One of my favorite writers and poets … rŌbert
“A poem is never done,” the writer Sandra Cisneros told me in July, over dinner at La Posadita, a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican city where she’s lived for almost ten years. Wearing a black-and-white huipil and her hair in two small, high buns, Cisneros ordered platters of fideo seco and nopales for the table. We had met to talk about her new poetry collection, “Woman Without Shame,” just out from Knopf. Though it’s been twenty-eight years since she’s published a book of poems, she’s never stopped writing them. “I’d throw my poems under the bed, like Emily Dickinson,” she said.
The sixty-seven-year-old Cisneros is the author of short stories, personal essays, novels, and three previous poetry collections. But she is best known for “The House on Mango Street,” a semi-autobiographical novel in vignettes that conjures a hardscrabble childhood in nineteen-sixties Chicago. First published by Houston’s Arte Público Press in 1984, and reissued by Vintage in 1991, it has become a coming-of-age classic, one that’s read in classrooms across the country and has sold more than six million copies. As Ricardo Ortiz, an English professor at Georgetown, told me, it helped make Cisneros an “indispensable voice.”
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The only daughter of a Mexican upholsterer father and a Mexican American mother, Cisneros grew up with six brothers in Chicago’s West Side, a neighborhood so divided by racial and income inequality that, in 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., moved into one of its slum tenements in protest. Throughout Cisneros’s childhood in the sixties and seventies, she and her family regularly went back to Mexico. Cisneros expressed her sense of dislocation by writing poems in her bedroom, whose door didn’t close, leading to continual interruptions.
Cisneros attended Loyola University Chicago, and, in 1976, she entered Iowa’s poetry program, where she studied under Donald Justiceand Louise Glück, learning alongside Joy Harjo and at the same time as Rita Dove, both future Poet Laureates. Iowa’s poetry and fiction programs were separate duchies, but Cisneros merged the disciplines by writing prose poems. “It was a new form, but Donald Justice thought it was a waste of time,” the writer and historian Paul Alexander, a former classmate, said. Back then, teachers admired confessional poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. “We had no voice,” Harjo said, describing her and Cisneros’s feelings of being outsiders at Iowa. “Culturally, it was sideways. . . . We come from places that are land-centered, Indigenous. Our relationship to land and language is essentially different.” Cisneros has said that she felt “homeless” at Iowa, and, although she went on to teach, she never found a permanent place in the academy.
While Cisneros was at Iowa, she started writing what would become forty-five lyrical vignettes—a book she titled “The House on Mango Street.” Influenced by the experimental Latin American Boom novels, she wrote the book in the voice of Esperanza Cordero, who observes the poverty surrounding her Chicago family. “Dead cars appeared overnight like mushrooms,” one passage reads, describing a vacant lot where she and her friends play. Reading “The House on Mango Street” has become a rite of passage for many Latinxers. David Bowles, a Texas-based Chicano novelist, encountered it as a child and felt recognized. “My mother and my brothers and I had lived several years in Section 8 housing,” he said. “It made me feel seen.” The Latina writer and artist Carribean Fragoza studied it in fourth grade, during a summer writing camp, a moment when she remembers being “surrounded by white kids for the first time.” The book helped Cisneros win, among other prizes, the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. The same year she won the MacArthur, Cisneros started teaching a class in San Antonio that developed into the Macondo Writers Workshop. Now in its third decade, Macondo offers workshops to a diverse student body on subjects ranging from young-adult literature to translingual poetics.
Cisneros’s home in San Miguel’s San Juan de Dios parish is named Casa Coatlicue, after the Indigenous goddess, and Latina archetypes such as Coatlicue and La Llorona echo throughout her work. Cisneros, along with writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, and Cherríe Moraga, was an integral part of a late-twentieth-century Latinx movement that celebrated the subversiveness of Indigenous folktales. She was one of the first Latina authors to write books to mainstream publishing success that feature abused women, and today her influence can be seen in writers such as Natalie Diaz and Reyna Grande, whose complex poetry and memoirs limn violence in Native American and Latinx communities. “Discovering Sandra’s book [“The House on Mango Street”] was a revelation,” Grande said, in an e-mail. “She gave me permission, and her bendición, to embark on my own writing journey.”
Cisneros’s success, and her support of programs such as Macondo, have given her a totemic reputation. “It’s like Sandra’s existing in this heaven, this other space,” Fragoza told me. In conversation with Latinx writers, I heard numerous tales of Cisneros’s magnetism and outsized generosity. The Chicana novelist Helena María Viramontes said that when her husband was ill, Cisneros invited the couple to her house. Speaking with emotion in her voice, Viramontes recalled, “She read to us as a present. It almost chokes me up.”
Cisneros’s magnanimous gestures occasionally backfire, as when she blurbed Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 book, “American Dirt,” a thriller about an Acapulco woman whose family is murdered by a cartel kingpin. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Cisneros wrote. After it came out, the book was widely criticized for its racial stereotypes. Backers such as the actors Gina Rodriguez and Salma Hayek and the poet Erika L. Sánchez walked back their praise of the novel. But Cisneros refused to retract her endorsement, inciting viral criticism, especially in the Latinx community. Fragoza said Cisneros’s blurb is a “betrayal” that “revealed some serious disconnections between Sandra and writers today, with Sandra existing as the untouchable queen of Chicana Latinx literature, and the rest of us are just bottom feeders, trying to get into publishing.”
I asked Cisneros about such responses, and she said that the reaction to “American Dirt” “was as bad as the extreme right that bans L.G.B.T.Q. books.” Perhaps candor and contention are to be expected from a writer who regularly takes up taboo subjects ranging from poverty and violence to female sexuality.
Cisneros’s fearlessness runs through “Woman Without Shame,” whose poems capture her solitude, erotic longings, and life in Mexico with rich language and sharp humor. I spoke to her in a series of interviews in San Miguel de Allende, and in subsequent phone and text conversations. The following has been condensed and edited.