PALABRAS: Sandra Cisneros, Author of ‘The House on Mango Street,’ Talks Libraries, Love, Photography, Spirituality, and Tattoos
Please share a bit about your upbringing, and what in your early life inspired you to write?
That is the first question one might ask a celebrated author when writing a thoroughgoing profile piece that addresses her motivations, her wealth of compositions and her heritage.
But, what if one already knew that Sandra Cisneros, the acclaimed literary architect who produced works such as “The House on Mango Street,” “Loose Woman” and “Carmelo,” was brought up on Chicago’s West Side, and was the only girl in a collection of seven children? Or, that she became a writer, not because of the prestigious universities that she attended, but because her mother often took her to the library as a young girl, and she hoped to one day see her name in the card catalog?
Well, one would have to ask more interesting questions; perhaps ones that inquired about libraries, love, photography, spirituality, creative stimuli and tattoos.
Cisneros still has an enduring relationship with libraries. While she no longer treks to the library to find herself weighed down by borrowed literature (with much thanks to her assistant, who makes research trips for her), she continues to donate to libraries, contribute time to libraries, persuade young children to acquire library cards and patronizes the gift shop section of the library so she doesn’t have to give the books back.
“The more I stay home and keep off the shoes, the more writing I get done,” Cisneros said during an interview with Latin Post. “But, I like to buy books. I like to bring the books home and keep them. One thing was, when I was younger, I had to give the books back [from the library] … and didn’t like that. I like to write in them, keep them and live with them.”
Cisneros is fond of biographies, naming Claire Tomalin as someone whose work she has read and reread. And the “big ol’ stack of books,” written in English and Spanish, that she keeps around her home, means that she always has a library of books to “borrow” from.
She also explained a love for “Timeless Mexico: The Photographs of Hugo Brehme (Southwestern & Mexican Photography Series” and other books of photography prints acting as a visual aid, helping Cisneros to appropriately color landscapes or carefully compose portraits through her writing. But, when asked if she, herself, liked to photograph, she quickly responded, “with my pen.”
“With books like that, which show the life of Mexico, I like to look at them and relook at them. And learn the lives of the artist. But, also, I like to look at books of painting… I get a lot of ideas about how to write things from looking at these photos,” stated Cisneros.
When it comes to being an artist, “everything influences,” this, including visual art, music, film, dance, performance and other forms of expression. When she was younger, the Japanese prints, the wind sculptures and the sculpture garden at The Art Institute of Chicago moved her. As did trees, plants, animals and the sky, enlivening her writing experience. Natural and contrived forms of artistry permeated inspiration, and it seeped into her writing and her skin.
“Having tattoos has closed and opened doors for me,” said Cisneros, who has a very distinct tattoo of Budalupe on her left bicep, drawn after a decadent spiritual growth. “It’s closed doors for people my own age, who kind of get freaked out. And it’s opened doors with younger people who talk to me, but wouldn’t normally talk to me. And I think it’s kind of cool. They tell me about their tattoos and they tell me stories, and that’s kind of exciting.”
“But, I think artists live in their own category, don’t you? They’re not the age that they are, they’re kind of timeless. I like to think of artists as being eternal, like they’re not just one age. They’re all ages — backwards and forwards — and the more you can transport yourself into moving between ages, the better. So, for me, the tattoos — even though I didn’t mean for them to — have helped with that.”
Budalupe was her second tattoo, received when was in her forties. But, her first tattoo was gained while in college, executed at a time when everyone with tattoos were considered hippies. At 22 years old, it hurt — but that’s because she hadn’t lived her life yet. In her forties, when the tattoo artist completed the act of installing the illustration into her skin, she thought, “That’s it? Well, love hurts more than that.”
“Love hurts more than death. In fact, sometimes death can be a relief. If you love someone …and they’re living on the planet, and they don’t want to see you…” Cisneros said. “Well, love hurts more than tattoos or death. So a tattoo covering my arm is nothing; while a small tattoo the size of the quarter in my twenties was like, Ouch!”
If she were younger, she’d consider getting more ink — possibly to tell a beautiful story of love or loss through images, or brazenly decorate her aging neck with concealing depictions. But, she has writing so she doesn’t need to get tattoos to tell her stories.
“With writing, you work through anger to get to generosity; reaching clarity and enlightenment. Imagine what I would look like if I wrote all of my pain on my body? I’d be a different color, I’d be blue,” she said with a chuckle.
With regards to writing, Cisneros never felt that she was a political writer until she met a Latina feminist, a woman who later became her first publisher at Third Woman Press. It was her feminism that she found was integral when finding a voice and finding a language to communicate realities and woes. Prior to that time, she felt embarrassed by her lack of political knowledge and only knew about politics through the men that she was enamored with (who were often the Zapata type). She had to learn things, often through the corazón, not the head. And she worked in her community and other low-income communities in Chicago after graduating from Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place that caused her to be conscious of her class difference, as well as gender and ethnicity.
“Coming back and teaching in a very poor neighborhood in Chicago taught me a lot. I think I learned more in a couple of years teaching than I did at Iowa,” Cisneros said with a laugh. “It was like the Peace Corp. If you read ‘House on Mango Street,’ a woman is teaching in a poor neighborhood, and she’s using these characters to write and record her world. And like, Esperanza, who was looking for her politics and her feminism, I too, at that time, was dating people who were highly politicized. And working alongside people who were feminists and Marxists and anarchists… and all the ists you can think of. I learned a lot during my apprenticeship. So, the questions that Esperanza was asking, I was asking.”
While the author never knows what she’s going to write about or knows what she feels until she writes it, she has big plans for the future. In addition, she wants to create southwestern attire and t-shirts that are marked with her writing, highlighting her long-held fascination with style, fashion and writing. She also wants to pen pieces about the body and sexuality as a woman ages. And in contrast, she’d like to write about budding sexuality, the confusion of perceived power and maturation as a young woman growing up beautiful. Also, she’d like to share knowledge that she’s gained as a writer.
“One thing that I’m well aware of now, is that despair is part of the process. Every book is more difficult than the last one and I do know that despair is part of the process. And you have to know that as a young writer, you’re going to go through all of the emotions, and one of them is a town named despair. And you just keep going. You must move past that, and you’ll get to where you got to go. That’s the thing that I learned, and writing always takes me to places I wouldn’t expect. Yet, each book is a sitting meditation. It takes two year, four years or eight years.”
With nature as her backdrop, Cisneros recently completed her upcoming collection, due out Oct. 6, titled “A House of My Own: Stories From My Life,” while writing on a leather-topped equipale table, positioned to face the mountains and greater landscape of Mexico. The collection of stories, some of which have been “published in peculiar little places,” will give further clarity to Cisneros’ readers about her life.
This article is part of Palabras, the Latin Post Latino Author Series.
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Originally published at www.latinpost.com on January 22, 2015.