Sandra Cisneros ascended to the upper echelons of the literary world with her 1983 young adult novel, “The House on Mango Street.” Almost four decades later, “The House on Mango Street” continues as a staple of classrooms throughout the United States, Mexico and other parts of the world. It’s been translated into twenty languages and has sold more than six-million copies. Cisneros is no longer the young woman who wrote that iconic book, but her artistic vision and work ethic remain the same. She is an evolving artist who persistently adds substantial titles to her impressive oeuvre of poetry, short stories, essays and memoirs.
Earlier this year, the organization of which I am the founding executive editor, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, honored Cisneros with its Fuller Award for lifetime achievement, the ninth Chicago author to be so recognized. This, for Cisneros, was just the latest in a long list of significant awards. While her literacy legacy is secure, her work is not finished. “Martita, I Remember You,” will be her thirteenth book. Due out as a Vintage Original September 7 from Penguin Random House, “Martita” is a compressed piece of fiction in which a mature woman gets back inside her more youthful self to reflect upon a defining experience and the relationships it spawned.
With “Martita,” Cisneros captures a broad range of influences and important aspects of her life. She grounds the story in a Chicago setting that harkens to her own roots in the city while placing events in a less-than-fanciful Paris she knew as a young traveler. The perspective is both wise and naïve, pragmatic and hopeful. In the story, Cisneros captures the meaning and residual power of a transformative youthful experience. “Martita”’s narrator, Corina, and Cisneros herself, take the long view to dissect the ways in which our past becomes part of the fabric of our most contemporary selves.
Talking to Cisneros is like talking to a witness to her own legacy, somebody who is at once a participant and a bystander. Her laser-like emotional recall contrasts with her fuzzy recollection of actual circumstances, probably a manifestation of the way she uses blended personal history to create sophisticated stories. She manages supreme confidence while remaining humble. Connecting with her on Zoom, Cisneros exuded a spirit subdued, no doubt from fatigue, but that at intervals bubbled into something seemingly unchanged from her younger self. She wore oversized peach eyeglasses—they look, almost, made for eclipse viewing—that on somebody else might look funny but on her look trend-settingly chic. A single braided pigtail hung over a casual purple blouse. Her famous high-pitched voice, still animated though less of a squeal, comes off as girlish. She used her slender hands to emote. Always thoughtful, Cisneros gazed skyward as if searching answers not only to my questions but to the magic that goes into her creative process. She would close her eyes and transition into storytelling mode. Without knowing the truth, one might guess forty or forty-five, no more than fifty. Sandra, though, is quick to remind—sixty-six; she seems comfortable with that, while at the same time cognizant of what it means. She is determined to not only produce more but greater literature. Her new book is a result of that drive.
So, are you in San Miguel de Allende?
I’m in San Miguel de Allende, right, and I finished up the audio recording this morning. I did four hours yesterday and an hour today.
You have a great reading voice and you’re such a skilled performer.
I really was challenged this time because I had to pronounce words I’ve never pronounced before in French. That was hard. And I had to pronounce words I’d never pronounced before in Spanish, which wasn’t as hard but, you know, just to have the flow. If I take a really deep breath, well the microphone picks up everything. You have to drink water, and you have to wait till it goes down your esophagus, because the mic can pick it up. And then you have to wait till you burp. But it’s so much fun to be in the recording studio. I’m living my dream of being an actor.
“Martita, I Remember You.” It’s your new novella. The story opens with the narrator Corina grinding her way through a refurnishing project. She’s in a Chicago apartment, one of many in which she’s lived over the course of what we sense is a long but not-t00-long life. She has young children, is in the throes of responsibility, adulthood. Two moments in that electric opening sequence strike me. The first is when the narrator says, “I have to shut the torch valve.” The second is when she reaches the important files—vital records like property taxes and the house contract—to get at the Martita letters. It’s such a well-sculpted opening. What are you working to establish there?
Oh, I don’t remember how I established that, to tell you the truth, because that first part of the story was written so long ago. I started that story back in the late eighties, early nineties. It was supposed to be part of “Woman Hollering Creek,” and it didn’t make it to the final cut. My editor and my agent both said “this can’t end here.” So I put it aside and I really didn’t pick it up till about five years ago. Dennis [Mathis], my close fiction-writing friend, begged me to finish that story. But I was always so busy. Finally, I took it out of deep freeze, and started working on it.
