[(interview date October 2001) In this interview, originally conducted by telephone in October of 2001, Cisneros talks about her family; her education, including the rigorous creative writing program at the University of Iowa; her spirituality; and her relationship with writer Dorothy Allison.]
Sandra Cisneros and I spoke by telephone during October 2001. A few weeks later I was fortunate to meet her at a reading of Caramelo, then in progress, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
[Tokarczyk]: I heard parts of Caramelo in progress a few years ago and recognized what I'd heard in the final book. But I wondered if you were surprised by how the book turned out.
[Cisneros]: Oh, my, yes. The book has gone through so many changes. Writing, as you know, is a long meditation. I'm glad the book sat for a few years. The longer you sit, the deeper you go.
Can you say a little about how the novel changed?
Around 1998, the puzzle pieces finally fell into place. I began asking for things. I'd meditate and actually ask for things that would come to me later. It was a very spiritual kind of writing.
I wanted to ask you about your spirituality. I know in your interview with Allison you complained that Catholic school had destroyed the spiritual part of you.
A lot of the people in the Catholic Church were bad role models, really unhappy men and women. So I got a very bad image of Catholicism. I've changed my ideas, I'm more tolerant now. I realize some people just acted the way they did because they were unhappy. But the change has taken about half a lifetime.
How would you describe your spirituality now?
I find my spirituality in Buddhism and the Virgin de Guadalupe. Guadalupe is a goddess figure, and the thing about Buddhism is it takes you back to your family and religious roots, so it can take you back to Catholicism. So I'm a "Buddhalupista."
Back to Caramelo. It's a book very much about your father?
Oh, yes. Or rather, it's about the idea of my father's personality, not my father himself. It's about elements of his life. My father was an upholsterer, and you never see upholsterers in novels, so I decided to make the father character in the novel an upholsterer. But elements of my mother's and grandfather's lives are now also in Caramelo. They've taken over more of the book.
You've talked about how important your mother was to your development as a writer and a woman. How did your father influence you?
My mother was the male figure. She should have been the father. She was pragmatic, logical, and a firm disciplinarian. My father was very nurturing and very emotional, and very supportive of us. He created a pillar of self-esteem in me that sustained me through difficult times.
I know you have six brothers. What is your birth order in the family?
In real life or in the novel? Caramelo is the first time I used the six brothers. When I was a younger writer, I didn't think I could handle that many characters. But I decided to put them in the novel. In real life I was one of eight children, seven of whom lived. I was the third born. In the novel, though, the character is the baby in the family. I don't know why, but I thought I had to do that.
Well, I guess the youngest child in a family of older brothers might feel very protected.
Or very harassed!
What are your brothers doing now?
My oldest brother is a physician. Another brother is a visual artist. Another is a classical guitarist, but he doesn't make his living by playing classical guitar. He works in the upholstery business my father started. One of my brothers is a geologist working for the Department of Energy, and the other two are in my dad's upholstery business.
Do all your brothers still live in Chicago?
So your family is still very much together, very close. You all must miss your father very much.
Yes. My brothers changed the name of the upholstery business to honor my father. It's now Alfred Cisneros & Sons Upholstery, after him. It's a tribute to him. Writing Caramelo was my own act of homage to my father. The book was incredibly difficult to write because my father was ill when I was writing. I was so afraid that I would write about him dying and he would die. This happens to writers; we write about things and they happen. After he died, he was still present for me in so many ways, helping me to write. I would invent things he would have done, and he would help me.
You lived with one of your brothers for a while, didn't you?
Yes, with my oldest brother. After my first NEA grant ended, I sort of fell into being his nanny. He needed someone and I was available. Later at other times I stayed with him when I was between things and needed a roof.
I'd like to talk a little about your education. What made you go to Loyola?
I wanted to be close to my brothers. My brothers went there. I'd gone to the same elementary school as they did. I'd been close to them all along. They were premed majors. I was an English major, so I didn't think the school mattered in the same way.
