A Conversation with Sandra Cisneros on Finding a House of Her Own

Photos by Cynthia Edith Zubia

Photos by Cynthia Edith Zubia

By Christina Miranda

This past weekend, The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University opened its doors to the grand opening of the Sandra Cisneros Archive, A House of My Own. Home to many valued artifacts such as edited manuscripts for multiple novels, personal diaries, and childhood photos, all of Cisneros’ works now have a permanent home at the Wittliff. The cases that protect her possessions are adorned with her own words describing her belongings. In the center, a single window bears the phrase, “history is a continuous thread.”

Born in Chicago as the third child, and only daughter, in a family of seven siblings, Cisneros lived a migrant lifestyle moving back and forth between Chicago and Mexico. During her time in Chicago, her dominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood served as inspiration for her first novel, The House on Mango Street. Earning her bachelor’s from Loyola University and masters from The University of Iowa, Cisneros went on to publish The House on Mango Street in 1984, which has been received with the American Book Award, and has been taught in grade schools and universities all over the United States.

Over the last three decades Cisneros has been responsible for some of the most prominent works in Chicana literature including Woman Hollering CreekLoose WomanCaramelo, and most recently, A House of My Own. She is the founder of the Macondo Foundation, a San Antonio writing program dedicated to the most prominent, upcoming writers in the southwest. Cisneros has also been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in Fiction and Poetry in 1981 and 1988, and in 2016, the National Medal of Arts by President Obama.

Before the grand opening, I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her additions to the collection and her own history as an influential writer.

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How are you feeling about being archived at The Wittliff Collections?

I always like to say, “I’m not even dead!” I feel very lucky to be witnessing this, knowing so many wonderful writers and artists who have lived ordinary lives who never had the opportunity to be acknowledged in their lifetime, so I’m very fortunate.

What specific moment can you remember when you said, “I want to be a writer?”

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in 5th grade, middle school, somewhere around there. And the moment for me came when I was looking through a card catalog, and I visualized my name on a card catalog, I visualized my name on the spine of a book. I just visited some 5th graders the other day, and I told them to point to their third eye, and I said this is when I started imagining myself as a writer, and said dream big because people will laugh at you. So to me that was a really a defining moment for me in middle school wanting to write, and of course I didn’t know any writers, and I certainly didn’t want to tell any of my brothers that was my dream because they always made me cry. What was important for me was to preserve it. Have that dream and not tell anyone about it.

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Who did you look up to as inspiration when becoming a writer?

I read a lot of the lives of the saints believe it or not, I was in Catholic school so those were the books that were available to me, so I read about Saint Teresa, The Little Flower, and then I would read autobiographies from the public library. I would read Hellen Keller, I just read a lot of fiction when I was a kid, but I did read some nonfiction, and read about extraordinary people like Archimedes. I was a very eclectic reader. I didn’t find writers yet- I didn’t know about their lives. If I had to think of anybody, I would have to say Cleopatra. I was always hunting for off the beaten path heroes.

How do you think literature will be impacted during Trump’s administration?

Well I wouldn’t believe anything that comes out of that guy’s mouth. I think that we have enough intelligent people in the country to counter our foolish captain, and I don’t think he’s going to drive us into the rocks, but he’s very good and he has been very good at organizing us. So, I applaud the president for organizing the resistance with this movement. It’s so wonderful to see that happening, especially with people of all ages, and genders, and communities coming together. Y es que no sabe. Es uno que no sabe. And I feel a lot of wiser people are rising up in resistance. Y pobresito is all I can say.

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What do you think will come out of it?

I can tell you what I know has already been coming out before even 9/11, which is when all this movimiento happened. Before 9/11 we have had seen just a wonderful renacimiento of writing coming out from small presses, and younger writers, gay writers, and lesbian writers. You know, the alternative presses have been stepping up. Maybe because the times require it and when we are most censored or under attack is when people create amazing art. I have to say, just here in Texas, there’s been some extraordinary outpouring of new writing, and I just love what Christina Granados is writing, and love Antonio Rodríguez, Joe Jiménez, Emmy Pérez, there’s so much good writing coming up from Texas. I can’t name them all cause there’s just so many. This is harvest that’s coming up and I think it’s been there before 9/11, but I’m impressed and proud to see the younger writers coming up.

What advice do you have for aspiring female writers?

I think it’s really important to have a community of writers, like family who can nurture and edit you and keep you going, because it’s difficult. It took me a long time to become a successful writer—and by successful I just mean writing well, I don’t mean fame and money because that comes as icing on the cake. The thing is to do your work and do it well. And I think that without a community of writers to edit you, to push you, to encourage you to keep writing, it’s hard. It’s very very difficult. I think that I was lucky and had many people to help me along the way, and grants that helped me. So you’re really going to need a community of writers that understand your labor and appreciate the work you’re doing, and ultimately, to be your highest critics and supporters.

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What advice would your younger self beginning as a writer?

The same as I give to younger people: 

  1. Earn your own money — If you can earn your own money, earn it, because otherwise you’re an indentured servant to whoever is supporting you.

  2. Control your fertility — don’t let your fertility control you. And this is as important for men as it is for women. Your entire career will get sidetracked if you don’t take care of this. And this is a new millennium, there should be no accidents.

  3. Learn how to be alone, and learn how to like being alone, because that’s when we can nurture ourselves as artists—we can only do his when we’re alone. There’s certainly a number of hours you need to become a good artist., it’s like a pilot’s license. And if you’re doing other things it’s going to take you longer. You need to be alone, and you need to like that time being alone not moping around thinking you need to date.