Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Latina publishes poetry and short stories

Cisneros crosses all reader boundaries

At 110 pages it’s slight in size, but The House on Mango Street,written in the early 1980s by a then-unknown Sandra Cisneros and first published by Houston’s small Arte Público Press, has become a landmark book. A series of lyrical coming-of-age vignettes in the voice of a 12-year-old Mexican-American girl in working-class Chicago, it’s sold more than 4 million copies in the United States. It’s also become a fixture in classrooms from middle school to college and a favorite of one-city, one-read programs.

Cisneros, a Chicago native who lives in San Antonio, went on to publish collections of poetry and short stories and in 2002 the multigenerational family saga Caramelo. She also founded the Macondo Foundation, which brings writers dedicated to social change to San Antonio for workshops and seminars.

Cisneros’ current projects include a collection of essays, to be titled Writing in My Pajamas, and a screenplay of The House on Mango Street.

She will read Wednesday at Rice University as part of a tour promoting the release of The House on Mango Streetin a new 25th anniversary paperback edition. She spoke with the Chronicle’s Fritz Lanham.

She will read Wednesday at Rice University as part of a tour promoting the release of The House on Mango Streetin a new 25th anniversary paperback edition. She spoke with the Chronicle’s Fritz Lanham.

Q:The House on Mango Street was published 25 years ago and has never been out of print. To what do you attribute that?

A: I think I had the good fortune to write the story the community was hungry for. Whatever that community may be, whether it’s women, or young people or Latinas, or teenagers or grandmothers. I just happened to hit on something that was going to nourish people at this time. I think of books as being medicine, or food. It happened to be the right recipe.

Q:You’ve said literature should “save people’s lives.” Do you still believe that, and what does that mean?

A: I certainly do. I live by it with the foundation I started to nurture writers doing that work of saving people’s lives. Obama talks about an arts corps. We are an arts corps at the Macondo Foundation — writers who are serving underserved communities and who believe our work can make for nonviolent social change.

Q: I’ve heard The House on Mango Streetdescribed as “a wedge book,” one that introduced Mexican-American writing to Latino and Anglo readers who may never have read anything by a Mexican-American writer before. Is that a fair statement, do you think?

A: I don’t know [laughter]. A lot of one-city one-read [programs] have kept me very busy. It’s a book that bridges many communities and many generations. One of the reasons it gets selected a lot for one-city, one-reads is it’s rare to find a book that will appeal to children and adults at once.

When I was writing it I wanted it to be inclusive of all readers — people who were workers, people who were educated, people who were educated in the university of life. I was mindful not to use language that wouldn’t allow the book to be used in schools. But I was also mindful to myself that it was not a children’s book.

Q: That follows with something you say in the introduction to this new edition about how the younger you back then wanted to write stories that ignored borders between genres, between highbrow literature and children’s books. …

A: Right. I was an experimental writer. People seem to forget that and think sometimes that I’m this naive, primitive writer who wrote these things in a child voice that was all I could do. Quite the contrary. I was looking at experimental fiction, which was all the rage at the time.

Q: Is that mixing of genres and ignoring borders still something you strive for in your writing?

A: Yes. Now I’m more aware that that’s what I can do and that I don’t have to worry about compartmentalizing. When I began the book I was in a graduate writing program and my poetry adviser said, “These aren’t poems.” I was too young to argue with an authority figure. I think if I had to go back I’d argue they’re not exactly stories either. I would argue for some place in the middle.

I am always looking for those borders, whether it’s borders of culture or gender or genre.

I’m always exploring those places where things don’t quite match. I find that a very rich and fertile place to write from.

Q: While your books are not directly autobiographical, you often take and remake people and incidents from your own life. Correct?

A: Yes, but I mix it up with people not myself. Sometimes I’ll take my story and mix it with a cousin or students. I feel like I’m this artist who uses whatever is at hand. It’s kind of like cooking with whatever is in the pantry. I don’t know any other way.

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