After floating down the stairs and offering a Daily reporter some sparkling water, author and poet Sandra Cisneros needed to do her hair.
She had already pinned her hair on top of her head, but said it was missing something. A bouquet of flowers perched on a side table inside the Hagen-Wensley Guest House. Cisneros selected only the flowers that wouldn’t be noticeably missed from the bouquet, tucked them into her hair, and was then ready to talk about her literature and her perception of home.
“It’s very hard for women to find themselves at home, in home because home usually has a connotation of work we have to do,” she said.
Homes and houses as physical dwellings have frequently appeared in Cisneros’ literature, from her 1984 novel The House on Mango Street, to her 2015 autobiography, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. Cisneros will have a conversation about these works and other topics centered on the idea of home with Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of the Literary arts, at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11 in the Hall of Philosophy.
“I think it is going to be the most singular conversation that has ever happened on the grounds,” Ton-Aime said.
Cisneros’ stories discuss home in a way that conveys it as more than a building. The House on Mango Street emphasizes this through its use of vignettes to tell the story of Esperanza Cordero. In 2017, the book was both a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle and CLSC Young Readers selection.
“The idea in The House on Mango Street was the idea of a neighborhood being a home,” Ton-Aime said, “and also a home for people who were not originally from that neighborhood.”
Like the character Esperanza, Cisneros grew up in Chicago. There, she found home in more places than just the house she lived in with her eight other family members.
“I always just dreamed of some quiet space. I had to find that space, when I was growing, in the library,” she said. “My introduction to the world of books was through the public library because we didn’t own books.”
As a writer, Cisneros feels a space that helps spawn creation is essential to the concept of home.
“Home is a physical space, yes, but it is more a place to create, so it’s a house of the spirit,” she said.
Ton-Aime agreed with this concept, as he has found a sense of home in Haiti; Kent, Ohio; and now in Chautauqua. He can do this because home is not just a building.
“Home is very much something I carry with me,” he said. “… It’s very much about the people, the love that I have held, and they are here in my heart. Home is something that I carry with me, and it is something that sustains me.”
Although home is more than a house, Cisneros does rely on physical spaces in feeling comfortable and being able to thrive. She recalled a man with whom she previously lived who only decorated his house with a color palette of white, red and black.
“Needless to say, it’s not my life anymore,” she said.
The stark colors in the home did not help Cisneros in her life of creativity. To create, she needs to surround herself with animals, plants, colors and views that make her feel at peace. These all add up to, in her opinion, the most important goal of a home: feeling security.
“How can we be in a space that is healing and nourishing and — most important for women — makes us feel safe?” Cisneros asked.
One of the key elements to feeling safe is privacy, she said. In her childhood home, her bedroom door could not close. Now, as a woman in her sixties in the current social climate, she still feels that privacy is being taken away and preventing women from feeling safe.
“It’s such a difficult time right now that we’re living in, with so many of our private issues being up to men deciding about our bodies and … what is a ‘good woman’ (coming) from male judgment,” she said.
Cisneros feels that the rescinding of women’s rights is reactionary on the part of men.
“I think it’s a time in which we’re realizing how threatening we are being female,” she said.
But women are not the only group subject to this, Cisneros said; people of color and immigrants also threaten white men’s positions of power, she explained, which often results in the world being unsafe and uninviting to those groups.
“Home is a refuge for all of the above, whether you’re gay or trans or an immigrant or a woman,” she said. “We’re all in this place of our power being taken from us or being threatened. Our sense of wanting to have a place at the table is threatening to people who don’t want to share that power with us.”
Cisneros’ current home is in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which was established in the 1500s. To her, this city is the combination of the past, present, and future coalescing all at once. She contrasts this to her experience in American cities like San Antonio or Chautauqua, which view the past as a place it came from and that is distant, rather than actively reacting and mingling with the present.
“In Mexico, the past is the present is the future,” she said. “You could be walking down the street and suddenly turn a corner and see these pre-conquest dancers swinging from a pole in front of the church. So there’s the church and the pre-conquest religion merged into some synchronicity in the future. It’s kind of mind-boggling, and I think it’s a very spiritual sense of time that is nonlinear — and that makes it very creative for me to live there.”
Cisneros’ home has a mountain view, and she loves to watch the sunset behind them. It makes her feel connected to the world around her.
“It’s essential for me to be able to rise and know that the roof of my house is the sky and that part of my garden is the clouds. Part of my garden is that sunset and those mountains, too,” she said. “And it’s very full. As small as my house is — because I live in a guest house rather than a mansion — I feel it’s very large because it encompasses the sky and the mountains and the sunsets and the moonrises. And so that makes me feel very complete. It’s a poet’s house.”