Sandra Cisneros is best known as the author behind the literary classic “The House on Mango Street,” a book that has been translated into over twenty languages. She has penned poetry, short stories, novels and essays. These days, beyond writing, the acclaimed author is spending a lot of time listening.
Cisneros is using her Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship to conduct an extensive project collecting the stories of undocumented people and those who hire, harbor or work alongside them, including residents of rural eastern North Carolina.
Host Frank Stasio speaks with Cisneros about her ongoing work and about her upcoming appearance at the North Carolina Book Festival on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. at CAM Raleigh.
On why she spent time listening to undocumented people in North Carolina:
I got a fellowship from the Ford Foundation called an Art of Change Award. It is given to choreographers, playwrights, poets, all kinds of creative people, and it was for us to create a project on democracy. And I felt that everyone is talking about the issue of immigration, but the immigrants themselves can't speak. So I felt, as a dual citizen of both Mexico and the United States, that I'm in a position of privilege, and I want to serve as a bridge during times when communities are afraid of one another. So I thought the best thing to do is to buy some recording equipment and listen to those who are being discussed but who never get to speak themselves.
On storytelling as an act of survival:
Sometimes when we don't tell the story, it lodges in our heart like a invading grain of sand. And, you know, the oyster puts layers of pearl on top of that invading grain in order to survive. And stories are like that too. They lodge inside our hearts. And if we aren't able to talk about them, they get infected and can kill us. And I found that people tell stories, and each time they tell them they tell them in a different way to understand the event, to understand themselves, to survive the event.
I want to do the hard work this year now of taking all these interviews and weaving them together into a chorus of voices. Because just the act of telling you a story allows them to heal in a way. One of the participants said: I feel so much better telling you my story. I feel as if me desahogué, which means “I un-drowned.” And that idea that we carry the sea inside us and that sometimes when we're telling a story that's too powerful it comes out of our eyes; That the sea poured forth when she told me her story. It helped her to “un-drown.” I love that idea.
On how she’s been affected by the stories she’s heard:
I think that listening to everyone that I'm listening to has made me realize how grateful I am for what I have … [And] it makes me reassess what I want. It makes you much more humble to admire the strength of people for living with so little … It gives you courage. So listening to the students, the dreamers, the people who start their own business, people who started from zero, people who've had to leave children behind makes me think: What have I got to complain about? Look at the courage and strength of these citizens.