Talking in Our Pajamas: A Conversation with Sandra Cisneros on Finding Your Voice, Fear of Highways, Tacos, Travel, and the Need for Peace in the World

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In honor of Sandra Cisneros winning the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature this week, we invite you to a pajama party with Sandra Cisneros and Ruth Behar. From the Archives.

Ruth Behar’s interview with Sandra Cisneros appeared in MQR’s Summer 2008 issue.
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I was back in Ann Arbor after a stay of several months in Mexico when I met Sandra Cisneros. Her two major publications at the time were My Wicked Wicked Ways, a collection of feisty poems, and House on Mango Street, a novella about an introspective girl coming of age in Mexican Chicago. She had already won international respect for her work, but she was still struggling financially and had accepted an invitation to teach creative writing in the Latina/Latino Studies Program at the University of Michigan. She had heard about my research in Mexico and invited me to speak to her class so that the two of us could meet. It was 1990 and it was the first of November.
Upon arriving, the first thing I saw was a marvelous Day of the Dead altar that Sandra had built with her students. It included an exuberant variety of sweet Mexican breads purchased in a bakery in Detroit, large votive candles that remained unlit because of the fire hazard, and a stunning image of Guadalupe radiating from the back of a cropped-hair Chicana by the artist Ester Hernandez. Mexico had followed me to Michigan and I’d entered a magical space where learning wasn’t separated from imagination. I was enchanted further at the sound of Sandra’s voice. She sang as she spoke, like a bird in a garden surrounded by flowers.
While at Michigan, Sandra lived at Maynard House in a small rented apartment. She loved the mashed potatoes at Frank’s diner down the street. In Ann Arbor she completed Woman Hollering Creek, her prize-winning collection of stories. Afterwards she moved to San Antonio, Texas, where the Alamo is a constant reminder of Mexican sorrow, and decided to make it her hometown. Belatedly, the University of Michigan offered her a full-time job, but by then Sandra had gone on to became a famous writer who could live from her pen, as she’d dreamed from the days of her girlhood. In San Antonio, she wrote Caramelo, her epic novel spanning a hundred years of Mexican history that was inspired by her father’s nostalgia for the Mexico he left behind.
Ever since that meeting in her classroom years ago, Sandra and I have had a lot to say to each other. We are both night owls, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to maintain a long-distance friendship. We call one another in the middle of the night and talk for hours. While most people are sleeping, we’re talking about the books we’re reading, travels, writing, our families, relationships, fears, and hopes.
During one of these recent conversations, Sandra mentioned that she would be speaking at no charge to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Toledo, Ohio, because she believed so strongly in their movement. I jumped at the chance to bring her back to Michigan. I nominated Sandra for a King-Chávez-Parks Visiting Professor Award and suggested she be the keynote speaker for Hispanic Heritage Month in 2006. The nomination was approved, but Sandra wanted to stir things up. She said her lecture would be called Why I’m Not Hispanic. (The term “Hispanic,” she feels, erases the indigenous and African origins of the majority of people of Latin American origin.)
Further funding came from many departments on campus, and there was a request to have Sandra take part in a lunch with undergraduate students. Here again, Sandra thought to challenge the order of things. She said that she’d participated in lots of lunches with students and she only ever got to talk to the two people sitting on either side of her. How about if instead we held a pajama talk and talked in public about the things the two of us talked about on the phone late at night? And how about if we wore our pajamas to this event and encouraged our audience to come in their pajamas?
On the evening of September 28, 2006, Sandra gave her lecture in the Rackham Auditorium. A long line of people were waiting afterward to have their books signed and to congratulate Sandra. The next morning Sandra wore cozy flannel pajamas and fleece-lined booties. I wore a long black nightgown with beige lace around the collar, which had belonged to my mother, and my red suede high-heeled shoes. We sat down at a table in the front of the room, a plate of gorgeous muffins before us, and started talking. The room was packed. It was eleven in the morning, but we did our best to talk as though it were the middle of the night and there was nothing to hide. The following transcript of our conversation was prepared by Michelle Zellers of the MQR staff. I made corrections, added commentary, edited, and shaped the piece to make it a flowing pajama talk.
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RB: We’re wearing our pajamas for a reason. Let’s begin by talking about that.
SC: Something I always tell students is, when you’re writing something, you want to write the first draft and you want it to come out easily in the beginning. If you’re afraid to say what you really have to say, you stammer. When you’re thinking of your listener, that’s when you start stuttering and it’s just because you’re nervous that your listener is passing judgment. Right? Your prospective employer, or the person you have a crush on, or the person you want to talk to. You’re judging yourself, you know, thinking about your listener. You’re not thinking about what you’re saying. And that same thing happens when you write. If you start thinking about who’s going to read it, or what grade will you get, or is it going to win that award, or are you going to get into this graduate program, you’re blocking the light, and the light is that guidance and love we get when we open up our hearts and are guided by our higher selves, or God, or the Buddha Lupe [Buddha and the Virgin of Guadalupe fused together, as they are in the tattoo on Sandra’s right arm], or whatever you believe in, or love. Because even if you don’t believe in God, you have to believe in love, right? And so we want that love to come through, and the way you open that aperture in your heart—the way I do it—is, first, you have to get very empty.

