Sandra Cisneros, perhaps best known for her first novel, “The House on Mango Street,” is an author whose descriptive, lyrical prose and expressive treatment of the Chicano cultural experience has catapulted the Chicago native to nearly unparalleled fame.
And yet, in her new release “Have You Seen Marie?” – Cisneros’ first novel since 2002’s “Caramelo” – the San Antonio, Texas-based author departs from the full-length novel and poetry she’s best known for and presents a short story about a pair of women who embark on an emotional journey to find a pet cat that disappears in the wake of the narrator’s death. The story – expressively wrought and full of picturesque illustrations of San Antonio and its colorful characters by visual artist Ester Hernández – is at its heart a parable for adults, whose themes of death, mourning and loss take on new meaning when presented within a simple tale about a cat gone astray. Cisneros, whose awards include MacArthur and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, spoke to NBC Latino about the inspiration for the book and how through the process of writing it, found healing in the aftermath of her own mother’s passing.
What inspired you to write this book – a short story that looks and feels like a children’s fable, but is really centered on the various phases of the loss and grieving process?
“I actually wrote this book many, many years ago, fresh from the grief of my mother’s death. I began telling this story while on tour for the 25th anniversary of ‘The House on Mango Street,’ and reading it aloud throughout that year helped shape it. Stories aren’t quite done until you perform them and every time I told that story it was changed, altered and edited until it took on its present form. When I was finally finished, I invited my friend Ester to do the drawings. She had also lost her mom and so to me, this book really is a gift. A gift that’s helped others through the grieving process and a book I hope will continue to do so. There is no card that will work when someone is grieving. I used to insist that it’s a book for adults, but I’ve stopped saying that because children enjoy the story to the last word and speaks to them on another level; they’re concerned about the cat. So it wasn’t written for children, as none of my works are – I wrote it for myself to deal with my own grief and it helped transform me.”
San Antonio plays a significant role in this book as both the backdrop for this book and with its residents helping the narrator in her search for the cat, Marie. Can you describe your relationship with the neighborhoods and people described in “Have You Seen Marie?”
“The people described in the book are real people, who’ve all been weaved into the story – with their permission, of course! It’s based on the real neighbors who I’ve lived with for 20 years; people who I know better than some family members. Ester flew out here so she could look at the landscape and together we spent hours photographing people, animals, houses …a process that seemed like a tribute to this lovely place — this river walk neighborhood that the tourists don’t see and that’s vanishing as we speak because of renovations done to the river that’s chasing away wildlife, me included. I plan on moving soon and so in more ways than one, this book represents the end of a chapter.”
There’s a lovely scene in the book where your character speaks to the river and symbolically baptizes herself. Can you elaborate on that?
“I was very much influenced in writing that scene. I thought about the moment when Buddha is enlightened by the river and of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen; all those beautiful stories that include rivers and animals. I knew in finding my own resolution that the river would be instrumental in finding transformation from darkness to light – and so the river would speak. And I know it will sound funny, but the actual voice is modeled after the lovely Tejana waitresses at Taco Haven, a local restaurant here. The waitresses are very dulce and have a very sweet way of addressing you. You never know where inspiration will come from and I wouldn’t have imagined that the river would find its voice through these experiences.”
What did you learn about yourself from this book?
“Every time I write, I gain something – that’s how I know I’m done writing. Reading this story aloud and writing it was transformational and healing; it nourished my spirit. I truly believe you cannot overcome grief. You pass through it and it will always accompany you. This book, creating art, made me understand that my profession is a way for me to nourish myself when my spirit was dying. During grief your heart is broken open and you become open to light, intuition, creativity and beauty. The art comes as you do the work of briefing. And you should create, because it’s a way to transform that darkness into light, weave that straw into gold. Otherwise you become stuck and deprive yourself of an opportunity to grow spiritually.”
Did you ever think as a young writer that you’d be so famous? How has that changed your life and career?
“Yes and no. I think we all have moments of clairvoyance and see a hint of the future. I did sense that I would be popular and reach lots of people; I knew that from the very beginning with ‘The House on Mango Street.’ But at the same time, I took typing lessons and learned skills so I would have something to fall back on. I was practical about living my life and being able to earn my own money because I knew the men I selected would be gone – which was true – and I created lots of parachutes, so that I could take care of myself.”
What’s next for you?
“I have many projects that I’ve been working on. A book of essays, a book of short fiction and some poetry. I’m working on some autobiographical essays as well. I work best and am happiest when I have all these different projects. I’m not excited by one project for long periods of time: I want to write what I’m excited about when I’m excited about it and if I’m bored then I move onto another manuscript. Otherwise the writing suffers.”