The following is an interview with author Sandra Cisneros, conducted at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. She is best known for her first novel, The House On Mango Street, which chronicles Latino culture in Chicago. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and currently lives in San Antonio, Texas. Her latest book, Have You Seen Marie?, is an illustrated story about a missing cat.
HP: Tell us about your new book.
SC: My new book is actually a story, and it's an illustrated story. It's a story I was reading out loud, and I realized when I was performing it (many of my stories are spoken first) that it was doing a lot of medicine work. I think all books are medicine, and and they are meant for a person who has an ailment of a certain kind. That's why certain books don't speak to us, because we're not ill with that ailment. So my story was one about my mother's death, dealing with her absence, and transforming that grief into light. And I realized when I was performing the story that it was helping me heal from my mother's death, and it was also helping people in the audience who have experienced loss.
HP: That sounds a lot like this new psychological practice called bibliotherapy.
SC: That's actually a very old concept from the Native Americans, so I'm not inventing that, I'm repeating that from elders and ancestors who know that stories are medicine. And, I think, we look at popular culture and we see what kinds of stories are important to communities in certain times in history, and it speaks to what is ailing us. And I think right now there's a reason why we have these superhero movies. We're living in fear. We're looking for someone to rescue us, and we don't have a common mythology, so we're using these cheap heroes, this kind of secondary mythology of popular culture.
HP: Where do you like to read?
SC: I have this little couch, and it's too small to stretch out on, but it's small enough to take a nap if your knees are up. My dogs all like to jump around while I'm there -- one sits on my head, one on my belly, and one at my feet. And that's only half of my herd -- I have six dogs, a lot of rescues. The biggest one is an Italian Greyhound, and he's the one at my feet. The overweight Chihuahua sits on my head like a little hat.
HP: What was the last great book you read there?
SC: Marie Arana's book, American Chica. I'd started it, but I was telling her, Marie, I buy books when they come out, but I don't read them until I find them, because I stack them in towers and then somebody moves them and I can't remember where they are. So right now I'm organizing them in alphabetical order, and I found her book and I knew I was going to see her. She's a beautiful writer. I found myself underlining sentences.
HP: What's one book you'd recommend to everyone?
SC: I think people should read fairy tales, because we're hungry for a mythology that will speak to our fears. One of my favorite writers is Hans Christian Anderson. His stories speak to the times. Not everyone is going to take to a mythology, but people will take to fairy tales because they're Trojan Horses -- people will let them in thinking, "Oh, they're just kid's stuff," and then they do their work.
All of my work is influenced by fairy tales and I hope my work shows Hans Christian Anderson's influence. He wrote for adults, but he was aware that children were in the room. And now people think it's for children! This is the thing people don't realize -- Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm were ethnographers, collecting spoken stories. And who spoke those stories? Women. Who passed them down from one generation to the next? Grandmothers. Men collected them and put their names on it! However, Hans Christian Anderson took grandmothers' superstitions and polished them with his poetry and made something really beautiful, introducing spoken Danish to Danish literature.
HP: Do you have a favorite Hans Christian Anderson story?
SC: "The Snow Queen" is my favorite. In fact, one tiny sliver of that story influenced my story. It's that moment when Gerda goes looking for Kai at the river, and she puts her shoes there, and the boat comes. It's such a magical moment because they don't know, is the river really speaking to them?
My story is based on real incident. I was in the dark and reading when I was in mourning for my mother, and a friend across the street at this residency lost her cat. I was forced to go outside and look for the cat, but I didn't want to talk to anybody. The last thing you want to do when you're in mourning is talk to anybody. But I was out there meeting neighbors and talking about the cat, and this magical thing happened, just like in "The Snow Queen." We had made a flier, and this little girl who couldn't read took the flier and showed it to her cat, yelling "Have you seen this cat?" The cat touched the flier with its nose. Cats greet each other by touching noses. I was just astonished at that moment and thought, "I should write this story that I'm living!"