So, how did I set that up? In real life, I did find a letter from an old friend that brought back so much emotion. I was writing the story to try to discover what I was feeling, there were no words for what I was feeling. I know my cousin has lived in almost identical Chicago apartments for years—every apartment she’s ever lived in has one of those hutches, every single one. I remember a boyfriend I had was a carpenter, his name was Richard, back in my twenties, and he was rehabbing a building in Pilsen and he gave me a scraper and a little blowtorch and I was helping to scrape and, man, that’s like penance doing that. So the hutch came up, and that moment when I was scraping, back when I was in my twenties. I just, I don’t know how it all came together.
It is, in part, an epistolary novel. The narrator says she is “searching for you”—meaning Martita—”in letters spilling photos.” The letters though only contain a fragment of the story. These are really ways for the narrator to access memory. What led you to choose these letters as a device for accessing the story?
Well, the story had that first section that goes back to Paris, and I needed to fill in parts of the story of what happened to them after their meeting in Paris when all three friends disperse. The way that we have relationships with people over the years, you hear little bits and pieces, especially in the old days when you used to send real letters, not emails that you dash off with no literary style. That was something that I would work on when I would write to friends, to try to write a beautiful letter, and I appreciated the ones I got back from my women friends. So I was just copying, I think, a longstanding, over thirty years, correspondence with my friend Jasna [Karaula Krasni] in Sarajevo. She of all my friends is probably the one that we’ve exchanged the most letters, and I borrowed a lot from her way of talking on paper when it isn’t a native speaker, and from her sister, they’re both translators in Bosnia yet they have a curious English. I just tried to borrow that longstanding love that we have with people from our youth, and all the places that our lives take us. I wasn’t just borrowing from Jasna; it was probably about nine other people.
It’s based on a real trip I took when I was twenty-eight; I make the character twenty. And there were many little shards of memory of women that I met, someone I would meet on a train and we’d wind up sharing a room and we laughed and we’re washing our hair and painting our toenails and those lovely intimate conversations with people you never see again or people you stay in contact with and just the stories you share, and a well-being that you share, there were so many women like that, it was almost as if we were from the Republic of Women instead of Bosnia or in the United States or Italy or France. So many wonderful moments and I gathered them all and I wrote down things that happened to me, places that I remembered that struck me, stories that women told me that maybe hurt me because I didn’t want things like that to happen to them. Stories that I put in the characters’ voices.
I was delighted to get the letter that you sent me after the Fuller Award ceremony, and I know you did that for a good number of people. It’s an art that a lot of people have abandoned. But it’s delightful, not only in real life to get a letter, but to experience what letters do to a person and how they can keep a kind of intimacy that you can’t get, I think, with modern technology.
I felt after getting the Fuller Award that people had gone out of their way to write something for me, that I couldn’t send them an email. It took me three months to get everybody. You want to be fresh when you write a letter. You want to shine your shoes, you want the letter to be nice, you know you’re giving it to a writer, so you really want to be alert and have some responsibility of gifting them with beautiful sentences and true sentiments. I just thought that was the best way to thank everyone.
The letters transport Corina back to another time, another place. She’s barely clear of her teen years. She’s far from home. She’s hiding out, more or less, in Paris, waiting for a kind of affirmation of her worth, and a clue that she will grow into something greater. She finds friendship in Paola, a northern Italian beauty, and Martita, an Argentinian. The three young women are far from home, they’re trying to figure out what it is they will become. It is here that Corina becomes Puffina, Puffi, Puffinissima, and a sleuth of affectionate nicknames. Marta is Martita. Almost immediately, we sense a bond, an affection, that exceeds any kind of normal relationship. There is an intensity, a codependency, that develops almost instantaneously. Tell me about the dynamics at work, both in the past and in the distance from which the story is told.
I think that that’s part of the reason why I couldn’t finish the story when I was younger. When I was younger and trying to write, it was based on recent memories. You can’t see the story clearly when you’ve lived parts of it. You do really need the long view. I really think I needed to become an older person and look back and not write everything that happened but to invent and cut and paste from other people’s lives. A lot of it happened to me but a lot of it did not, either; there’s so many people that I gathered it from. And I don’t even know where some parts came from. It’s so specific: so and so lives on 1 Rue Montmartre. Metro Stop is Châtelet. I thought, “How did I get that? Did I look at a map?” I have no idea; I don’t have any notes from that time. I feel as if the thirty years from when I started the story, it was like one of those jellos, you need it to set in the refrigerator overnight. I couldn’t have written that, even if you’d held a gun to my head, back in the nineties when I started it. I always think that the farther away the story is, the clearer you can see it, because you can see yourself. What you lose with the distance of time, of course, is the little details, but for a writer that’s easy to make up.
