“A poem is never finished,” writer Sandra Cisneros told me in July over dinner at La Posadita, a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican city where she has lived for nearly ten years. Wearing a black and white top and her hair in two small high buns, Cisneros ordered plates of fideo seco and nopales for the table. We had met to talk about her new collection of poems, A Woman Without Shame, just out from Knopf. Although it has been twenty-eight years since she published a book of poems, she has never stopped writing them. “I would throw my poems under the bed like Emily Dickinson,” she said.
Sixty-seven-year-old Cisneros is the author of short stories, personal essays, novels and three previous collections of poetry. But she is best known for The House on Mango Street, a semi-autobiographical novel in vignettes that evokes a difficult childhood in 1960s Chicago. First published by Arte Público Press in Houston in 1984 and reissued by Vintage in 1991, it has become a coming-of-age classic read in classrooms across the country and has sold more than six million copies. As Ricardo Ortiz, a professor of English at Georgetown, told me, it helped make Cisneros “an indispensable voice.”
The only daughter of a Mexican upholsterer father and a Mexican mother, Cisneros grew up with six brothers on Chicago’s West Side, a neighborhood so divided by racial and income inequality that in 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. moved into one of the slums as a sign in protest. Throughout Cisneros’ childhood in the sixties and seventies, she and her family regularly returned to Mexico. Cisneros expressed his sense of displacement by writing poetry in his bedroom, the door of which would not close, resulting in constant interruptions.
Cisneros attended Loyola University Chicago, and in 1976 she entered Iowa’s poetry program, where she studied with Donald Justice and Louise Gluck, studying alongside Joy Harjo and concurrently with Rita Dove, both future poet laureates. Iowa’s poetry and fiction programs were separate duchies, but Cisneros brought the disciplines together by writing prose poems. “It was a new form, but Donald Justice thought it was a waste of time,” said author and historian Paul Alexander, a former classmate. Back then, teachers admired confessional poets like Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. “We didn’t have a voice,” Harjo said, describing her and Cisneros’ feelings of being outsiders in Iowa. “Culturally, it was out of the way. . . . We come from places that are land-centered, indigenous. Our relationship to land and language is fundamentally different. Cisneros said she felt “homeless” in Iowa, and although she continued to teach, she never found a permanent position at the academy.
While Cisneros was in Iowa, she began writing what would become forty-five lyrical vignettes, a book she titled The House on Mango Street. Influenced by experimental Latin American boom novels, she wrote the book in the voice of Esperanza Cordero, who observes the poverty surrounding her family in Chicago. “Dead cars sprang up overnight like mushrooms,” reads one passage, describing an empty lot where she and her friends play. Reading The House on Mango Street has become a ritual for many Latinos. David Bowles, a Texas-based Chicano novelist, encountered it as a child and felt recognised. “My mom and my brothers and I had lived in Section 8 housing for a few years,” he said. “It made me feel seen.” Latin American 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 awards, the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. The same year he won the MacArthur Award, Cisneros began teaching a class in San Antonio that grew into the Macondo Writers Workshop. Now in its third decade, Macondo offers workshops to a variety of students on topics ranging from young adult literature to translingual poetics.
Cisneros’ home in San Miguel Parish of San Juan de Dios is named Casa Coatlicue after the local goddess, and Latin American archetypes such as Coatlicue and La Llorona echo in her work. Cisneros, along with writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, and Cheri Moraga, was an integral part of the late twentieth-century Latin American movement that celebrated the subversive nature of indigenous folktales. She was one of the first Latin American authors to write books that achieved publishing success that described abused women, and today her influence can be seen in writers such as Nathalie Díaz and Reyna Grande, whose complex poetry and memoirs limit violence in Native American and Latin American communities. “I open Sandra’s book [“The House on Mango Street”] it was a revelation,” Grande said in an email. “She gave me permission and her bendición to embark on my own writing journey.”
Cisneros’ success and her support of programs like Macondo have given her a totemic reputation. “It’s like Sandra exists in this sky, in this other space,” Fragosa told me. In conversation with Latin American writers, I heard many stories about Cisneros’s magnetism and superb generosity. Chicana novelist Helena Maria Viramontes said that when her husband was ill, Cisneros invited the couple to his house. Speaking with emotion in his voice, Viramontes recalls, “She used to read to us as a gift. It almost suffocates me.”
Cisneros’s generous gestures occasionally backfire, as when she voiced Jeanine Cummins’ 2020 book, “American Dirt,” a thriller about an Acapulco woman whose family is murdered by a cartel kingpin. “This book is not just the great American novel; it is the great novel of America,” Cisneros wrote. Upon its release, the book was widely criticized for its racial stereotyping. Supporters such as actors Gina Rodriguez and Salma Hayek and poet Erica L. Sanchez have responded with praise for the novel. But Cisneros refused to withdraw his endorsement, prompting viral criticism, particularly in the Hispanic community. Fragoza said Cisneros’ ad comment was a “betrayal” that “revealed some serious rifts between Sandra and writers today, where Sandra exists as the untouchable queen of Chicana Latinx literature and the rest of us are just bottom feeders trying to get in in publishing”.
I asked Cisneros about similar responses, and she said the backlash to “American Dirt” “is as bad as the far right banning LGBTQ books.” Perhaps frankness and controversy are to be expected from a writer who regularly tackles taboo subjects ranging from poverty and violence to female sexuality.
Cisneros’ fearlessness runs through Woman Without Shame, whose poems capture her loneliness, erotic longings and life in Mexico with rich language and sharp humor. I spoke with 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.
A Woman Without Shame reads almost like a diary – full of sly references to past lovers and vivid descriptions of turning points in your life.
This is more my journal than my diary. My diaries are like hieroglyphs. If you look at my journal, you won’t understand a phrase, a name, or a quote. It won’t explain where things come from. Only when I write poetry do I explore.
There is incredible candor in the lines throughout, especially when it comes to writing about love and sex. In Making Love After Celibacy, you write, “I bled a little, / Like the first time. / There was pain. / . . . / And winged bliss / Just out of reach.”