So were your undergraduate years a good experience?
Oh, no. I commuted, and it was a hard place to commute to from where we lived in Chicago. Ironically, I got a grant that would have paid for my living on campus. But my father wanted me to stay home, where I would be safe and watched. At that time I was a very dutiful daughter, a good Catholic girl. Also, I was young and goofy and didn't have very good guidance. I didn't take the right courses. My education was adequate, but I was not challenged.
But you know, everything took me where I needed to go. Fortunately, they hired a creative writer for the first time when I was there, so I got to study creative writing. I also found other artists and writers, and that became my community. So Divine Providence put me where I had to be. If I were advising a young person, I'd tell her make sure you pick a school with a strong creative writing program, don't pick a school because your brothers went there. It all worked out for me though. That's why I believe in Divine Providence.
It took me until my junior year to rebel, to say "wait a minute." Then I decided I was going to get out of state, get away from my family. But I didn't know a lot of things. It wasn't until I got to the MFA program at the University of Iowa that I realized what a distinguished program it is.
So graduate school was a more positive experience?
Oh, no, it was horrible.
Oh. I know you wrote The House on Mango Street in response to a class on "The Poetics of Space," to your classmates' privileged views and experiences.
The House on Mango Street was written out of rage. I was so angry, so intimidated by my classmates that I wanted to quit. But what good does quitting do? So I found a way to write. Much later I realized that some other people in my class who are good writers, like Rita Dove, felt as intimidated as I did.
I know the University of Iowa workshops have a reputation for being very competitive and critical.
And I don't think workshops have to be competitive and mean. Now that I've given workshops, I see a good workshop should be critical, but it should also be generous.
Can you say a little more about the teachers and students in the program?
I studied with a number of poets--Louise Gluck, William Anderson, Bill Matthews, Donald Justice, Marvin Bell. I studied with poets, but mainly I hung out with fiction writers.
Some of the teachers in the school were very, very good. But some were very sick. Part of the problem is seeing their sickness as a young writer. You don't realize that sometimes if the teacher seems mean, the teacher is terrified. Later when you yourself are teaching and have your own problems, you see your teachers may have been in bad moods because they have their own problems. And poets have so many moods.
Still, many of my teachers were not very good role models as human beings, even if they were good role models as writers. So I realized you can be a good poet and a bad person. And this took away any star-struckness I had about writers. I realized famous people are no big deal because they aren't always good human beings. I began to admire writers who did community service, writers who are real people in addition to being writers.
But I've become more understanding of my teachers. In the classroom, you have the poet in his rough draft state. A writer is not a book, just something in the making. A writer's God-given potential, her greatest potential, comes out in her art.
Are you still teaching in the Guadalupe Cultural Center?
No, I don't teach there anymore. I teach the Macondo workshops. These workshops are great because I can work around my own writing. Also, I don't get paid, so what I'm doing seems very pure and good.
What's been your involvement in small presses?
I was on the advisory board for Third Woman Press in the 1980s.
Could you tell me about your friendship with Dorothy Allison?
I've only met Dorothy Allison once or twice, once in the Lannan interview, another when she gave a reading in San Antonio and visited my house. We exchange e-mails, but we're both very busy writers.
Still, sometimes people you talk to only once or twice a year can be very close.
Oh, yes. Dorothy helped me tremendously on my novel when she visited with me in San Antonio. There's a line in her book Two or Three Things I Know for Sure that's my mantra. And when I was having trouble writing my novel, when I was blocked, Dorothy Allison and Eduardo Galeano were the two people who helped me most. Dorothy just told me to forget about the deadline, to take as much time as I needed and trust the book. Eduardo reminded me that there was no point of writing the book if I wasn't having fun.
When I did the Lannan reading and the interview with Dorothy Allison afterwards, it was a very difficult time for me. My father was dying, and I was like a glass of water filled to the top. A few months earlier right before a function I'd burst into tears. I started yelping, and I couldn't talk at all for about a half hour. I was afraid that would happen again.
