“These are not your typical war stories,” says the writer Sandra Cisneros, whose new book is “Martita, I Remember You.”
What books are on your night stand?
I have a New Mexican writing desk on one side of my bed and an antique Mexican trunk on the other. Because of this, there are too many books stacked in precarious towers waiting to collapse whenever I reach for anything, the newer books burying the older. When I have to search for a book, it’s like excavating Tenochtitlán. Thanks to this interview, I’ve finally done some housecleaning. Here are some of the titles I found:
“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” memoir, Sherman Alexie
“The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry 1980-1990,” Dorothy Allison
“Afterlife,” novel, Julia Alvarez
“Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro,” nonfiction, Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating
“Until We Are Level Again,” poetry, José Angel Araguz
“How to Love a Jamaican,” story collection, Alexia Arthurs
“Jackknife: New and Selected Poems,” Jan Beatty
“Letters From Cuba,” middle-grade novel, Ruth Behar
“Siete noches” and its translation, “Seven Nights,” essays, Jorge Luis Borges (Always within reach on my night stand)
“Weedee Peepo,” essays, Jose Antonio Burciaga
“Otherwise, My Life Is Ordinary,” poetry, Bobby Byrd
“Perras,” poetry, Zel Cabrera
“Piñata Theory,” poetry, Alan Chazaro
“The Compassion Book,” essays, Pema Chödrön
“Long Distance,” poetry, Steven Cordova
“Tracing the Horse,” poetry, Diana Marie Delgado
“Create Dangerously,” essays, Edwidge Danticat (Always on my night stand)
“The Inheritance of Loss,” novel, Kiran Desai
“Homeland Security Ate My Speech,” nonfiction, Ariel Dorfman
“The Date Fruit Elegies,” poetry, John Olivares Espinoza
“Ten Plays by Euripides,” translated by Paul Roche
“Head Off & Split,” poetry, Nikky Finney
“The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story,” edited by John Freeman
“When Living Was a Labor Camp,” poetry, Diana Garcia
“The Book of Ruin,” poetry, Rigoberto González
“Tangle,” poetry, Pauletta Hansel
“Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” poetry, Joy Harjo (Another one I keep on my night stand all the time)
“The Spring of My Life,” poetry, Kobayashi Issa, translated by Sam Hamill
“Rattlesnake Allegory,” poetry, Joe Jimenez
“Selected Works,” poetry, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
“I Wrote Stone: The Selected Poetry of Ryszard Kapuscinski”
“Recovering the Sacred,” nonfiction, Winona LaDuke
“Grace Notes,” poetry, Lisa Lopez Smith
“Cervantes Street,” novel, Jaime Manrique
“Caring for a House,” poetry, Victor Martinez
“Temporada de huracánes,” and its English translation, “Hurricane Season,” novel, Fernanda Melchor
“Born in the Cavity of Sunsets,” poetry, Michael Luis Medrano
“Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823-1957,” history, Nancy Raquel Mirabal
“Native Country of the Heart,” nonfiction, Cherríe Moraga
A manuscript of “The Consequences,” Manuel Munoz’s forthcoming collection of stories
“The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa,” translated by Sawako Nakayasu
“Bone,” a novel, Fae Myenne Ng (Rereading this again after decades because I love it)
“Piedra de Sol,” poem, Octavio Paz
“With the River on Our Face,” poetry, Emmy Pérez
“Grieving: Dispatches From a Wounded Country,” nonfiction, Cristina Rivera-Garza, translated by Sarah Booker
“Libro Centroamericano de los Muertos,” poetry, Balam Rodrigo
“This American Autopsy,” poetry, José Antonio Rodríguez
“From Our Land to Our Land,” essays, Luis J. Rodriguez
“Brooklyn Antediluvian,” poetry, Patrick Rosal
“Hermosa,” poetry, Yesika Salgado
“Black Wings,” Sehba Sarwar
“Blood Sugar Canto,” poetry, ire’ne lara silva
“Teresa of Avila: Ecstasy and Common Sense,” by Tessa Bielecki
“VirginX,” poetry, Natalia Treviño
“The Architecture of Language,” poetry, Quincy Troupe
“Codex of Love: Bendita Ternura,” poetry, Liliana Valenzuela (I’m rereading this)
“Their Dogs Came With Them,” novel, Helena María Viramontes (Rereading this too)
What’s the last great book you read?
