle class, but my mom was working-class. And we had some circumstances where we felt working-class although my father could never see that! He could not imagine-Oh no, don't talk to those children, they're not good enough for you!-there was a sense of superiority. Which in a way saved us from thinking ourselves less, limiting ourselves. He was the antidote to teachers who thought we wouldn't do anything with our lives. My father thought-well, of course you can!
Ramola D: It sounds like you lived on a border between classes.
Cisneros: Yes, I lived on a border there as well. I lived on borders in communities of color-and as I said in my workshop, I think I've recreated my Chicago background, as I was always used to being with people of different colors. Macondo-it's important for it to be a Latino workshop, but I don't think it should be exclusive. We have people here who don't quite fit in anywhere.
Ramola D: Well I, being from India, really appreciate being here.
Cisneros: Maybe I'm recreating the International Writers' Workshop, where I really felt at home, in Iowa. After Iowa, I ran away from my home in Chicago because I needed to find my own community, where I could invent myself, where my father didn't oblige me to come home for Sunday dinner. I needed to be far away enough to have the anonymity to do, be free. For a time I thought I found my community with the gay painters in South Texas, but I'm not quite at home there, anymore.
Ramola D: How about with poets?
Cisneros: Oh, I hate poets-they're so egotistical and full of themselves! No, I don't mean that about individual poets, some of my best friends are poets. I mean, when there's going to be a gathering, and I have to choose countries, then I choose citizenship with the fiction writers, maybe because my prejudice stays with me from Iowa. My impression there was that poetry belonged to the wealthier classes, it was an issue of privilege. I studied poetry, but I was around so many snobbish poets I never wanted to be with poets again. That's why, when I was an NEA judge, and they'd ask me what I want to evaluate, poetry or fiction-I'd think, oh my god, if I have to read any more of those dreadful boring obsessed-with-your-navel poems again I'm going to die. When I'm around poets of the working class, however, I'm very much at home.
Ramola D: The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo spoke recently about the concept of home, how we've all as writers run away, found home elsewhere, or in motion, yet long for our original home. We live in self-permitting exile, in nostalgia, and that maybe Macondo is a way of creating a home. So Macondo grew out of your own attempts to shape community here in San Antonio?
Cisneros: Yes. I'm not from here, which may be why I can write about it the way I do, I'm detached. I've been living here off and on since 1984, more on since the '90s. But in the middle to latter half of the '90s, I had a breakdown, a departure from friends-a lot of friendships fell away after my father died. Maybe they'll come back, I don't know, but I feel damaged from the rift. I never found a writers' community here. There probably is one, I don't feel part of it. Yet when I considered leaving, I couldn't think where else to go. I can't live in LA because I hate driving, nor in New York because I'm terrified of rats, I have to live by the border. Anywhere I go, I'd have to create my own community. It's like that poem by Cavafy called "The City," you know, regardless of where you go, if you try to run from the city, it will follow you. I felt like that. That if I moved, and went through all the effort and expense-energy and financial, of relocating, I'd have the same issues regardless where I lived. So I had to remake this community.
And one of the things I realized, during the gravest time, my greatest depression about the relationship with the city and my friends, while writing Caramelo, was that I was so happy teaching at Macondo. It didn't have a name then, it was just my workshop. We were at the Acapulco Ice House. I saw all these geniuses, this extraordinary group of thinkers, I just felt it was fabulous. And I realized, the community I want and need, it's not in any one city, I have to create it. And so I have, with Macondo. When people come together for a week each summer to discuss their writing, take it seriously, that's my homeland.
Ramola D: So it's more in people than a place, more in connection, in sharing.
Cisneros: Yes. I feel I finally have found my community of writers-but they're scattered all over the United States, they come together for that one week.
Ramola D: How did Macondo start?
Cisneros: Back in 1984, as Director of the Guadalupe Arts Center, I had a dream of creating a series of workshops to help raise the level of writing, because I felt a lot of Chicano writing I was reading suffered from being unfinished. Gary Soto would argue there was a lot of bad writing, I'd argue it was unfinished-that the difference between good and excellent was more time. So I started a workshop as Director. It wasn't Master's level, but open to anyone. Later on, when I could afford to in 1995, I volunteered and taught a Master's Level workshop. They combed through and gave me maybe twenty-five manuscripts to read. The third year, I wanted it by invitation only, so I opened it to my ex-students, including those from the Women's Peace Center in Austin. And that was in my dining-room. The next year Arturo Madrid said we could have it at Trinity University-I invited him, I really admire his wisdom because he's worked with the Tomas Rivera Institute. There was a hiatus when I finished Caramelo.
