Sandra Cisneros finds herself the subject of many a headline—most Millennials and Gen X’ers will recognize her at the authoritative voice of longing from her 1984 classic, The House on Mango Street. The story of the Puerto Rican girl who longs to leave her impoverished Chicago neighborhood behind has been a ghost in the head of every brown girl who left her home for college, boarding school, jobs, and a myriad of other journeys for over thirty years. The book was in my bag when I abandoned the barrios of East Palo Alto for Portland’s Eastmoreland neighborhood to attend Reed College back in 2005. Today, Cisneros is out yet again on her own journey, a new book tour for her gorgeous memoir, A House of My Own.
I reached out to her amidst her recent visit to Portland and her national tour for a brief interview about ghosts, writing her latest work, and her feelings on our strange and rainy city.
The Rumpus: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. Your book A House of My Own: Stories from My Life came out this year. I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask about the themes of your latest book, what went into writing it, and how it fits into the context of your other writing. I primarily want to get to the heart of your writing, what drives you, and what inspires you to write. My fist question: What is the context of your new book and what does it mean to you?
Sandra Cisneros: When I think about my book I think about the world we’re living in. We’re living in a post-9/11 era. This is a world of surveillance and screening, security and panic. This is the age of fear and so many of us feel afraid to speak out about what has happened to our lives in the wake of 9/11. Television promotes the world as a scary place for the United States and this justifies peeling away every element of privacy we had before. The media is monopolized so we don’t even hear a lot of dissent about this new era. The TSA tears through your bags at the airport and the NSA watches what books you buy and what you say over the telephone and online. It doesn’t feel like anything is private anymore.
Rumpus: What kind of responses did you receive from your new book? How did people react?
Cisneros: When I was writing this book I thought to myself, “I’ve never seen a book like this.” It wasn’t a story or a narrative that I could see in the world. Which is why the responses surprised me! So many people came to me and said that they felt like they finally had the permission to write. They told me that my book helped them feel like they could write their own stories about what was happening in their own lives. And we need to write because so many of our stories are not being heard. Where could they be heard in this era of fear and media monopolies? Writing allows us to transform what has happened to us and to fight back against what’s hurting us. While not everyone is an author, everyone is a writer and I think that the process of writing is deeply spiritual and liberatory.
Rumpus: I know ghosts, spirits, and the afterlife are themes you discuss in your writing. I once had a professor tell me that ghosts were feminine beings and they exist to claim justice in a world that harms them. Would you agree with that? As you said, we live in an age of fear and your book touches on your history of being a woman and seeking justice.
Cisneros: I have this quote in my book: “Maybe they’re [ghosts] happy in paradise but they never call or write.” But I’d like to add on to that, they definitely visit! As people who are women, who are Indigenous and live on Indigenous lands, we know, and this is something I understand the older I get, that they don’t visit the same way the postman may visit but they do visit. They visit in ways that our modern society often disregards and considers immaterial or unreal.
They may visit in our dreams, sometimes physically, and so many of our people have had this experience, but it’s dismissed because the society we live in places so much emphasis on scientific realism. As Indigenous peoples, we know there is more to the world. We know spirits exist. We know as women, because we’re especially attuned to this kind of knowledge, that spirits exist and have a presence in our lives. Some of us are gifted and can communicate with the spirit world. Not everyone has that gift and can perceive the borders between the living and the dead and our society actively discourages us of exploring the knowledge of what many of us have already always known in our cultures.
Cisneros: We are told by media—books, television, reality shows—that heartbreak is this terrible thing and yet we should seek it. We’re told that heartbreak is all about love and we should just go after that high over and over again. We are told it is healthy to be addicted to this kind of behavior and the highs associated with love. But, that’s not all what heartbreak is. We can have our hearts broken over so much more. It is important to recognize the full spectrum of heartbreak. We can be heartbroken by lost and by disappointment. But heartbreak is not just this negative image we see, it’s not this terrible experience that brings no benefits. Heartbreak allows us to also experience joy and love but you have to walk through heartbreak to even know what joy is. Heartbreak is a constant and it is even necessary. It allows us the opportunity of introspection and exploration. Those processes are what is necessary to write and engage in the arts. Heartbreak makes us stronger; it’s an opportunity for spiritual growth. How can you understand someone else’s pain if you have not yourself suffered?
Rumpus: So what’s next for you, and your travels—recently you’ve finished the book, and you were just here in Portland for Wordstock–what do you like to do here?
Cisneros: I actually considered moving to Portland. I didn’t. I couldn’t do it. I think it was a little homogenous for me. But I love visiting Portland. I love being on book tour, and that’s what I’m doing next. I’m excited to visit literary places and whenever I’m in town I just want to walk around and appreciate the beautiful trees. Portland’s a literary city for me, like Rome or Buenos Aires, where you know everyone will appreciate a good book.