It’s difficult to imagine Sandra Cisneros as anything other than the activist, teacher, mentor, and literary icon we know today. As her first novel, the coming-of-age classic The House on Mango Street, celebrates its 25th anniversary, however, the 54-year-old Mexican American writer reflects on a time in her twenties when success was anything but certain.
She need not have worried. The novel, winner of a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1985, proved an authentic vehicle for exploring themes of culture and tradition and the lives and roles of Hispanic women growing up in the States. It is required reading in many U.S. schools and universities, and Cisneros’ first major contribution to a body of work that has garnered her two National Endowment of the Arts [NEA] fellowships, a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Texas Medal of Arts, among other honors.
Many of the stories in House are based on the lives of her own students, the women to whom Cisneros dedicated the book. “I just wanted to acknowledge all the women who gave me their stories, because there were so many I wanted to dedicate this book to,” says Cisneros. “I felt the list was getting too long, so I scratched all the names and wrote: ‘A las Mujeres, To the Women.’”
In this exclusive interview, Cisneros discusses the pivotal role her novel played in the acceptance of Latino culture, her years as an academic migrant, and how her views have evolved in the 25 years since its publication.
Q. What do you think when you hear House described as a coming-of-age classic?
A. Well, I don’t know if it’s a coming-of-age classic because it’s kind of early to say. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was important in its time, and there are lots of writers that become valuable in their time and then later become a bit archaic. So I don’t know. These are claims for readers and critics to make—I don’t make these claims.
Q. How would you describe The House on Mango Street?
A. It’s like a collection of little stories. You could read one or you could read the whole thing. You don’t have to read the whole thing, but if you do it’s like a necklace of stories. I was very much influenced by experimental fiction, specifically Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges.
I wrote it so that it would be approachable for all people, whether they were educated or not, and whether they were children or adults. My idea was to write it in a way that it would not make anyone feel intimidated, but welcome. I had in mind a book that would be understood and appreciated by all readers, whether a working-class person, a child, poet, literature student, writer, or bus driver. So I came from that angle of being inclusive. I kept a child in mind as I was writing it, but it wasn’t just for children. I kept fellow poets in mind, but it wasn’t just for poets.
Q. What kind of impact did the novel have when it was first published 25 years ago?
A. It got picked up early on by teachers and librarians who were advocates for it. Since then the audience has expanded to include many kinds of readers, not just women and Latinos. It’s been used in a lot of textbooks and classrooms and especially for One City, One Read projects because they like to pick books that don’t have any bad words and can be read by children and adults—House fits that.
Q. Did its publication play a role in the acceptance of Latino culture in the United States?
A. I think it did. Many people have said it was how they came to know about Latino life. Some people don’t have any contact with Latino life except maybe this book. The most intimate relationship they have with the Latino community is reading this book.
Q. Where were you in your life when you wrote The House on Mango Street?
A. A graduate student, high school teacher, counselor, and a person who wanted an NEA fellowship, in that order. I started it while studying poetry in the Iowa MFA program and trying to write about something only I knew about that my classmates could not be an authority on. It developed over the years as a piece of fiction when I started adding and manipulating the stories and incorporating characters based on my students. It was no longer a memoir and became a novel. I worked on it from the ages of 22 to 28.
Q. Some might look at your popularity now and think that The House on Mango Street was an overnight success, but…
A. Yes, that’s what the press says, but I tell people that was a long night.
Q. A six-year-long night?
A. It was more than that because I finished it when I was 28 and it really didn’t start earning money for me until the end of my thirties, like when I was 40. So, in fact, [it was] a good long decade for me.
Q. Did you view the writing as being successful?
A. Au contraire. I felt a failure because I couldn’t sustain myself from what I earned from my writing. My day jobs were what mattered, and it was hard to even get those because universities wouldn’t hire me as a real writer. I had to take jobs when someone would open a door for me—another friend or colleague or woman—and then I could take a part-time job maybe for a semester.
Q. Did House’s publication in 1984 give you a sense of validation as a writer?
A. No, because I was here, in my first year in Texas, getting verbally beat up. I had a difficult job and I wasn’t celebrated as a writer. I was working in the community and having a difficult time in my position at a very patriarchal center and having a hard time starting a literature program. So I didn’t really think of myself as an author. I was a community activist, I guess. I was a cultural worker and [House’s] publication didn’t change my life that first year. It really didn’t change my life until about ten years later. I was just having a hard time at work every day and finding another job after I quit that job. I spent my thirties living out of boxes and moving every six months to a year. It was my cloud period: I just wandered like a cloud for ten years, following the food supply. I was a hunter, gatherer, an academic migrant.
Q. In what way?
A. I was migrating because I wasn’t looked at as a legitimate writer. I don’t mean any disrespect in comparing my life to the people who really do the migrant work, but I had to live, pretty much, by moving every year. Even though I had this book, it wasn’t affecting my life. Maybe it was even making my life more difficult because if I wasn’t that writer, I could invest in some job and stay put. But I was trying to live like a writer, which meant I had two jobs and couldn’t get married and have children.
Q. Were these personal sacrifices necessary to create a writer’s life?
A. I needed to make the sacrifices one often makes for a loved one, a partner, or children. I made those sacrifices from my heart and it meant my thirties led to a very unusual life. I didn’t have dogs or houseplants, and I didn’t have partners for very long, the most important thing. A lot of my relationships floundered because of the writing. I always ask women now if they are willing to give up everything for the writing, because they might have to. I warn them that they might not get fame or fortune; I never expected to. The fact that it came means that there’s more work for me to do that takes me away from my desk.
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.