Before I join the Zoom with Sandra Cisneros, I hyperventilate for some seconds. You would think that since my own debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, was published in 2018 with her words of support printed on the front, I would feel less nervous — but the woven bilingual artistry of her language, the incomparable warmth of her storytelling have always captivated me to the degree of awe. Her legendary 1984 novel, The House on Mango Street, opened a whole vein of Latine feminist literature with its depiction of girlhood in the working-class immigrant community, with its joys, pains, humor, and oppressions told with lyricism and hilarity. Cisneros’ groundbreaking books have expanded the American experience to include the lives of working-class Chicanos, and have paved the way for a generation of storytellers, among whom I count myself, to write about the singularity of our experiences.
Her latest book, Martita, I Remember You, is a novella that takes the form of an unsent letter from a woman named Corina, who revisits a short period in her 20s when she moved to Paris and tried to become a writer. Addressed to Martita, one of the two women Corina befriended in Paris, it’s a story about sisterhood. Penniless and foreign, sleeping in dilapidated rooms and in unsavory conditions, the women share their personal histories, revealing the strained conditions that brought them to France. Corina’s letter charts their relationship during the decades that come after, as the women continue to think about each other. It’s a gorgeous, interconnected study of the marks we make in each other’s lives, and how silence is not always aloneness.
In a delightful, unhurried talk with Cisneros — me calling from San Francisco, and her answering from San Miguel de Allende in Mexico — we discussed living in dreamtime, the tiring duty of staying responsible to your community, and turning life into fiction.
You first wrote a draft for Martita, I Remember You around the time of Women Hollering Creek, which was published in 1991. What in that draft was still alive for you that made you want to revisit it?
It was one of many things that I had in the cupboard. I had finished House of My Own, the essay collection, and I had some space to come back to stories. I didn’t realize so much time had passed. When you’re a writer, you live in dreamtime. Twenty years, what’s that? We put our head down and then when we pick it up, a decade or two has passed. That’s how I feel about my life. I was still a person that was writing that story. Time was good to me, so I could find an ending for the story. The story began, like all my work does, from autobiographical memory. Of course, when I finished it, the protagonist grew away from me. It wasn’t my story anymore.
Had you also been in Paris?
Yes, I was! That trip was right after finishing Mango Street. I had just finished it in Greece, and then I had NEA money and I was vagabonding and I met a lot of the women who are the Martitas in my life.
Do you have a philosophy for how to turn life into fiction?
I think it’s important to start with things that you feel in your heart very strongly. All these years later, I don’t know how I got all those details of the metro stops and the addresses [in Martita] — I don’t know where those came from. It’s such a detailed story. I do remember some of the god-awful sleeping places. I always write about things I wish I could forget. That’s a good place to start. Write about the things you wish you could forget.
“I think as women, we’re privy to certain stories that break your heart. When those stories break my heart, that’s when I know how to write about them.”
That’s good advice.
A lot of those awful memories are recorded here maybe so I could exorcise them. I didn’t realize I was writing such an anti-Paris story. Everybody loves Paris. I don’t love Paris. I know what it feels like to be the unwanted in Paris. The entire colonizing empire never likes the people they colonize in their homeland, they just want them far away. I had to write my truth. I wasn’t trying to grind an ax. These are my true memories. I began from there and remembered people I had met in different regions. The things they told me — American women, Yugoslav women, Italian women, Argentine women. Some of the stories are based on things that came out of two people’s mouths. I think as women, we’re privy to certain stories that break your heart. When those stories break my heart, that’s when I know how to write about them.
But it’s kind of like a kite. You begin with your own story, and the higher it goes, it starts to take off and characters start to say things you would never say. The more you tether it to your life, it won’t go very far. It has to begin from something constructed for me that’s real, and then I just give it more string.
That moment when it becomes someone else is so crucial. Has your writing process changed a lot since the Women Hollering Creek era to now?
Back then, [Women Hollering Creek] was going to be my first New York, big-house publication, and there was a lot of pressure. I felt I had this obligation that tenia que cumplir. I was trying to do a Noah’s Ark with that book, and write about all the Latinos, all their stories! Everybody! Get them in that book. Of course, that’s impossible.
I think sometimes we’re intimidated to write autobiographical things as Latinas, because people judge us harshly and harsher than they do white people. We’re not allowed to do things the way others do it because they may think of us as being more primitive, not having the skills to write a real novel, a real story, like you can only do things from memory. I think that was in my head when I was younger. Don’t you feel like that?