Ramola D: And this is a seminal year for Macondo, with all the focus on formalizing it?
Cisneros: Yes, it's the first time we formally talked about bylaws, process, nominations. It was kind of half-assed how we'd do it. I would invite people, people would say, could I bring someone. We didn't formally look at their work when they came-people just kind of came along.
Ramola D: What should readers know about the application process?
Cisneros: Well, they can't apply just now. We don't have the staff to handle mail at present. We operate entirely with volunteers. Application currently is by invitation, by nomination by current members. Perhaps in the next eighteen months or so, we'll be able to handle open admissions. Watch our Web site <macondoworkshop.org> and standby.
Ramola D: You've brought together an amazing group of people-Lourdes Portillo, the filmmaker, Renato Rosaldo and Ruth Behar-anthropologists, Baldemar Velasquez, the President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, so many journalists, as well as fiction writers and poets from around the country. Does this speak to your vision for Macondo as both situated in art and politics-do you think you're becoming more political, as a writer?
Cisneros: I think I've always been a political writer, just not defined as one by people in the movement. When I was a young writer, I thought my poems and stories were political-I felt House was political-but people wanted me to be a certain kind of political writer, one looking for Chicano identity, writing about Chicano, with the word Chicano all over. I wasn't like other writers, I was doing my own thing. I was out there, not even a Chicana, I didn't even know what that was-I was Mexican! I was in Chicago.
Ramola D: You wrote House in Chicago, right?
Cisneros: Yes, and I was writing for my students, out of my own politics-I didn't have any -isms. I started it as a kind of memoir while in Iowa, but it got shaped into fiction when I taught high school dropouts. I think novels are questions, and my question for that novel was: how do you survive being a Latina woman? There has to be another way to be, otro modo de ser, like Rosario Castellanos says in her poem "Meditation on a Threshold"-There must be another way other than throwing yourself in front of a train like Anna... etc. And she says, no, you don't want to throw yourself in front of a train like Anna Karenina, you don't want to stay at the top of the stairs like Emily Dickinson, there has to be another way to be. And I was looking for that way to be, for my students, and myself too, because I was fighting without realizing it. I went through a lot of conflict in my twenties, with the expectations I thought I had to fulfill, as a woman and a writer, with my family. I went through difficult times thinking I had to find a permanent partner. But it wasn't my destiny or time. Writing House was my survival, my way of dogpaddling through that water.
Ramola D: Were you reading anything particular, that you felt offered you another way to be?
Cisneros: Well, in grad school, Nicanor Parra's anti-poems, and Jorge Luis Borges, the Latin American Boom writers-I was searching. Paintings inspired me. I was in art history classes, I'd look at paintings and get inspired. Now I realize they were poems of social unrest, I was looking for composition to various sources. Listening to music, going to see dance-things I didn't have money to do before, but could do as a student, with a discount. And I listened to the international writers from the International Writing Workshop. I was very young, so listening was essential, and it was a silent time because I was too frightened to speak. It was also during these years that I saw a documentary that changed my life, on the life of Malcolm X. And I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. All these things were shaping me.
Ramola D: So you were influenced by Malcolm X, around the time you were writing House.
Cisneros: Yes. That's why Esperanza named herself Zeze the X. Because I was reading Malcolm X!
Ramola D: You've mentioned elsewhere you also read Maxine Hong Kingston at the time.
Cisneros: Yes, Maxine Hong Kingston helped me as well. I'm not sure if I read her during House or after. But I know that she was a high school teacher too. I read Woman Warrior and was so blown away, it was like my family. Grace Paley came to Iowa when I was there-I was startled to hear the stories she writes about working-class women and children-I really loved her work after that. The oral voices, the testimonies.
Ramola D: You've said your early work was published by the small presses. Do you still publish there?