This was such a sad and difficult time for me. I was reading a section based on my father's life and my father was dying. I really should have backed out of the reading, should have said, "No, I'm sorry, I can't do this." But I told Dorothy I'd read and be interviewed, and I didn't want to cancel. Dorothy knew what I was going through. After I read for awhile I asked her if the time was up, and she said yes. I didn't learn till later that she'd let me finish early. That's why the interview went on so long, because the reading was cut short. I never watch myself on video, but that's one I really don't want to see.
Well, in the video it isn't apparent that you're having a hard time or that you've cut the reading short. And the interview with Allison is really interesting.
I'm glad to hear that the video looks good. I loved the questions Allison asked me. I especially liked that she asked me about my poetry, that she reminded me I'm a poet. Most people don't ask about my poetry in interviews. Dorothy always reminds me to keep up my poetry writing.
Have you written much poetry lately?
Poetry's been on the back burner while I worked frantically to finish Caramelo. A few poems a year are written out of real urgency, but nothing more while the novel was being finished.
A lot of your work, especially your poetry Loose Woman and My Wicked, Wicked Ways has a naughty quality to it. Do you think this is true of Caramelo as well?
Yes, I think so. Part of the novel deals with teenage sexuality. There are issues I want to get across without getting on my high horse and sounding like I'm preaching. I'm not sure people will like what I have to say. Catholicism is very afraid of sexuality and the body, especially women's sexuality. But we all have sexuality. Even teenagers have sexuality. Now maybe they aren't ready to be having it with others, but certainly they have sexuality themselves.
What about life in San Antonio? Are you happy there?
Yes, for now. I am annoyed by the lack of privacy I've had since my house became an international sensation. I have a fence around the house. I've had to put up a sign telling people not to ring the doorbell if they don't have an appointment.
I also like getting out of San Antonio from time to time. It's very much a small town, in the good and bad sense.
I can't help thinking that a well-known male writer wouldn't be followed in this way.
Well, I think that the voice from my writing makes people feel I'm very accessible. And that's a mixed blessing. My work is a kind of confirmation for them. So they want to pay homage to me and usually I feel very blessed, so long as people don't get too fanatical.
Mexico has been so important in your life and work. Do you go there regularly?
I used to, but when I was writing Caramelo I didn't have the time. I didn't even go to the border for four or five years. But I am planning to go soon. I need to go to spiritually recharge. Mexico is my Mecca, I go there to eat the fruit of my background. I visit my grandparents' house, the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I get my spiritual energy.
You feel so close to Mexico that I was wondering how you feel about all the border issues--immigrations, Mexican workers, and the like.
Oh, wow. These things make me think that the best work I did was to finish Caramelo. I have such overwhelming emotions about what people don't understand; I express these indirectly in this book.
You mean give voice to the voiceless, as you've said before.
How did Norma Alarcón come to stay with you?
I'd stayed with her when I was in California and she returned the favor.
Do you frequently have writers and critics stay with you?
Oh yes, I've had many writers stay here. Dorothy Allison took a nap in the "writer in residence room."
I don't have other writers stay when my own writing is stressful, when I'm working very hard, though I've found some writers are very good in understanding you need space to work and keeping out of your way. Women are usually good guests because they help out with the cooking and cleaning. Men don't as much. One male houseguest thought this was a hotel. I had to tell him to pick up his towels and his dishes. I was so annoyed at him. But then he put me in a poem, and how could I stay mad at him after he put me in a poem. Then he was really rather embarrassed by the way he'd behaved, so I think he'll learn and be a better houseguest.
What's the line from Dorothy's work that's been an inspiration to you?
"In the world as I remade it, nothing was forbidden; everything was possible." These lines helped me to realize I could remake my novel, my story, and gave me permission to do it. The lines also remind me why I write, as if I want to change the world.