Q. This seems to echo the call to action House ends on: “They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.” Was this related to your need to give back to the community?
A. I never wrote those lines thinking that I was writing my life. I had no idea that people would mistake my protagonist [Esperanza] for me. I never intended it to be me, and that’s why I try not to make any other characters writers. But I did feel that I was looking for my philosophy of being in my politics and direction as I wrote this book.
Q. Your philosophy?
A. I was in my twenties and trying to find my “ism.” I felt there was so much wrong in Chicago and the neighborhood and the church, so many things that were destructive to Latinas. I felt each of us had a responsibility to make that change. We couldn’t wait for mayors and politicians to do it, but we were responsible; the solution was within ourselves. I wrote [those last lines] when I was very young.
Q. And has your philosophy changed with age?
A. Now I would still say, as Gandhi did, that we’re responsible for making the change we want to see. The older I get, the more I realize [those lines] came from a very intuitive place. I really wrote House by getting out of the way of the light coming through, because I wasn’t that smart, and I think I’m never as smart as when I write. I still believe there’s so much cruelty in the world, but there’s also so much humanity to it.
I’m an optimist, not a Pollyanna. Each of us has great potential to balance the cruelty in the world with kindness—within our capacity. And if we nourish our spirit every day and we can nourish our heart, we’re reminded of whatever we are able to change, not what we are incapable of changing. If we change ourselves, it can affect everyone who comes into contact with us. What I didn’t know in my twenties, but am certain of now, is that there’s lots of miseria in the world, but there’s also so much humanity. All the work we do as writers is about finding balance and restoring things to balance. You need to consider the daily choices you make to create or destroy with every single act, whether it’s in words or in thoughts. The older I get, the more I’m conscious of ways very small things can make a change in the world. Tiny little things, but the world is made up of tiny matters, isn’t it?
Q. So God is in the details?
A. Yes. And that’s what I’m learning and remembering and reminding myself of. So on good days, when I don’t hurt anybody and maybe if I stay in the house, I think I can keep from hurting people and do some good. Maybe just write something worthwhile. But then there are days you go out, people make you mad, and you say something and the shrapnel of words goes out to people we know or don’t know.
Q. As a writer, are you more sensitive to this shrapnel of words?
A. Writers always live their lives facing backwards, [considering] things we said or could have said, or things we wish we could take back. The work we do is precisely about trying to clean up the mess we made, the kind of emotional footprints we leave behind, or the mess we inherit. Maybe we didn’t even make that mess, but it came to us because we were witnesses. That’s the work we have to do as writers, to help compost all this junk that’s out there. It’s like this emotional composting until we’re able to transform it into something beautiful. That’s the work we do, and it’s not any less valuable or remarkable than anybody else’s work.