Keith Dannemiller/Courtesy of Penguin Random House
This month on Code Switch, we're talking to some of our favorite authors about books that taught us about the different dimensions of freedom. Next up, a conversation with the writer Sandra Cisneros.
Sandra Cisneros was a quiet, sensitive kid — the only daughter of a Latino immigrant — and growing up, all she wanted was some peace and quiet so she could write. So the now-famous author fixated on getting that space for herself, in the form of a house. She began what would become a life-long journey to find a place where she felt comfortable to be her fullest self: where, if she wanted to, she could "leave [her] hair uncombed, walk around barefoot, be rude." Oh, and to write stories that would resonate with readers for generations.
On a recent episode of the Code Switch podcast, I interviewed Cisneros about her 2016 memoir, A House of My Own. I'd grown up with her fiction, including the novels The House On Mango Street and Caramelo, but I wasn't sure what to expect of a memoir. It turned out to be a primer in how to live the kind of life I dreamed of: having a house, with the freedom to read and write away from the noise and expectations of family and society. And as a fellow quiet, sensitive child of a Latino immigrant, her experiences felt familiar to me in a way that I rarely come across in other books.
We talked about why she became obsessed with houses, what it was like to finally buy one, and — spoiler alert — what it felt like to fall out of love with it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A House Of My Own is a collection of essays largely centered around the houses you have lived in over the course of your life. Why houses? What is special to you about them?
To have a house means that you have a space in which you can retreat from society and create your own monastery or convent. And it's really the house of the imagination that you're looking for: some space that is uncensored, uninterrupted, and that inspires you to sit with yourself and have a nice, thorough conversation.
I lived in a house when I was growing up that was filled with people and noise. My mother's first thing she did in the morning was turn on the radio, and my brothers turned on television sets. And I never could understand that, filling up the silence with electronic noise. I had to have absolute quiet, and it forced me to go to bed after everyone else had gone to bed and to be a bit of a vampire as far as my schedule. And I did that because when you don't have a room of your own, you create a time of your own, a space of your own.
As a child, did you have a vision of what you wanted that space to look like?
You know how little girls dream of their weddings? I dreamt of houses. I would go to the public library in Chicago and get out design books, and look at houses and then think about my perfect house. I knew that I wanted a window seat, and I wanted some sort of a bed that had little curtains, like the kinds you see in fairy tales. Something that was safe.
More than anything, because my father was an upholsterer, I thought of fabric. I would think of colors, of patterns — like, maybe I would have some sort of flowered pattern on the curtain that would go around the bedroom.
Speaking of your father, he's a figure who appears over and over again in your essays as someone you love very dearly — and also someone who disappointed you, who supported your work but also wanted you to get married instead of becoming a writer. I'm curious: How did your relationship with him change with him as you started to assert your independence?
Well, you have to remember, I was my father's favorite child, so I had a lot of power. And even though I was the only girl and my father had very traditional ideas about what my life should be, I wasn't afraid of him. I didn't have to be afraid of him because I knew I was my father's twin. I was him in a female form, and I did a lot of the things he did. He had meandered from Mexico City and wound up in Chicago. And look at me now: I'm in Mexico. I understand him better now after living in Mexico and traveling.
And he did come around. But my father, you have to understand, was trying to find a way for me to be financially secure. When he saw that I wasn't going to get married, he worried for me. I remember him reminding me, remember when you came home to Chicago in your thirties and you were in tears because I sent your brother to pick you up at O'Hare and you didn't have enough money for a luggage cart? I didn't have three dollars in my purse. And my father was frightened for me.
So later on when I started earning from my pen, every time I got an award, my father made me photograph me holding up the check. And he would look at that check and say, "Oh, my God, how many years would I have had to work to make that sum?" That was heartbreaking for me. So by the time he was dying, he and I understood each other completely; he even apologized and saw my life and understood why I had been so stubborn about the route I had taken. And I understood his stubbornness, too. And we just came to some nice peace, and there was nothing we had to say to one another in the last days of his life. We were one another. We were different halves of the same person.
You also write about your mother in your memoir. I was struck in particular by one sentence about your relationship with her: "I became a writer thanks to a mother who was unhappy being a mother." Can you tell me more about that?
Oh, my goodness, yes. You know, one of my mother's favorite movies and possibly books was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I never wanted to watch that film with her because it was a little sappy and sentimental. So, of course, I didn't read the book and I didn't know what it was about. And when she died, the day we came home from her funeral, I put the cassette into the player and watched the whole thing.
And I just wept, because I saw that was my mother's dream. She had dreamed of being an artist, and she couldn't reach that dream. But she opened the door for me to become an artist. How lucky I was to be born in 1954, not in 1929. That made all the difference, to be born in a generation that I was able to reach my dream, and to have a mom who knew what it was to have a dream. I don't know how to make any meals, but my mom made sure that I read books instead of being called into the kitchen when she was cooking.
How did that lead you to writing?
I think we're all visual artists as children. And then I made the switch in sixth grade to language, and expressed myself with words. And my mom was always in the background. She was always drawing, singing, or doing something creative along with us. She would sing arias, and she would dance when Soul Train came on. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized my mother wanted to be something other than a housewife, and she never got to do that.
Did you see yourself in her at all?
My mother was a model of what I didn't want to be. When I was a child, I saw her as being very unhappily married — to a nice man, but not her intellectual equal. He was a very faithful and responsible husband, but occasionally she would shout, "There's no intelligent life around here!" I kind of knew what she meant, because my father liked television, while my mother liked reading books about political science and thinkers. I felt sorry for her. And I thought, man, I don't want to ever wind up in a marriage like this one. I certainly do not want to have seven kids.
I didn't identify with her when I was young. But as I passed 30, I started seeing myself in her. When you're young, all you see is what your mother didn't do for you. But later on, when you get older, you see all the things that she was able to do despite you. And so I got to appreciate her and who she was, and discover who she was as I grew older. And of course, I'm just like my mother. Now that I am an adult, I see that.
Eventually you left your childhood home, and you achieved your dream of living alone and working when you finally bought your first house in San Antonio. Do you remember your first few days in that house?
I remember every time I unlocked the door or locked it, I had this feeling of, wow, I'm paying for this with my pen. Who would have thought? It was just incredible to me. It was a two bedroom, 100-year-old cottage. And even when I locked it for the last time and looked at it one last moment, as I pulled away, I still felt proud of what my labor had been able to produce.
On that note, your book ends in a way I wasn't expecting — with you leaving the house that you had in San Antonio after spending so much time trying to find that space for yourself. Why was leaving important to you?
I think part of the fun for me of being in a house is adapting it and making it yours: changing it, renovating it, repainting it and putting in a new bookcase. Once you stop and there's nothing else to do, you feel a little bored by the house. You feel like, OK, I've done everything I can, what's next?
I was just there earlier this year. I rented an AirBnb in the neighborhood, across the street from my old house. And I looked at my house and my house said to me, Are you sorry you sold me? Look at me now. Don't you wish I was your house? And I said, No, it's very beautiful to look at you now. You've changed. You look different. I don't even want to see what you look like inside. But, you know, you were my love. And I let you go and you blessed me and I'm happy to move on.