The one I’m reading now; “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment,” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a history of how the United States evolved to where we are as a nation besieged by gun violence. This is not the kind of book I’d usually read, but I loved her earlier book, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”; reading it was like going back to school and gaining a new perspective of the Americas, one that retrieved the lost history of my ancestors. I’m on a mission to make up for the huge gaps in my miseducation as a woman of color.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“The Nine Guardians,” by Rosario Castellanos, a beautiful novel about a village on the Mexico-Guatemala border during the turbulent power shifts of the 1930s. Castellanos is one of the most brilliant writers of the last century, but when the Latin American boom in literature resounded in the United States, it was only the male voices that were heard. At this point in my life, I want to read the classics from the Americas, from Mexico, from women, from the working class, from the Indigenous communities, from everyone who hasn’t been allowed to the podium before.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I prefer reading lying down propped by a sea of pillows, like a famous grand horizontale, in bed or on the terrace, on a chaise or in a hammock, or simply on the couch; preferably on a day when no one rings the doorbell, which is almost impossible, because in Mexico, everyone rings the bell. The flower seller, the doughnut man, the water man, the sweet potato man, the knife sharpener, the woman asking to sweep your driveway, the man who was laid off his job and is looking for work as a gardener, the nice couple from the countryside with fresh tortillas and prickly pear paddles, the man who sells wool snakes to keep out the doorway drafts. I am lucky to be able to work from home and not have to ring doorbells, so I have no right to complain.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
My favorites are Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Maud Martha” and Mercé Rodoreda’s “The Time of the Doves,” both books that deal with war, though the former only at the finale. Come to think of it, many of my favorite books are about women surviving or waging war — Elena Poniatowska’s “Here’s to You, Jesusa!,” a melding of fiction and nonfiction about a Mexican woman warrior; “Cartucho” and “My Mother’s Hands,” both memoiristic accounts by Nellie Campobello that witness war from a child’s point of view; “Recollections of Things to Come,” a novel by Elena Garro, which documents Mexico’s Cristero War of the 1920s; “Tempest Over Mexico,” a memoir by Rosa King, a foreigner who witnessed the key players of the Mexican Revolution; and “A Woman in Berlin,” a brutal memoir of the sacking of Berlin by a writer too afraid to publish under any other name but Anonymous. Except for “Maud Martha” and “Tempest Over Mexico,” they were all written in a foreign language, with some translations faring better than others. These are not your typical war stories.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
Books are medicine. What heals me may not be the right prescription for anyone else. This makes me reluctant to make recommendations. But, if I were obliged to guide younger readers, I would feel compelled to give them a wide choice of books in different genres so they could find something, at least one thing that might be transformational, including graphic novels, mythologies, oral tales and cosmologies from across the globe. It’s important that young people find the right books that speak to them at the right time, otherwise you might be encouraging them to dislike reading.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
Again, I don’t believe in “should read,” but I think many would enjoy and savor the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen much better as adults. I recommend the miraculous translations by Tiina Nunnally.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Luis Rodriguez, Edwidge Danticat, Natalie Diaz, Rigoberto González, Virginia Grise, Joy Harjo, Helena Maria Viramontes, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Denise Chávez, Manuel Muñoz, Dorothy Allison, Levi Romero, John Phillip Santos, Charles M. Blow, Jorge Ramos, Carmen Aristegui, Elena Poniatowska, Luis Alfaro and every Mexican journalist who puts their life in danger by writing the truth. And, I hear a chavalo named Lin-Manuel in New York is pretty good.
You’re a dual citizen of America and Mexico, and your new novella is being published in a bilingual English-Spanish edition. What Mexican books deserve greater attention in the United States?
I read Spanish too slowly to have any expertise here. But I do love and admire the works of Elena Garro, Elena Poniatowska and Rosario Castellanos, and, most recently, Fernanda Melchor and Cristina Rivera Garza. I speed read them in English first, then reread them in Spanish. Sometimes I’m forced to read them in their original language because the translations aren’t available yet or aren’t satisfactory.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
Jaime Cortez’s “Gordo,” Fernando A. Flores’s “Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas” and Christine Granados’ “Fight Like a Man.”
The last book you read that made you cry?
Jasmon Drain’s “Stateway’s Garden.” It’s a book about the people who live in the projects of Chicago, my hometown. The author writes about them with such love, respect and generosity it broke my heart.
The last book you read that made you furious?
Nabokov’s lecture on Jane Austen documented in “Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Literature,” edited by Fredson Bowers. In a letter to Edmund Wilson, Nabokov wrote: “I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class.” There’s pride and prejudice for you!
