Sandra Cisneros on Martita, I Remember You and on not speaking from anger
today at 6:43 am
The last time I heard Sandra Cisneros, she spoke, even she recognizes, from a place of anger. In her defense of American Dirt–a book she blurbed as “the great novel of las Americas”–she responded to questions in a Latino USA interview with syllables tough as the footwork in a zapateado from Veracruz. Often, the interviewer wouldn’t finish the question before Cisneros stepped in off beat, stomping her defense of a novel viewed as inauthentic by many writers and readers in Latino communities.
Fans criticized her for saying the solution to being disappointed in American Dirt’s prominence was to “do some introspection about where it has caused you to be upset, and then I recommend you write poetry.”
But last month, when I spoke with Sandra Cisneros over Zoom, there was no anger in her voice. In fact, we laughed–a lot. In this conversation, I didn’t hear Cisneros’s words pounding out a heavy argument like a jarocha dancer’s footwork. Instead, I heard the lightness of a warm and wise voice. I heard syllables that hummed with the peace of guitar strings plucked one by one.
I’ve followed her writing from my college days at DePaul in the early 90s, and I think I’ve read just about everything she’s written. Cisneros says her latest book, Martita, I Remember You, is her best work. I agree.
Cisneros spoke with me from her home in San Miguel de Allende and made me feel at home as she spoke about her “long view” of life as someone “a estas alturas” at sixty-six.
Talking about the American Dirt “borlote” as she describes it, Cisneros humbly says, “I do apologize if I was angry. I should not have spoken when I was angry.”
In her latest book, this type of introspection fuels Corina, a probably forty-something Latina, to make sense of where she wanted her life to go and where it is on one Saturday morning in her Chicago home.
While her husband and daughters visit the library, Corina finds an old letter from Martita, an Argentine friend she knew in Paris years ago that asks, “How many days did we know each other?” Corina spends the rest of that morning reading letters, drinking her coffee, remembering life in Paris when she wanted to be a writer and realizes, “We were waiting for something to happen. Isn’t that what all women do until they learn not to? We were waiting for life to sweep us up in its arms–a Strauss waltz, a room at Versailles, flooded with chandeliers.”
The character faces memories that “bubble up from I don’t know where inside me” as she works alone to remove the “the hundred and six years of varnish like layers of a honey-drenched phyllo” from a dining-room hutch so many Chicagoans recognize.
Cisneros is clear: this is not a sad story. “I see it as an awakening,” she explains.
It’s an old story. Originally, Cisneros intended the short story for inclusion in Woman Hollering Creek, her 1991 book of stories about Latinas young and older in Chicago and the Southwest, published when Cisneros was in her mid-thirties. The story didn’t fit thematically. The ending set at a Tango party wasn’t enough in that early version, her editor told her. “The story needed the long view,” Cisneros realizes. “I couldn’t write of the long view of a life lived, of loves lost, of friendships lost and what those friendships mean, how they throb, how there’s no words, or how they glow like meteorites with all the years,” Cisneros explains with a peace in her voice. “I’m really happy I was able to rescue it from it’s Sleeping Beauty spell.”
During revisions over the past five years, Cisneros wanted to make a novel out of this story. But the more she tried expanding it, “the more resistant it became. It wanted to be something small,” Cisneros accepts. “Then I realized: it’s a sandwich. It’s got the Paris part, the Chicago part, and the letters as the middle part of the two breads.” She hears people talking about Martita, I Remember You as a novella. “I always cross-pollinate genres. So I don’t call it anything except prose,” Cisneros says.
But why set the opening of the story in Chicago? Chicago, after all, Cisneros has recognized in many interviews does not hold good memories for her.
“I don’t think I would have gotten the success if I stayed in Chicago. Who knows?” she reflects. “I just couldn’t survive on the salary and being a single woman in neighborhoods where I didn’t feel safe. The infrastructure of the city for a single woman who’s not living with a husband, children, or father, mother, and six brothers was very hard for me,” Cisneros explains.
