At 64, PEN America winner Sandra Cisneros is just getting started

Her 1984 book "The House on Mango Street," required reading in many schools, has sold over 6 million copies and been translated into 20 languages.

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By Sandra Guzman

It’s poetically fitting that Sandra Cisneros, the Chicana literary trailblazer and best-selling novelist, plans to donate the cash prize that comes with winning this year's International PEN/Nabokov Award to her assistants so they can buy a home.

Home, in the physical and metaphorical sense, has been a central theme for Cisneros since her literary debut in 1980.

“With money and fame comes responsibility, and the amount is exactly what they need,” she said in a phone interview from her home in San Miguel de Allende, the stunning colonial city in central Mexico where she has lived since 2013. “They’ve been looking for loans, and the interest in Mexico is 39 percent. I can’t describe how happy it makes me to be able to do this for them.”

For Cisneros, the nature of her success has always been steeped in generosity.

"I believe that there is a law in the universe that all the work we do is in service to those we love and it's always going to bring us better rewards and fortune. It puts us in a state of grace when you are in service to your community," she said.

Cisneros, born in Chicago in 1954 to Mexican immigrants, is a writer-activist who came of age in 1970s-era of Black Power and the Chicano civil rights movement. She says she writes out of a sense of urgency because “the world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning.” Writing for her is not just a political act but also a spiritual one.

Her 1984 novel "The House on Mango Street” catapulted Cisneros to national acclaim. The book, which she has described as a necklace of stories of working-class Mexican-American girls, has sold over 6 million copies, been translated into 20 languages, and is required reading in many high schools and universities.

“The idea of writing a best-seller was not on my mind when I wrote 'The House on Mango Street,'” she said. “I wrote it to stop the swelling in my heart from the stories that I was hearing and witnessing.”

Cisneros made her literary debut in 1980 with "Bad Boys," a book of poems published by Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gary Soto as part of their Chicano Chapbook Series. The book is now considered a collector’s item, selling for thousands of dollars.

“I used to sell that book for a dollar a copy out my backpack while I was still studying for my MFA,” she recalls. “I never thought I’d make money writing.”

She says she doesn’t own a copy of the book, which is basically pages stapled together, but her brother does. “He has it locked up with a key in a safe somewhere. It will probably help pay for my nephew's tuition,” she laughs.

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While she now makes a living with her pen, it was not always so easy for her or her Latino/Chicano contemporaries.

Author Sandra Cisneros is presented with the National Medal of Arts during an East Room ceremony at the White House on Sept. 22, 2016.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

“Latino writers were not being published by the mainstream press, so we had to publish ourselves,” she says of the 1980s. “I feel it's our responsibility to support young Latino and Latina writers who are probably being discouraged by their families not to write and who are not being published by the big presses. Also, not all the good writers get attention and win awards so I feel I need to give back."

The New York Times Book Review has said that Cisneros is "not only a gifted writer but an absolutely essential one." Her books include a 1987 collection of poetry, "My Wicked Wicked Ways"; a 1991 short-story collection, “Woman Hollering Creek and other stories”; followed by “Loose Woman: Poems”; and in 2002, the novel, “Caramelo.”

In 2015 she published a memoir, “A House of My Own: Stories from My Life,” which she said she completed after moving to her family's ancestral Mexico after living in San Antonio for 30 years.

Cisneros also writes children’s books and authored an illustrated book for adults, “Have You Seen Marie?” which is currently being produced for the stage.

'I'm just barely getting started'

Past PEN winners include Phillip Roth, Mario Vargas Llosa and Edna O’Brien. In naming Cisneros as this year’s winner, the judges — the authors Alexander Chee, Edwidge Danticat and Valeria Luiselli — wrote that “Cisneros brings us astounding and lyrical voices from burning, maligned, devastated, as well as reassembled houses, and nations."

"It’s hard to imagine navigating our world today without her stories and her voice guiding us toward much needed reclamation and endurance," they wrote.

Cisneros admits she was surprised by the award because "it feels premature.”

“At 64, I am just barely getting started, and I say that in all sincerity,” Cisneros said. “If it’s about a lifetime award, I feel like I am not done with my life’s work. I’ve had such great teachers," whom she calls her "literary ancestors."

"I am never going to fill their chancletas," or sandals, she said. "I have a long way to go.”

It reminded her of a quote by the Japanese printmaker Hokusai — one of her muses — who said at 77 that if he could have five more years, only then could he call himself an artist.

Moving to Mexico after living in Texas for three decades continues to transform her art and inform her inner life. She describes her time in Mexico as being in a state of joy where she is constantly daydreaming. Life in the quaint town surrounded by mountains is quiet, with little to no distractions.

“I am less afraid to say that I listen to the spirits who talk to me. I am exploring my spirituality because every piece of art is a spiritual act," she said.

Cisneros is also dipping into other forms of artistic expression. Her latest work, "Puro Amor," is a small book of her illustrations.

“I am exploring and going in directions that I wanted to go all my life. I am not where I want to be," she said. "I have seen what I would like to do, and I have a long way to go."

Cisneros is collaborating with the composer Derek Bermel for an opera based on "The House on Mango Street." "Mango Suite" is set to premiere at Princeton in May.

She is working with the Santa Fe-based textile designer Nancy Traugott on a series of texts and textiles called "Trapitos" (rags) and is collaborating with Jose Rubén de León who is adapting “Have You Seen Marie?" for the theater. Cisneros is thrilled to be making her acting debut by playing the character of the river when the production previews this summer in Texas.

Last year Cisneros received a Ford Foundation Art of Change fellowship and recently completed more than 50 oral histories of undocumented people, a chorus of voices that she hopes will be adapted for the stage. She is presently working on an essay about the Academy Award-nominated film "Roma," told from the gaze of domestic workers.

"It's not that I am consciously doing this art — it's organic and I am just learning," she said. "This is the path I am on."

Cisneros will receive the PEN award on Feb. 26 in New York. The comedian Hari Kondabolu will host the event.

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