“Woman Without Shame” is Sandra Cisneros’s first poetry collection in 28 years. That may be because the best-selling author has been busy publishing novels, short story collections, and essays. She won prestigious awards and started foundations to nurture young writers. And the Chicago native moved to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, the country of her ancestors.
BOOKS: What did you bring to read on your book tour this fall?
CISNEROS: As I go I buy books. In fact, I’m shipping a box back because I have too many to carry. I bought Natalie Diaz’s collection “Postcolonial Love Poem,” which I’m reading right now. I love her work. I bought Ann Patchett’s essay collection “These Precious Days” and Thich Nhat Hanh’s “How to Live When a Loved One Dies.” Then today I bought “Report From Part Two,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s memoir. I have a copy but I buy extras when I see them. She is a literary godmother of mine. I have friends who are my literary godchildren. I like extras copies in case they don’t have one.
BOOKS: Is her memoir hard to find?
CISNEROS: My favorite work of hers, “Maud Martha,” is hard to find. That’s a little novel made of vignettes, which I wish I had known about when I was writing my first book, “The House on Mango Street.” I didn’t know you could write a novel like that.
BOOKS: At what age did you discover Brooks?
CISNEROS: I think I discovered her in high school in anthologies. You could buy books in high school from a paperback book club. I bought a lot of books by her and discovered she was writing about Chicago.
BOOKS: Which authors have really captured your hometown?
CISNEROS: I like Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie.” Isn’t that a delicious book? All of Carl Sandburg. I love Studs Terkel. He’s a literary godfather for me. I like to think of them all as my literary Chicago ancestors. They are the ones who inspired me to do what I do.
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
CISNEROS: I don’t read just any book. I have to read a book that has the potential to make me a better writer. I don’t have a lot of time left. I’m 67. I can’t waste my time on fools.
BOOKS: What kind of reader were you like as a kid?
CISNEROS: If you asked me that at 11, I would have said books about old times. What I meant is books that were written in another century or ones in translation that had a magical sound to them, which I now realize was probably a poor translation. I liked books written in British English, like “Alice in Wonderland” or translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s work, which sounds odd. I liked books that transported me from my dull everyday Chicago life to a dreamtime. But then I started talking like people from olden times, using words like shan’t. Who uses shan’t?
BOOKS: Did moving to San Miguel change your reading somehow?
CISNEROS: It made me want to read books in Spanish even if I have to have the English version right next to it. And wow, that’s amazing. When you read the original, it’s the difference between real Mexican hot chocolate and Nestlé's Quik. I’ve read Mexican novels, such as Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season” and Elena Garro’s “Recollections of Things to Come,” that way.
BOOKS: Is there a book you give a lot as a gift?
CISNEROS: I give Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Being Peace,” a book that changed my life. A friend gave it to me. I wondered why she did because it seemed like a religious book. I put it on the shelf. Later when I had to give a talk for International Women’s Day, I was looking for inspiration and pulled that book down. It taught me a different way of being an activist and to do it nonviolently.
BOOKS: Any other book you have procrastinated reading?
CISNEROS: I think books are like prescriptions for what ails us, and sometimes when people give us a book we don’t have those ailments. It might not serve us then. But later on, it will come at the right time.
This interview was edited and condensed.