Cisneros: I don't know because I've been too busy writing Caramelo. It took all my energy and focus these last ten years. I let my agent deal with sending out work because I've been too overwhelmed. But at the beginning of my career, I remember just getting lost in these little magazines. A few weeks from graduating from graduate school, I started sending my finished work out, all at once. I found I could publish, I did get my work accepted at some mainstream small presses-but I felt nobody could hear me. That's why I started publishing in my neighborhood, in Latina and women's magazines. That way people could find me.
Ramola D: So you didn't send your work to places like the New Yorker or the Paris Review?
Cisneros: I never thought they'd like my work. It never occurred to me. I never thought the New York Times would be reviewing my work. I never questioned it, there was this kind of Jim Crow attitude that was so ingrained, you never questioned it. And now, there's still a kind of Jim Crow, but it's like we're at the back of the magazine. We never get on the front page of the review pages.
Ramola D: Do you think it's a matter of literary trends, it's just what they're into, fads or fashions in publishing, at any given time?
Cisneros: Well it's that, but still-when you look at US Latinos-we never get the front page coverage. We're at the back of the bus. We're always on page thirty-two or so.
Ramola D: Do you think that in publishing there's some kind of imagined literary hierarchy people work with, and it's really a hierarchy of recognition-first white male writers, then white women writers, then men and women of color?
Cisneros: Yes. I do. Well, some women. But I still feel that in writing we're still-
Ramola D: Delegated far too much to the back of the bus?
Cisneros: Yes, the back of the bus. When they think about maybe being kind and allowing one person of color to sit up front, it's not a US Latino.
Ramola D: Do you see Macondo, as a community of writers you're bringing together, having some effect on that situation?
Cisneros: I don't know about that situation because I'm not in a position of being able to make these decisions. What I'm capable of doing is sharing what I've learned and those people who have shaped me, being generous about bringing my friends, like Baldemar Velasquez, or Dennis, because they're my teachers-I like the fact that Baldemar's work comes out of a peaceful, Gandhian tradition of nonviolence, he teaches me.
Ramola D: You have this vision of art as service-you've said you'd like us to run our own Macondo workshops. What aspect of this is important?
Cisneros: I think it's important for writers to teach-not so that we sow more and harvest more writers, but for the real reasons we write-we write to save lives, our own and the lives of others. I think we should be of service, teaching or doing something in the community to put our writing to use-whatever it is, ethnographies, or teaching a workshop, whatever we feel is our "Ten Times Ten." I feel we learn a lot from it. I encourage writers to volunteer. When I taught high-school dropouts for very little pay, I learned a lot, it shaped my politics. That's why I think I'd like the Macondo writers to go out, do something. I can only suggest it, not enforce it.
Ramola D: Oh, it's a great suggestion. Would you like to explain the "Ten Times Ten"?
Cisneros: I ask people to think of ways in which they differ from other individuals on the planet. In workshop I ask them to look around, write down ten things that make them different from everyone else in the room. And ten things that make them different from their family members, or that they've experienced. It could be things they've seen, knowledge they know, but especially things that are painful. I keep dividing it-ten things that make you different from people in your religion, on your block, in your field of work, of your sexuality. You can go on and on. Those places that make you different, that is your gift on the planet.
Ramola D: So just recognize that?
Cisneros: Yes, just go there. Write from there, teach from there!
Ramola D: It seems presumptuous in some ways, to set oneself apart. Why is it important?
Cisneros: Because, when you set yourself apart, you find your fingerprint. And once you have your fingerprint, that's your voice, you can give us something nobody else on the planet can give us. And once you write from that place, it becomes universal.
Ramola D: And in a sense this is what we're trying to do all our lives as writers-find our unique place to speak from?
Cisneros: Yes, it could take you your whole life to go there. I discovered this by going to Iowa, and going through very painful years-and then later realizing my writing has come from a place of departure with the other Iowa students, when I went away and said, what can I write about they can't? You have to ask yourself, what do you know the others don't? What could you write about they can't? What things make me different from other writers of my ethnicity? Or from writers of my ethnicity and my gender?
Ramola D: You ask yourself, continuously, these questions-
Cisneros: Yes, and you go deeper and deeper. What can I write about as a third-born child that somebody else can't? What can I write about because I'm an only daughter? You keep finding things you haven't tapped or written about.
Ramola D: So it's a means of finding subject?