I can’t imagine the weight and the degree of obligation you must have felt at the beginning. You were really in the forefront of Latina writers in the U.S. I feel that weight and obligation, but I don’t think to the degree that you did.
Yes, yes. Maybe moving away was my way of disengaging? I just felt tired of mothering. I felt tired of everyone asking for letters of recommendation, blurbs. I wanted to step back and work on my own things. That’s why the pandemic was such a blessing, because I got to stop all the travel and the speaking, and I got to focus on finishing this story! I’d been working on it, but you know how it is when you travel. Every time you travel, it’s like somebody takes a chess board that you’re playing on and throws it up in the air. Then you get back, and you’re like, “Where was I? Where was I? I think this piece was here.” It’s so hard to go back! To be anti-social as a Latina, it’s about not cumpliendo. “What, you don’t want to cumplir to speak for this school that has 90% drop out rate, you’re not going to show up and talk to them?” We always have to cumplir, porque tanta necesidad. Especially during the Trump era. Where we had to go out there and undo all the damage he’d done.
It’s so hard to balance out the call to cumplir with the community and also have artistic freedom.
They’re really hard [to balance] because people don’t realize. If you were giving birth, people would not knock on the door, and be like, “Excuse me, would you please come and..?” “No! I’m giving birth!” [Laughs.] People don’t understand that. When you’re writing, people think you’re not doing anything, you’re not there laboring and screaming in pain. Yesterday I got an email from the bookstore. A tourist who is in town and wants to meet me. “Could they meet me tomorrow, today?” They have no idea that I’m working. And if I’m not working, I want to be reading Chekhov and eating chocolates, because that’s what I was doing yesterday to recover from the work. I’m repairing by reading Chekhov, and I don’t want to meet people.
Was there a moment in your career where you felt like you had done your best with the Noah’s Ark project, that then gave you more artistic freedom?
Well, I don’t know. After Women Hollering Creek I felt I had to write a novel, and that’s what the publisher wanted. The publishing industry wants you to write a novel, but they don’t realize writing a novel is voluntarily going to prison.
It takes so long.
It does! And you don’t know if your prison sentence is going to be three years or 10. Are you going to be paroled? You don’t know! Some writers live to write. I write to live. So I can balance myself, and not take Prozac, and not be evil, and be more compassionate, be a human being. That’s what I want in this lifetime. The writing is a means to attaining that.
I’ve always been fascinated that you write poetry, fiction, non-fiction. How do they each feel to you? Do you approach them the same way?
They’re all kind of different. If it starts singing, then it’s a poem. [If] I have to say something really remarkable to shut you up, that’s a story.
There’s so much listening in your process.
Well, I don’t know if I’m the greatest listener. People tell me that they tell me things, and I go, “When did you tell me that?” If you tell me that when the chessboard is going on, then I’ll say, “I don’t remember...” “Yeah I told you!” “Did I say, Mm-hmm? I was writing in my head, you know. I wasn’t there!” I’m not responsible for things told to me when I’m not there, even if I’m there.
Everyone should know that about writers.
I don’t know if you were raised Catholic…
Yes! I was, partly.
Did you have to go to confession and they had a green light and you could go in? And red if they were busy? You don’t have those confession booths in Colombia?
We had a curtain and I think you just kind of peeked and could tell if there was someone in there or not.
We had some high-tech ones. They had a little stoplight. And if it was green you could go, and if it was red, they were busy. And I wish we had one on our forehead.
Yes, that would be very helpful.
Red, don’t talk to me, I’m thinking. If you’re thinking people think you’re there, but you could be in another time zone. You are on another time zone.
Do you send letters still?
I do, not as much as I did. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s like writing a poem to someone. The whole thing about Martita, which is an unsent letter, is that she’s thinking her letter. We do that with people sometimes, with poems, and people we’ve lost in time. Sometimes we know how to reach them, and sometimes we don’t want to reach them. This story is a letter that isn’t mailed. Do you write poetry?
I have written a little bit of poetry. Usually, I don’t know how to start something, and I find I start with poetic language, and my first drafts are full of line breaks. I find my way into writing through poetry. And then once I find an entry into the world, I switch back to prose.
Yes, because poetry is kind of like a Ouija board, isn’t it? You start with some word or question and it really writes itself, like a Ouija board. There’s something very magical, spiritual, and mysterious about writing poetry. To me, it’s the most sacred of all the genres. I always tell people who are prose writers to study poetry, read poetry. It will make your work even more beautiful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.