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Sandra Cisneros looks back as a writer in search of home

October 29, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Writer Sandra Cisneros has spent her entire life searching for a sense of belonging, a search chronicled in a new essay collection, “A House of My Own: Stories From My Life.” She sits down with Jeffrey Brown at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington to discuss her book, her life as a writer and her journey to find home.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf, reflections on a lifelong search to belong.

Writer Sandra Cisneros chronicles her pursuit in “A House of My Own: Stories From My Life.”

She sat down to talk with Jeffrey Brown recently at the Mexican Cultural Institute here in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sandra Cisneros, welcome to you.

SANDRA CISNEROS, Author, “A House of My Own “: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is an unusual kind of memoir. You have gathered up old writings, and then you ask yourself, as you say in the introduction, who wrote these and why? I have a need to know, so that I can understand my life.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Well, I was trying to gather my essays from B.C., before computers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before computers.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Yes, because I lose things. I write things and they disappear from my desk, my life. I move a lot.

I wanted to gather them and put them under one roof, under one cover, so I could document my life in a series of snapshots.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see when you looked back? Did you recognize that person?

SANDRA CISNEROS: Yes and no. I saw someone who was very innocent and trusting and believed everything family told her. So, I was a little more suspicious now. And, like everyone, I change my mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: You come from the kind of conservative Mexican-American family in Chicago. It’s interesting that so many of these stories do involve travels and leaving, and yet the main theme and even in the title house, right, home.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Yes.

Well, when you’re an immigrant writer, or an immigrant, you’re not always welcome to this country unless you’re the right immigrant. If you have a Mexican accent, people look at you like, you know, where do you come from and why don’t you go back to where you came from?

So, even though I was born in the United States, I never felt at home in the United States. I never felt at home until I moved to the Southwest, where, you know, there’s a mix of my culture with the U.S. culture, and that was why I lived in Texas for 25 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that unsettledness, though, comes through in these essays, these vignettes, these Polaroids that you talked about.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you’re always sort of — you’re crossing borders. You’re living in different homes that aren’t quite home.

SANDRA CISNEROS: That’s right. That’s right.

And it was only when I arrived at a landscape in the Southwest with the big skies, like in the old black-and-white Mexican movies, that I felt, yes, this feels like home, when I heard Spanish alongside English, that I said, this feels like home. And even now, I live in a town where you hear English as much as you hear Spanish. I live in San Miguel de Allende.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to come back to San Miguel, but, first, I want to ask you about the house, the original house of your writing career, “The House on Mango Street,” which sort of set you on your way, right? Did it also define and confine you?

SANDRA CISNEROS: Well, you know what? People know me from my first book, but I don’t mind that. That’s my child. That’s my first-born child.

And I have written many other books since then, and people love my first-born child, but it’s been around on the planet longer than others, so people have had more time to work with that one. And I don’t feel restricted or constricted with that book.

I feel as if it’s my eldest child and he went to work and is earning money for his mom, and that’s perfectly fine, so I can take care of the other kids.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a good child to have. Right?

SANDRA CISNEROS: It’s a good child.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also in these essays very candid about traumas along the way, depression, even after the great success of “The House on Mango Street.” So it wasn’t an easy road.

SANDRA CISNEROS: No.

And people think that “House” was an overnight success, but that night was a 10-year night.

JEFFREY BROWN: And along the way?

SANDRA CISNEROS: A lot of doubts, a lot of sadnesses, because I didn’t have things that other people had. I didn’t have the car or the health insurance or the house that other people had. There was a lot of doubts of whether I was making the right choices.

I didn’t marry. I didn’t have children. I followed the food supply for jobs. I kept writing at night. And that kept me moving. It kept my life disruptive. It broke up many relationships. Was it worth it? Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean, that’s actually what — that’s the totality of your documents, the life of a writer or the writer that you became.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Well, I didn’t intend to be writing — the writer’s life. I was just writing what came to me at the time, but it is a map of how this writer had to break many barriers to find, not a room of her own, but a house of her own.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where did that ambition come from, to make a life as a writer?

SANDRA CISNEROS: You know, I think I didn’t know what I was creating, as much as I knew what I didn’t want to do. And I didn’t want my mother’s life. She was an unhappy, frustrated artist who always dreamed of a life that was never going to be hers.

I didn’t want to be married with seven kids and wish, oh, if only I had done this. I didn’t want that. So, my dream was to mother a book. That was first and foremost since I was 11 years old. And I just didn’t know how to do that, because no one in my family had any connections or a clue of how to do that, so I just kind of fumbled my way through it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now you are in Mexico.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Yes, I’m living the writer’s life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Crossing the border, living a writer’s life in Mexico, but crossing the border back.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Yes.

Well, my ancestors were from there. A hundred years ago, they fled in the 1915, during the revolution. And 100 years later, I have meandered back. I like to think they called me back. And I like to think that my entire life was leading up to this moment of me moving back and being reborn, because it’s kind of like a rebirth, to be back there and walking the streets that possibly grand ancestors walked. It’s really great.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The new book is “A House of My Own: Stories From My Life.”

Sandra Cisneros, thank you so much.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Thank you.

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