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was my mother’s favorite movie, but I never bothered to watch it or read the book because I had watched the beginning of the film with her and thought it too sentimental. On the day of my mother’s funeral, after we all regrouped at her house, I felt too exhausted and sick to do anything but take in a movie. I found the cassette in my mother’s video library and popped it into the VCR. Then I realized the film is the story of a girl who wants to be a writer. My mother had always wanted to make something artistic of her life, and this testimony to that hunger just made me weep. I read the book by Betty Smith soon after, and I’ve loved it ever since.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Rereading Robert Graves’s “The White Goddess” after decades made me realize I didn’t pay attention to the same things I had when I first read this book as a young woman. This time around I’m fascinated with the lineage of oral literatures. The book got me thinking about Homer and his connection to the Irish bards, and then to the oral literatures of the Americas and spoken poetry today, how each builds on what came before. Even if a language disappears, I believe a worldview, a syntax, a cadence survives from which the conquering language builds upon, like the stones the Spanish conquistadores gathered from the Indigenous temples to build their Catholic churches. Something like that is happening in our poetic inheritance. Something old and ancient and sacred survives in the spoken word, which is fascinating for those of us who are word-workers.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
For me the great shame and dolor of our times is the story of immigrant children. There are a lot of great books out there on the subject, but I especially admire those written by the writers who were immigrant kids themselves. These include Rene Colato Lainez’s “My Shoes and I,” a children’s picture book; Reyna Grande’s memoir “The Distance Between Us”; and Javier Zamora’s poetry, “Unaccompanied,” as well as his forthcoming memoir, “Solito, Solita,” which I’m currently reading. I also love the graphic memoir “Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes From a Pre-American Life,” by Alberto Ledesma. But lest we think child migration is new, there’s Ruth Behar’s young adult novel “Letters From Cuba,” about a girl who emigrates solo from Poland to Cuba during World War II.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I’m not yet the writer I aspire to be, but at my age, great books written by women over 60 give me hope. Diana Athill, Colette, Harriett Doerr, Marguerite Duras, Grace Paley, Elena Poniatowska, Jean Rhys, Mercé Rodoreda, to name but a few.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading?
Poetry, biographies of artists or activists, fiction, essays, spirituality, art history, including books on textile, design and fashion, and especially books on houses.
And which do you avoid?
Mysteries, cookbooks, sci-fi, fantasy, romance novels and biographies of U.S. presidents.
How do you organize your books?
The ones I love passionately live intimately with me in my bedroom shelved in no special order. And the ones I want to read next or again are stacked in towers next to my bed, on chairs or on the floor. The magical books (fairy tales, children’s literature, Eduardo Galeano’s vignettes which defy genre, Elena Poniatowska’s fiction and nonfiction) reside in the hall just outside my bedroom door. The rest are downstairs on bookshelves or stacked on tables and benches everywhere in my home, wallflowers hoping to be invited to dance.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Cyndi Lauper’s memoir, which I absolutely adore, and a whole shelf devoted to Maria Callas biographies. Oh, and Alan Cumming’s memoir “Not My Father’s Son.”
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A cheap paperback copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” when I was in the fifth grade. It was the first book I ever owned. I found it in the Sears Roebuck bargain basement for 50 cents. I begged my father to buy it, and, lucky for me, it was payday. I had no idea people could actually buy books; I’d never seen a bookstore. I thought books were so valuable they were only dispensed to schools and libraries.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Unsociable, strange, rude. Or so my family said, because I hated abandoning a book when relatives came to visit. I had to be scolded and shamed into civility. Yet my mother would exempt me from helping her in the kitchen if I had a book in my hand, even if I was reading a novel instead of doing homework! Since I’m the only girl in a large family, I felt guilty about this at the time, but not enough to put down my book.
Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, Beatrix Potter and Virginia Lee Burton get better each time I read them. I keep their books and biographies near for inspiration and admire them even more now that I’m older.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I read books about Native spirituality, about shamans and healers and mystics, to try to better understand the border between the living and the dead and my own gifts regarding same. Living in Mexico helps me with this journey because the dead don’t abandon us but live alongside us daily. What I was taught to dismiss as superstition when I lived in the States is now a spiritual awakening. I’m grateful to be living in Mexico, which is one of the first-world nations, in my opinion, when it comes to awareness of the divine.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Emily Dickinson, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jane Austen. (In case Miss Emily is a no-show, and that’s very likely, it’s a tossup between Mae West or Rumi as an alternate.)
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I would never want to offend any writer by publicly admitting which books I’ve put down; it’s not the writer’s fault we didn’t click. Maybe the book arrived too early or too late in my life. If I sense a book isn’t likely to make me a better writer or a better human being, I release it. I have to. At 66 I haven’t got a lot of time left before I transmogrify into a maguey.
What do you plan to read next?
Poetry. I am going to revisit the Elizabethan poets and the beautiful chants of the Mazatec healer Maria Sabina, both for inspiration.
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