You’ve brought up a couple of times the relationship between women. In the Paris of the past for Corina, there are lots of men. But the men are really, even though some of them are very charming, they’re very kind, it’s women against men in some ways. For example, when Corina is living with the puppeteers, and there’s that uncomfortable sequence in which you write about going to bed and trying to fend off the advances. With the women friends, especially of course Martita, Paola as well, they’re protectors, they’re mothers, they’re friends. Not to say that women don’t have agendas, but their agenda is not usually sexual. And so that seems to be almost a prerequisite to this kind of friendship.
I always tell young women that the worst decade is their twenties but that they shouldn’t worry. It only lasts ten years. That’s the most difficult decade because people can’t see your real you, they see the shell. When I was in my twenties, it was so exhausting, to always be prey. Now that I’m sixty-six, there’s this kind of great relief. I’m invisible again, like when I was a kid. Women always have to navigate that, as Corina does. Even when she’s walking from the bus stop to the lakefront. She walks through the park and she says, “Hope no one bothers me.” It’s all these things you have to think about and to think about. You’re praying, you have to circumnavigate your life, and think about things ahead of time so that you’re not vulnerable. That’s how these women are living; they’re surviving and they’re trying to live dreams, and they’re trying to protect, they’re trying to protect one another. It seems like no matter what country I went to, I would be befriended by some woman who became a part of this story. This was during the year that I was traveling on my NEA grant, the year when I went off by myself as a twenty-eight-year-old woman, my Odyssey voyage. This was when I finished “House.” Some of them are people I am related to, other people that are still in my life now.
Youth is such a part of it. The past upon which Corina reflects, it’s vibrant. It’s hard, it’s exciting, it’s depressing, all these things at once. It’s a landscape of underground artists, no-frills lodging, shared resources, parties. It seems that’s only possible in youth. I love all the beautifully crafted descriptions of their Paris lives, like sponge baths in front of a butane heater and the solitary window facing a dark airshaft, as well as the characters in their circle, like the Argentinian puppeteers and the singers who aren’t very good singers. You must have had a difficult time choosing the objects and scenes to represent Corina in this story, and to do justice through her eyes to this magical time in her life. It’s a very compact novella. How did you choose the objects and the characters to represent that time?
Now, first, I want to say that I’m calling it a story, and you’re calling it a novella and I’m glad you call it a novella because I don’t think it’s a short story because it’s too long, but it’s too short to be a novella. So maybe I don’t know what to call it, a novelita? But whatever it is, it has a lot in it. I don’t know where all those details came from. I wish I could say. I can only tell you that the disastrous moments are the ones that happened to me, like the six Barcelona girls, things that I wish I could forget. I have such a memory about things that are uncomfortable or things that are what I call the exploding cigars that it’s easy for me to write about them because it’s a way for me to release them. Remember that song [singing] Please release me, let me go… That’s how I feel about my memories, I want them to let me go. Cataloging them and writing them down later on, I asked myself, “Did I make that up or did that happen?” And then it gets so embellished that, you know, it’s like a little grain of sand that gets covered by so many layers, that it becomes this pearl and you can’t remember the little grain of sand anymore.
I think that happens over repeat tellings of the story. When we’re younger, at least for me, we have a tendency to want to disguise any embarrassments, and to accentuate the heroic aspects.
I do the opposite. I tell people, they’ll say, “Did this really happen?” And I say, “All the emotions are true, but anywhere where the character did not come out brilliant and had like something embarrassing… that’s what happened to me.” All the smart stuff she says is what I should have said. I think of myself as being all three characters. Paola’s probably me now, except I’m not a kleptomaniac. Martita is the romantic part of me. Corina is the innocent part of me which I still retain. All those three are parts of myself.
It’s only a few Paris seasons that Corina and Martita share a life. We don’t know how long exactly but it’s not much time in the big picture. But I sense that the Paris timeline is deliberately brief. I was wondering what the historical timeline says about the nature of relationships.
I think that there’s something ineffable about our relationships. You can meet somebody on a train and just be talking to them all night, and they’ll stay with you for your lifetime. Why these people that I met on this journey that I made when I was twenty-eight? I had finished “House on Mango Street” in Greece. I had a Eurail pass. But by the time I finished the book, it was November 30, a really crummy time to be meandering in Europe. It was wet and cold, and I was vagabondy. I remember a lot of discomfort. I remember being so disillusioned because I had this idea in my head that Paris was going to look like the Atget photos, the sepia photos from one-hundred years prior, but of course he was documenting buildings that were being destroyed so he was documenting what was disappearing. When I got to Paris and I saw what was there, I was like, “No!” When you don’t have any money, when you’re hand and mouth, with people who don’t have money…the underbelly of Paris is a very different Paris than the movies or your imagination. It’s almost an anti-Paris story.