But Cisneros recognizes how Chicago launched her writing career with grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Chicago Arts Council, and displays of her poetry on CTA buses.
And now, she humorously tells stories with a “long view” of driving throughout Chicago in crummy cars. One winter, she remembers how her “car did a full pirouette on Lakeshore Drive and all the traffic parted like a ballet number.” Thankfully, the pirouette ended with her facing in the direction she needed to go in or “I wouldn’t be alive!” Another time, she looked in her rearview mirror, “And I see my Volkwagen’s engine on fire!” Firefighters showed up to put the fire out.
“Chicago means different things to me now,” Cisneros explains. “I really enjoy coming in.”
For Martita, I Remember You, Cisneros tapped into the estrangement she felt as a young artist from Chicago on her first European trip alone after writing The House on Mango Street. Corina’s neighborhood is around North Avenue and Pulaski, near West Humboldt Park, the last address Cisneros had with parents where she remembers “the despair and dinginess of everyday life.”
When Cisneros arrived in Paris in her late twenties, she realized, “This isn’t the Paris of my sueños!” Cisneros expected to see the Paris captured in the early 1900s by photographer Eugène Atget. Instead, she found McDonald’s.
“The family thinks you are living this glamorous life in Paris,” Cisneros recalls. “I’m just standing on the corner eating french fries in the cold like some little ragamuffin in a Charles Dickens story.”
One of her brothers recorded a cassette of Gato Barbieri music, which Cisneros listened to often as she walked around Paris. Those saxophone melodies for Cisneros were “sex and beauty and writing and sacrifice. He meant everything.”
But then the album ended and her brother needed to fill in a couple of minutes on the cassette. So he added something he thought his sister would like. As Cisneros walked through Paris entranced by the architecture and the richness of the tenor sax, she suddenly heard, “She’s a Superfreak! Superfreak!” She laughs.
The Rick James classic broke her bubble. “Paris was the Super Freak music, like a whipped cream pie thrown in my face!”
And then when she returned home with all these stories about Paris she wanted to share with her family, “No one wants to hear!” Cisneros jokes. So she decided to put the stories into Martitia, I Remember You.
“I liked things like a chocolate eclair and writing paper,” Cisneros fondly remembers. “But the experience of being in Paris every time I go has been very painful. And the people who took me in were the immigrants, the Moroccans, the Algerians, and in this case in Corina’s story, the au pairs from Argentina,” Cisneros adds.
“Every immigrant will tell you: when you go to a new country and have no money, who gives you something? People who have nothing–because they know what it is to have nothing,” she stresses. Cisneros says this woke her up to her father’s experience of immigrating to the United States. “Without realizing it, I guess,” Cisneros reflects, “I’ve written an immigrant’s story.”
Cisneros interwove memories of Corina’s father–who is also an upholsterer like Cisneros’s father was–because she asked herself, “What do I know that other Chicana writers don’t know? I do know the tapicería world.” Cisneros recalls the relevance of her father’s life and how he defined for her “the good father, the good male, the hombre obligado who takes care of his family, a loving father.” Cisneros goes on to say, “Even now that he is spirit, he’s always been a great strength in my memory and my life and my everyday moments.”
Many of the memories in Martita, I Remember You come through in lists, a technique Cisneros says she probably picked up from some great writer she admires but does not remember.
Corina recalls many times in lists: “Sometimes when I look at trees in winter, how their bare branches give off a violet light. Or the scent of a baguette. Or the Moroccan design on an antique doorknob. Or how a window opens out instead of up, they remind me of those days I lived beside you, Martita.”
Cisneros remembers writing in lists when her father was dying and she was so grief stricken, she could not write poetry or fiction. She arrived at her parents’ home to find that her mother used her old girl’s room as a storage room. She began to document everything there.
“A lot of my friends were folk-art sellers or artists, and artists live with, you know,” Cisneros says self-mockingly as she points to the wall behind her, “a whole collection of Mexican plates or a Christmas tree all year. They live in odd ways. I’m in love with the space that artists live in because they invent a new way of living.”