I usually meditate and I call my spirit allies—anyone in the spirit world that I’ve got connections with. Even in the spirit world you need connections! [audience laughter]. So I call my father, I call all the people I’m related to—my father’s father, my father’s mother, my mother’s mother, my mother’s father—all the spirit people, and then my spiritual ancestors, too, people that I feel very close to, that I think could help me, you know, my muertitos [little dead ones], all the people you feel connected to that are your heroes, and you ask for help in whatever task you’re doing. It’s bigger than you.

And you ask.

There are two things you need to ask for, to open up that channel, so you get the light. One is humility, because our ego is always going to block that guidance, and so you ask for humility. One way to get very humble is to dedicate the work you’re going to do to your community. And by community I mean that community you have a special vision for, that only you see, that no one else in a room sees. That special community in pain, that through a pain you’ve suffered, you’re able to have that vision, that super-ray vision. When you step into a room, you notice that one person who is suffering from the same thing you are suffering from, or that you suffered from. So you try to get very, very humble and say, “I will do this work, this talk, this paper, this degree, this job for this community.” Maybe that community might be your children, or it might be your town, or it might be for other people that are oppressed in some way, in some oppression that you’ve been privy to. So you say, “Please, I’m gonna do this work, diosito [little god] with all my heart, but please get my big fat ego out of the way.” The ego’s blocking the light from coming. And the second thing you’re going to ask for is courage, because what you’re going to be asked to do is bigger than what you think you can do. It’s always bigger than what you think you can handle, but you’re never going to be given something you can’t handle. So you say, “Okay, when you tell me what it is that I’m supposed to do, please give me the courage to do it.”

You meditate and then you can put on your pajamas, or you can imagine you’re wearing your pajamas, and you talk about your piece of writing in the language you would use if you were wearing your pajamas and you were seated at a table with your very good friend. And you wouldn’t have to get all dressed up or clean up the table. She could be there, and you could be just talking about important things and silly things, and it would just come, and you wouldn’t be afraid, and you wouldn’t stammer, and you wouldn’t say, “What’s the opening line?” I’d just say, “Hey Ruth, tell me about that pen you got,” and that would be your first line on the page, too. You’re not afraid when you’re speaking in your pajamas to that person that can see you in your pajamas.

So that’s an exercise to help you get into your real voice. That’s your true voice. You know how they say, “Find your voice”? That’s your voice, in your pajamas. And it doesn’t mean that you’re going to publish it or print it or people are going to see you in your pajamas. It just means you are going to construct the foundation in your pajamas, in that voice. And you say anything you want in any order. “Oh you know what, Ruth? You know what I forgot to say? I forgot to thank you.” I would put that in—it could go anywhere—and I don’t feel any hesitation to say it. That’s my first draft. And you know how sometimes you’re talking to people who love you and give you unconditional love, and you say…But you know what? Let me back up. I forgot to say, “You can do that, right?” You don’t hesitate and say, “Oh my God! I forgot to say that!” [laughter]. You just speak! And you say it all, until you have nothing more to say. And that’s your first draft. It’s done.

Now, when you edit, you imagine your enemy is seated on the other side of the table [laughter]. Your enemy! And your enemy is going to read that with a viciousness, because he knows where you didn’t work on it. He’s going to shake it and really aim for that jugular. So you are going to polish, and revise, and rewrite, and cut out, and shape it, so that your enemy has no place to grip it. That’s how you revise. But you don’t do the two at the same time. You want to be able to say anything when you do your first draft, because some of that goofy stuff that you think has nothing to do with it is probably where the mother lode is. So you want to leave yourself open to playing, to talk, to laugh, to be in your pajamas! Estar cómoda, to being comfortable.

