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‘I’m Just Getting Started’: Sandra Cisneros Wins Lifetime Achievement Award

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Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros live in studio

Viviana Garcia-Blanco

Mexican-American poet and best-selling author Sandra Cisneros on Tuesday will receive the prestigious PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature.

Cisneros is best-known for her coming-of-age- novel, The House on Mango Street. She joins the Morning Shift to talk about her Chicago roots, career, and upcoming projects.

On how she reacted to news of the PEN/Nabokov Award

Sandra Cisneros: I'm always astonished when I get awards because I think of my failures, I don't think of my successes. I'm not trying to be humble, I really sincerely believe I have so much more to do, so many more miles to go before I sleep. I'm always measuring what I'd like to do or what I want to get to. I feel a little young at 64 to be receiving this, but on the other hand, I will accept it and I'm honored — especially that it recognizes a woman and a woman with indigenous roots at a time where being native, being from the Americas is a time of vilification with our current president. 

On donating her prize money

Cisneros: What I'm doing is fulfilling a promise that I made to myself when I bought my own home in Mexico. I didn't feel it was right that my assistant and his wife who works for me also — that they didn't have a home. I just made that promise I would help them. So this came at this serendipitous moment in which they were offered the house they were renting that they could buy it if they could come up with the money. In Mexico, it's very difficult to get a bank loan that doesn't give you just an outstanding interest rate. It's just something above and beyond what would be astonishing to us in the U.S. So they were going to go that route and this money arrived in the nick of time, at the right moment. And I just felt it was poetic justice. 

On why she moved to Mexico

Cisneros: Part of the reason I wanted to move south is I felt I was a bit overwhelmed in Texas. I had worn myself out creating foundations and taking care of others, and I felt I wasn't taking care of myself. So when I moved to Mexico, it was first a book fair that brought me there and later a vacation on my home and I just kept feeling a great deal of joy the way I always do when I travel to Mexico and the way I did as a child. I felt at home and I felt a joyousness that we need as artists — we need to feel joy so that we can create. And I was just stressed out living in Texas trying to keep the foundations going. So I gave myself permission after 15 years of building foundations to just let them go and to focus on my own life at this stage.

Reflecting on ‘The House on Mango Street’

Cisneros: When I wrote the book The House On Mango Street, I was in a deep channel state. I was just channeling what my characters were saying. I didn't always understand what they were telling me. I was looking for my own political direction as a woman in my 20s. I was trying to find a feminism that was rooted in my social class and in my ethnicity. I was looking for direction that was different than what my family expected from me. So I was writing my way through my walk, through my camino, through my life path. In a way, I was inventing it as I went. And now, when I look back at the book, I'm amazed at how much of what I wrote has come to pass. It was not something I was conscious of, it came from the dream state that our dreams come from. And later on we analyze them and say 'Oh, that's what that meant.'

On how Chicago shaped her as a writer

Cisneros: Chicago allowed me to witness too much injustice for poor people and people of color. I felt so sad and impotent, especially in the lives of my students. When I was working in Pilsen, I worked with high school dropouts who were coming back to study, and they had difficult lives, much more difficult than mine growing up. I had two parents who supported us, took us to the libraries and museums, and encouraged us to study and that's not true of classmates or my students. I was faced with this moment of feeling powerless among the city and the state, and the rules and the neighborhoods that didn't care about us. And that stayed with me when I started the book — it started as memory of a real neighborhood I grew up in, but it became a composite of all the neighborhoods I grew up in.

I always felt this despair when I came to Chicago because it seemed that life was unfair. There were the beautiful parts with people who are wealthy and the tourists, and then the people who that to work to get to their jobs on the bus... communities that were not cared for by the city, schools that were ignored. And now, all these years later, what do I see? The same thing. Nothing's changed, except that there's a different person at the helm. But we're still having the same difficulties.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.

GUEST: Sandra Cisneros, best-selling poet and author of The House On Mango Street

LEARN MORE: Sandra Cisneros Will Donate $50K Cash Prize to Her Assistants so They Can Buy a Home (Remezcla 2/13/19)

At 64, PEN America winner Sandra Cisneros is just getting started (NBC News 2/12/19)

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