Written by Sarah Lynn Neal
“I feel very young at 60,” Sandra Cisneros said, smirking beneath her glasses at this year’s Texas Book Festival panel celebrating her work in fiction and poetry. Held at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church, the panel commemorated her latest literary venture: the memoir.
Her 2015 book entitled, A House of My Own: Stories of My Life explores the sense of insecurity she felt as an artist, despite her success as a writer over the course of three decades. A House of My Own tracks the process of her understanding and discerning her identity, and how the very definition of identity is shifting. It’s not something that’s fixed; identity is something we are continuously moving toward.
The very definition of identity is shifting. It’s not something that’s fixed; identity is something we are continuously moving toward.
“I was no good. I was worthless, I was a dud,” Cisneros read from her memoir. She had a sense of ease while reading from the podium, which was fitting for the atmosphere. People gathered into crowded pews to hear her speak in what very much felt like a preacher-congregation experience. Cisneros possessed a great deal of confidence in the way she asserted these self-patronizing statements. The kind of confidence that could only come from wisdom and experience, for she knew those statements weren’t true. Though they were true for her at the time when she felt them.
The sincerity in these statements, and the juxtaposition of these heart-swelling lines coupled with her confidently poised 60-year-old demeanor humanized Cisneros. There she stood, before the audience, recounting the many insecurities and trials that made their way into her memoir. It was a moment of intimacy, writer to readers.
She spoke of a quirky anecdotal experience in which she became star struck when she met her favorite artist, Ástor Piazzolla, an Argentinean composer and bandoneon player. She considered this meeting a soul-finding experience, half jokingly calling 1988, “The year of my resurrection.” Their encounter, as she recounted it, consisted of a stammering Cisneros approaching Piazzolla, sputtering, “YOU ARE MY LIFE” without thinking. This anecdote garnered chuckles from the audience.
After concluding her reading, the moderator, Nora Comstock opened up the floor for questions. It didn’t take long for members of the audience to raise their hands eagerly, hoping to speak to Cisneros. The first question came from Frances Molina, a staff writer for The Liberator. Molina inquired about the women in Cisneros’ writing and the ways in which they possess elements of chicana feminism and feminista characteristics.
Cisneros replied, ‘I didn’t have to make [these characteristics] up…the Mexican woman is a strong woman.’
Molina went further to ask if these characteristics were included intentionally or if they grew more organically from Cisneros’ thought processes. With poise and authority, Sandra Cisneros replied, “I didn’t have to make it up,” adding, “the Mexican woman is a strong woman.” She went on to comment on the representations of Latinas in John Wayne films, reminding the audience of the harm stereotypes can inflict on a group of people. She concluded by declaring, “the matriarch makes the macho.”
Another question came from a young boy, who asked what college Cisneros went to. It was a giggle-worthy moment, as the boy confessed he needed that information to complete a paper he was writing about Cisneros for his class. She told him she went to Loyola University Chicago, but she did not enjoy college.
Cisneros looked right into the boy’s eyes when she spoke to him. She discussed how the university experience was isolating to her and how even when she went to graduate school—admitted into the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop—she felt like the black sheep. This grew into a larger discussion about identity in art and the importance of writing, painting, creating as a mode of finding oneself. She deemed this exercise “transforming our demons before they transform us,” calling for the need to “get past the worst censor of all—you.”
[Cisneros discussed] identity in art and the importance of writing, painting, creating as a mode of finding oneself. She deemed this exercise ‘transforming our demons before they transform us,’ calling for the need to ‘get past the worst censor of all—you.’
The panel concluded with applause from the pews as Cisneros took her exit. The warmth was palpable, as many people got a little bit closer to their idol, like Cisneros herself meeting Ástor Piazzolla for the first time. The chapel was left filled to its brim with positive energy and inspiration.
It has been just over 20 years since Cisneros’ heralded book The House on Mango Street was published, but her significance as a writer remains. Her writing has touched people of all generations and is read in classrooms across the country—a testament to the timelessness of her prose.