Cisneros: It's a means of centering yourself, and finding your place, where to write from, your wellspring of what to write, your fingerprint. Guess that's going back to Write What You Know-but we sometimes forget what we know. This reminds you. What you don't realize is that being a third child and only daughter in a family of seven sons has shaped you, it's something to tap into-I'd never written about that, never realized that even though I was from Chicago and had this huge family, and we did these trips, I hadn't tapped into that. Plus I didn't know how to handle all the many people, all those characters with their double and triple names-oh, I couldn't do that then, I didn't know how.
Ramola D: I wanted to ask about writing through opposition, in light of what journalists Barbara Renaud Gonzalez and Julio Noboa said about their experience of censorship for speaking out on sexism, racism, the terrorism of Israeli occupation in Palestine-what are your thoughts on how writers can influence change in this stifling political atmosphere?
Cisneros: Well, I think they're finding alternatives. I think you have to ask those questions yourself. How can I not despair and still work for social change-if I'm not given this venue, what shall I do? I'd do a deep meditation and ask: what am I supposed to be doing now? I don't have the answer, but I know how to get the answer. You have to put the intention out there. If I was them I'd go to sleep! That sounds like a silly answer, but it's the wisest thing I know how to do.
Ramola D: So it comes back to meditating on intention?
Cisneros: Yes, intention's important, you have to put that intention out there. Obviously they've been given talent, but the universe doesn't want them to write at that paper-so I wouldn't fight it. I'd go to sleep! In that dream-state and higher-self state, I get my answer. I feel confident when those big questions come, to do this, to meditate-but I can't do it for them, they have to do it themselves, because that's their camino, their path. I don't know what their camino is, and why-everybody's camino is different. You'd have to go to sleep yourself and dream to find the answer-I can't sleep for you! Somebody like my friend who's more skilled at meditation will get it through meditating, I'm not so skilled at that, but I'm very skilled at sleeping-I think with so many years' practice, and so many hours, I'm like a professional sleeper.
Ramola D: Maybe, like the Zen Buddhists do zazen, sitting practice, you do sleeping practice.
Cisneros: Sleeping practice! But I always do it when I have to search for an answer. When I was younger, I didn't know this-now I ask the question before I sleep. I can sometimes ask a question for others. Once, my agent called and said a friend of ours needed a title for her book. I said, okay, tell me what the book's about. Then I took a nap. I dreamt the agent and I were talking. I said, I got the title. I gave it to her and she said, Oh, that's terrible! But when I woke up and told her the dream, she loved the title, and the author in the end did use the title I dreamt for her. It was Maria Hinojosa's Raising Raul.
Ramola D: Do you think you're psychic?
Cisneros: I'm as psychic as you are! I think everybody's psychic. Well, I'm aware of it much more now and I use it more now. I'll be thinking my boots are at the bootmaker-and the phone will ring, and the bootmaker'll say, your boots are ready, and I'll say, yes, I know. And the bootmaker will say, well, how, and I'll say, I was just thinking of you.
Ramola D: Do you think it's a matter of becoming aware of coincidence, you know, Jung's synchronicities?
Cisneros: No, I think it's my satellite dish that's very big, and he was thinking of me, so it came in.
Ramola D: It's more telepathic then, like animals, how animals will sense what you're thinking.
Cisneros: Yes. And you know, things have happened to me-I remember once I was with my boyfriend, I said his friend's name the first thing I woke up. We were in Chicago, in a hotel. I said, you have to call him. Later that day he flew back to Texas without me, and he said: the strangest thing, when I got home, on my answering machine, my friend was trying to reach me, his father had died. So look, I just knew-my satellite dish was bigger than his-he was with me, I caught the message. When I'd say those are my witch-powers, he'd get frightened. Men get frightened. But he's a witch too. We all have those "witch" powers, by which I mean spiritual gifts. And whether you use it for good or bad is up to you.
Ramola D: I wanted to give you a chance to address your experience of difficult early relationships, if you wished to. You said it was not your path.
Cisneros: I really think it was my destiny not to have a permanent relationship-for a long time, until I did the work I had to do. A lot of the writing had to deal with the pain of those relationships. They weren't meant to stay. It's lucky the men I was in love with didn't love me-the ones that did, I didn't love them. Because it would have changed my writing-I was by myself, it was like I was already married. I fooled myself into thinking I had relationships with people thousands of miles away. I saw them once in a while and thought that was a relationship because I didn't know any better, and it was convenient, they were not in my way. It was a perfect kind of love affair for a writer, to have somebody in another city.