Chicago in this novella beckons and repels at the same time, it’s home for Corina but waiting there are judgmental, although very concerned, parents, they’re practical and yet, in some ways they’re naive. Did you draw Corina’s relationship with her home city of Chicago, from your own?
I did, I did write about it from my own, but I also kind of gathered other people that came with me as writers, or relatives also who wanted to be writers or who wanted to be something else other than what they became. I wasn’t aware until I was finished with the story that I had gathered wisps of their lives. Corina’s father is my dad. I didn’t deviate, that’s a portrait of my father. I didn’t expect to write about Chicago. The letter part and ending came later, I wanted to expand the story to a real novel length, but it didn’t want to be that, it wanted to be what it is. I said, “Okay.” I tend to listen to what my writing wants to be.
It seems to me that, especially as I was doing some of the preparation for the award ceremony, and reading through all your poems and stories and your novel again, that each book project seems so distinct from the last one or the next one. It’s almost as if you’re imagining the whole of your library, and you’re addressing some part of it that you haven’t done before.
First of all, do you think that’s true? If so, what were you trying to do with this one that you hadn’t done before?
That’s a nice writer’s question. Thank you for asking that. I think I was trying to write like the writers I admire the most, that I love. You can see the influence of Mercè Rodoreda. I was thinking of Jean Rhys and I was thinking, Collette, and I was thinking of writers like Diana Athill, Harriet Doerr, older writers, writers who wrote their best works after sixty. Those kind of writers inspire me. I want to write like Mercè Rodoreda, she has so much power of description and small details and great emotion in her writing, and I think that that was there. Maybe it wasn’t. When I started it, in the early nineties—when did I read “Time of the Doves?”—in 1988, so it was very close, she was shimmering in my memory, I’m sure. Now I’m in my mid-sixties. I’m very much aware that I don’t have a lot of time, and that I haven’t reached what I consider my best work, that I haven’t reached what I want to be known by, and I know people like my first book, but I always like my next book. I’m always reaching to try to be like the writers Tennessee Williams or Christopher Isherwood or Gwendolyn Brooks. I just want to be a good writer, I want to be a good writer when I grow up. Every book, I’m working really hard to make better than the last one.
You’ve had such great success and gotten so much acclaim for your books in the past. What about this book makes you most proud?
Oh, I think there’s a maturity in this story that maybe you haven’t seen in my work before. I don’t know because it’s still so new to me. I think there’s a power that I’ve kind of crossed between a longer work and a shorter work, and put them both together and to be able to make a long short story or short novella, and to be able to have the kind of running speed that a longer book would, in the small few pages. I like this kind of mid-length. I liked exploring so many characters. More than anything, I hope it’s the kind of story that people will laugh and that they’ll cry. That’s what I want. If I can make people laugh and cry, then I will have reached my mark.
It was the perfect one-sitting story. I think whoever picks up this book and puts it down before they finish is doing it an injustice.
Even today, recording, sometimes I had to go back and rerecord a line. I asked the engineer, “May I read a paragraph before?” because it’s very much like a poem, and that every line helps to move the next one, and I couldn’t just read a line isolated, I had to read the paragraph to get me in the right frame of mind, in the right tone.
I know you were back in Chicago recently for the first time since before the pandemic.
I came up to get my second vaccine in San Antonio and I thought, “Oh, I better go visit my family now, otherwise I’m going to have to get another COVID test.” So I just hopped on a plane to Chicago, hadn’t seen my family for two years, so it was action-packed.
Do you think you’ll come to Chicago when you’re promoting the book?
Yes, yes. I’m happy to say that the Mexican museum is very excited about the possibility of my coming. I squeezed in another week in the States, which will make a very long three weeks in November that I will be in the States. I’m doing four live readings: one in San Antonio, one in Houston, the Miami Book Fair and the fourth one is Chicago. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I will be reading at the Field Museum, they’re going to give us the auditorium. It’s sponsored by the National Museum of Mexican Art, but they don’t have the space that’s large enough to hold everybody.
That’ll be a wonderful place to read.
Yeah, yeah, the people at the National Museum of Mexican Art are such good people and work so hard. I thought, “This is a Chicago story. I have to come to Chicago.” We won’t be able to do it like we’ve done it in the past. There won’t be receiving lines and photos afterwards because of COVID, but I’ll pre-sign bookplates.
Fans of “The House on Mango Street, or your extraordinary novel “Caramelo,” or, really, of any past publications…What’s in this for them?
Well, I think this is a hybrid of my two previous novels; the succinctness of “House” with the dense characters of “Caramelo.” For me it has been a feat to write this book. I have crafted it as diligently as if it were a little music box, and, in a way, it is.
“Martita, I Remember You”
By Sandra Cisneros
Vintage, 128 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.