Today was funny because we always have that dream that you go to school in your pajamas [laughter]. Walking down the hall just now, it really was like that!

RB: You did something really interesting last night in your lecture, Why I’m Not Hispanic. You read a piece from your novel, Caramelo, which is fiction, and then you read the same story as nonfiction—you read your essay titled “Natural Daughter.” You placed the two side by side. I’m interested in that conjunction. I teach a course called Blurred Genres: Autobiography, Ethnography, Fiction, where we examine the work of writers that mix fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose. You’ve been mixing genres for a long time. I hear you say often that you don’t really care what genre a work is, that your aim is to get the story out. Could you talk about this? Could you also reflect on what you presented last night and how you were thinking about it?
SC: I began writing as an experimental writer. When I was very young I was reading a lot of Latin American fiction, which later would be called “boom fiction.” You know, there was a male boom [laughter].

I was reading all these male writers who were doing wild and wonderful things. It gave me permission to experiment. My friend, Dennis Mathis, was reading Eastern European and Japanese experimental writers, and I brought the Latin American writers to his attention, so we exchanged books and bounced off one another. And the good thing about Dennis is, even though he’s a white, he respected that I was doing something quirky with my English. He loved it when I would mix up the Americanisms and say, “That’s water over the dam.” I would get them all wrong. And he encouraged this. He’d say, “No, that’s great.” He didn’t say, “Oh, you know, that’s wrong. You’ve gotta change it.” He was very sensitive about keeping the unique way that I spoke English—it had a lot of Mexicanisms or Mexican syntax. So you keep it in because it’s adding something unique.

Back then I was looking at a lot of experimental writers, and I was very intrigued by short-short fiction, writers who would write little things, what I call buttons now, little vignettes. I remember I was very taken with a book called DreamTigers by Borges. He was at the University of Texas, Austin, and they collected some of his writings and put them in a little collection. It’s called DreamTigers in English, but it doesn’t exist in Spanish. It’s a little sampler. But that collection in English is what struck me, because in there he has his poems, and I was a poet as well as a fiction writer. He had short stories, and I was trying to learn how to write short stories, and then he had these things in the middle that were like fables, and I loved hearing fables. So there were these little fablesque things, you know, dream tigers, beautiful, beautiful pieces that when you read them had the power of a long piece, but they were prose, and they had the power of poetry, in that the last line wasn’t the end, it was a reverberation, like when you tap on a glass made of crystal, and it goes ping. So I never paid attention when people said, “That’s gotta be poetry. That’s gotta be fiction,” except when I was in a graduate program, and you had to claim your genre. But I was interested in cross-pollinating the two. I thought there was something lovely in the little vignette forms. I wanted to explore that.

Something similar happened when I started hanging out with the Macarturos. We started an organization that’s the only sub-organization of the MacArthur Foundation and we are called the Macarturos [a group of Latina/Latino recipients of the MacArthur “genius” awards]. Usually when I win something, I’m the only one of my ethnicity to get it, but this time I met all these Latinos, and I was so excited. I’d meet someone and I’d go, “What?! You won it for labor organizing? Can you come to San Antonio?” And they’d go, “Oh yeah.” Then I’d meet somebody else who was a wonderful playwright. “Can you come?” And suddenly I had twelve people that said they would come. And I didn’t know how it was going to be. And that’s how the Macarturos became a reality, where these very generous geniuses come to San Antonio and work together. . . . Wait, where was I going with this? Let’s rewind.

RB: We were talking about your lecture, how you mixed fiction and nonfiction.
SC: Yes, and I learned from the Macarturos. I had never been at a table with a labor organizer and a playwright and a performance artist and an anthropologist and a human rights lawyer. Usually at most gatherings, it’s all writers. But suddenly I was at a table with all these different people and I learned from each of them, learned from the work they’re doing, learned new ways to solve my problems.

The ideal for me is to mix it up. When I have a writing workshop, I like to have people that are anthropologists and people who are poking around in other fields, I like to have them all in the same workshop, and not worry about genre. I like to mix it up, because the kind of comments you can get from a fiction writer about your poetry are going to be very different than what you’ll get from a poet. Or the comments you’ll get from a filmmaker about your performance are going to be very different. My writing workshop is about mixing it up, cross-pollinating, not only in genres but in occupations…

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Read more of Ruth Behar’s conversation with Sandra Cisneros here, in our archive. 

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