Ramola D: So it gave you time to write, it worked in its own way?
Cisneros: Well, it would either work or I'd invent-I don't know, I'd always be in impossible relationships. But now I see that wasn't my destino, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do the work I did.
Ramola D: Do you currently have a mutual understanding of work-for instance, would you feel the need to stop working and do things with your partner, in the evening (as I do)?
Cisneros: Oh, that's hard. See, I don't even like when my dog waits at the bottom of my stairs and cries. I need my private space. When I'm writing, I don't want to worry about getting food for my partner. If we have food we have it, if not, we go out and eat. Or I'll make a piece of toast. As women we get a compulsion to do things-like make the bed, the thing I hate. There were weeks when I was writing Caramelo, the bed wasn't made, I could hear my mother shouting, we're all going to get bedbugs! So I want to write on the walls of my room-Women Who Write Don't Need To Make Their Beds!-to give myself permission. And it's not that I like the chaos and disorder. I don't want obligations when I'm writing. Some days I just want to get up, go write. One thing I like about having my partner when I'm busy is he takes care of the animals. I have three dogs, one just passed away-then the cat upstairs and two cats outside, and the parrot. There are times I have to tune out, on book tours, or have to pack-it's nice to have a partner to help you.
Ramola D: You appreciate having a partner around.
Cisneros: I really like having my partner. It's a wonderful thing. I'm so grateful. I think women take it for granted, that there's somebody there to talk to, help you carry the groceries. But when I'm working-I hope I can create an environment with my new office that'll keep me from becoming the destructive goddess while being the creative-for we are the creative-destructive, it's both. When people interrupt you, you're like AAAAh! you're Coatlicue or Shiva-you really need to separate those zones. I think building the office is going to be good. I don't have my space now. I have all these boxes I jump over. My house is crowded.
Ramola D: But inspiring. Everything flows, something Bill, your assistant talked about-that you let your interests in science, art, music, flow through the house, you don't limit yourself.
Cisneros: I don't know. I was making fun of my own aesthetics-you know, more is more-when I wrote about the family in Caramelo. I'm rococo about collecting things, then it overwhelms me, I come home and say, what is all this junk! I don't own six items like a Zen monk, but six thousand things. It's also the way I grew up-with my father's sensibility with fabric, because he was an upholsterer, and my mother's artistic spirit, and the way they made things colorful. Although we didn't own the house, we painted the walls nice colors, the dumpy apartment we rented. We travelled a lot to Mexico, and those colors influenced and stayed with me-I'm very moved by the colors. And my friends are painters, so they're not afraid to say, why can't you make this room hot pink. They handmix the color. Some people like white walls and I can see that, but I like deep intense colors on my walls. They make me feel happy!
Ramola D: I wondered if you could close with your thoughts earlier, on writing through confusion.
Cisneros: When I was lost writing Caramelo, I would open the books of writers whose work I love-like The Time of the Doves, by Merce Rodoreda. Or listen to a musician or singer whose voice or work I love-like Astor Piazzolla (jazz music, he plays bandoneon, very modern new tango) and Maria Callas-I'd listen to them because I feel they were doing what I wanted to do with my writing. When I heard them, when I read the writers I love, that helped me to focus, find myself, find my target.
Ramola D: What advice would you give, especially to writers of color, but also to others, who strive to continue to write?
Cisneros: Find your community! I feel you have to find the community that can nurture you and keep your spirit alive. Sometimes that is in finding mentors, simply, in books, in authors who nurture us, who feed our spirit and keep us alive, and if we're lucky, one other person on the planet we can email to keep us alive. And you need that community, because so much of the time your own family doesn't understand what you're doing, and so much of what you're doing is at odds with your culture and tradition. And you need to find those authors who are going to give you permission to be, to find another way to be. And that's going back to Rosario Castellanos, otro modo ser.
Ramola D is the author of a collection of poems, Invisible Season (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 1998) and the recent recipient of a NEA fellowship in poetry (2005). She teaches creative writing at The George Washington University and at The Writer's Center, Bethesda.