So Cisneros began to make lists when she visited homes. “I would say, ‘What is that plate?’ ‘Oh, that’s talavera from Puebla.’ That’s how it got started–to create a reality.”
It’s similar for metaphors when Cisneros writes. “I’m always sketching. You know how you’d see Picasso always sketching? I’m always sketching with language–all the time since childhood,” Cisneros explains.
“That man looks like a bear dancing backwards. Or I would just come up with these things not because I was trying to sketch but that’s just how I see the world. I remember going to Acapulco as a child and feeling sand under my feet and thinking, ‘That feels like the roof of my mouth’ and making those connections with the body.”
So the women in Paris in Cisneros’s novella live “over a coffeehouse in a building as narrow as a book.”
One thing missing from Martita, I Remember You is explicit, well-developed mentions of politics and global events in a story set with immigrants in an international city.
“I tried, but then it seemed forced,” Cisneros says. “I thought, ‘Why would Marta be there?’” The novella does include references to the Argentine economy and a mother’s fear that her daughter would get abducted. But, Cisneros explains, “When you’re that age, the politics are happening in the background. You’re very self-centered when you’re a young person.”
So will teen readers find something they can connect with or learn from in this story of a probably forty-something-year-old woman making sense of her past and present?
“I think teenagers will recognize themselves in Corina’s fear and her ignorance and her innocence. Corina doesn’t know what to say and so she doesn’t say anything,” Cisneros offers. “I think they will recognize her wish for something to happen in her life because when we’re young, we go to every single thing that we can because we’re waiting for something to happen. Then when you get older, you realize: NOTHING’S GOING TO HAPPEN! STAY HOME!” Cisneros laughs as if she’s laughing with herself at the way she once thought.
Moments of self-reflection guided Cisneros to her next project, out next year: a collection of essays titled, Exploding Cigars and North Stars. The idea for this collection comes from wisdom gained from being at a point in her life she mentions often: “a estas alturas.”
“There are people who come into our lives who are exploding cigars. And at the time that is very painful. But when you get to estas alturas, you realize, ‘That took me to a place that I wouldn’t have gone to, and it helped make me who I am now.’ So I bow with gratitude to all exploding cigars.” And she mentions the north stars who guide us in our life. “And then,” Cisneros adds, “there are people who are exploding cigars and north stars!”
One of the essays in this collection will comment on the “borlote” she experienced with American Dirt.
“People don’t realize that I blurbed over twenty-five books that year. When you blurb a book, you don’t know how much money it’s going to earn. I didn’t make the deal, nor did any of us who blurbed it. We didn’t know the contract.”
Looking back, Cisneros realizes everyone speaking up during that “borlote” was speaking from a wound. “I should have spoken from a place of calmness, so that’s my fault.”
For Cisneros, the wound was being bullied by other writers in the past. “I will not stand by anyone bullying any other writer. As an activist, as a human rights person, how can we complain about how human beings are being treated at the border and treat another human being in a disparaging manner?”
“Essentially,” Cisneros explains, “we’re all trying to bring consciousness about the issues of the border. So why are we fighting amongst each other? For me, that was the error–that clarity was not brought to the issue the way that it was presented.”
Now that Martita, I Remember You is out this week in audiobook as well–with Cisneros reading the English and Spanish versions with French and Argentine accents where the text needs it–she continues her work on House on Mango Street the opera and a TV series for that book, which she’s writing the pilot for. Sadly, she says, Esperanza’s situation still exists in Chicago.
She has plans to visit Chicago the Tuesday before Thanksgiving for an event hosted by the National Mexican Museum of Art at the Field Museum, but she doesn’t know how Covid-19 will affect those plans.
On these trips home, Cisnero works to separate Sandra the writer, who is usually exhausted when she arrives from a book tour, and Sandra the relative who likes to see her family in smaller groups before they all meet up for a dim sum breakfast.
“Now I know how to make it work,” Cisneros explains. “No fighting–or you pay the bill!” She jokes. “That works in my family.”
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