Award-winning author of “The House on Mango Street,” Sandra Cisneros discussed the desperate survival measures she resorted to during her travels featured in her newest book — “Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo” — at Scripps Presents.
The virtual event on Nov. 3 was moderated by Colombian writer Jaime Manrique and celebrated the English and Spanish release of the novella, which draws from 28-year-old Cisneros’ experiences traveling in Paris with money from a National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) grant.
Cisneros said the novella, first drafted over 30 years ago, highlights “how much I appreciated the small things people gave me, [which] made me ever sensitive of the plight of people who come as a stranger into the country and the community.”
Centering on a young woman who travels to Paris to pursue her writing dreams, the story uses the protagonist’s two intense female friendships to frame her harrowing experience getting by with little resources. The book is also a tribute to her father, Cisneros said.
“There’s a very loving portrait of his profesión, his profession … When he would sit on a badly upholstered chair, he’d say, ‘It looks like they made it with their feet’ — that’s a Mexican phrase. When you make a poem or story, you make the best you can.”
However, Cisneros recalled her late 20s being riddled with insecurity about her profession and the tenuousness of earning hardly any money from writing.
“I think all young artists are especially vulnerable in their 20s, trying to make something no one wants them to,” Cisneros said, conveying the tension and appeal to “get a ‘real job’ and not juggle a lot of jobs to keep art going.”
These struggles are especially poignant for working-class women artists.
“We certainly are not encouraged as daughters to go out,” Cisneros said, “But for women — working-class artist women — you are really looking for something to prove that you’re a writer. Even when you’re published, you don’t feel like a real writer because you don’t get the perks.”
Cisneros has collected a multitude of stories surrounding nifty practices she developed to survive during her travels.
“In Chicago, I had to think about how I was going to get home — learning to run down the center of the street and not the dark side, where someone can come out of a car,” Cisneros said. “I didn’t have the money for cabs. If I wanted to go to a reading to hear a writer at night, I had to think about ‘How many connections, was it dangerous, how was I dressed?’”
These practices became a habit for her to survive, and she endured several “close encounters,” Cisneros said. She sometimes even put herself in danger, almost being run over by a car so she could run in the center of the road.
With humor, she recalled ways she coped with the lack of access to laundry options, flipping a shirt inside out and backwards to prolong its wearability.
“A lot of the crummy sleeping situations are real, and they’re mine,” she said, smiling.
Cisneros shed light on stories personal to her community and inspired by conversations with women from Nice, Paris, Milan, Sarajevo and countless others — stories that are underrepresented in mainstream literature.
“This is one of the few works of fiction I know that takes these three young women who have these humble ambitions,” Manrique said. “Young women who are working class [and] illiterate are seldom written about in literature.”
The jubilant author remained warm while talking about worries regarding publishing in the “right” places or doing certain writing fellowships. During her travels, she was judged for being a woman living out of a backpack and suitcases. Cisneros recalled male writers often asking her, “Are you a real writer?”
“They wouldn’t believe me,” she said. “Your courage was shattered. They looked at me like, ‘Yeah, right.’ When you met women and told them, ‘This is why I’m here and what I’m doing, and I just finished my first book’ — they give you support, encouragement.”
Such empowerment and camaraderie from fellow women plays a pivotal role in Cisneros’ life and stories.
“For Latina women, we talked to each other because we wanted to be powerful, we wanted to be like our white friends,” she said. “I inherited as a woman, daughter of immigrants, the shame of talking about your period. I wanted to be brava. I didn’t want to be censored.”
Cisneros spoke of “The Time of the Doves” author Mercè Rodoreda as a strong inspiration.
“You’re so much in her body from the first page,” she said. “ … When you name women writers, you don’t name her — only more well-known, more translated ones, but Rodoreda is in my top five.”
The Mexican women Cisneros met while vagabonding on her NEA money were adventurers, striving for economic footing as well. She said the book recalls younger, more romantic and street savvy versions of herself.
“I found, with other Latinas, we wanted to be audacious,” Cisneros said. “We didn’t want to be ashamed; we were raised to be ashamed for everything — even being born female. Our upbringing taught us to be of service to others. We had a lot of deconstructing to do.”
Through the characters and their everyday struggles, she integrates her travel experience and the people she met into her novella, conveying an authentic view of the real people with whom she crossed paths.
“I tried to get phrasing where, even though I’m writing in English, [the character is] saying things in a very Argentine way,” Cisneros said.
For Cisneros, memory is always based on emotions, while details can be clarified through research.
“I think this novel is a testament for when people enter our lives for a slender moment,” she said. “How do they stay there for so many years? Why do they stay so eternally in my heart?”
“I feel like I’m just getting started.” —Sandra Cisneros
When Manrique asked Cisneros to reflect on her literary achievements, Cisneros rejected the idea of her career coming to a close.
“I don’t think I’ve written my masterful work yet,” she said. “ … I want to explore other genres. I want to do many things. I feel like I’m just getting started.”
She hesitated and spoke with more brevity.
“My longtime dream: I would like to be the voice of a cartoon,” she announced. “I also want to do a coloring book of a part of my life.”
Cisneros carried a vivacious energy throughout the webinar, expressing excitement over the opportunity to speak with an audience and alongside fellow cherished writer and friend Manrique.
“These interviews with other writers make me feel máximo — the best!”