NEW YORK — With her new book, “Martita, I Remember You,” Sandra Cisneros feels like she’s finally answered a long-awaited letter.
The author of the bestselling short story ‘The House on Mango Street’ is back with his first work of fiction in almost a decade, a story of memory and friendship, but also about the experiences endured by young women as immigrants all over the world.
Inspired by Cisneros’ time in Paris as a budding young writer, “Martita” follows Corina, a woman in her twenties who left her Mexican family in Chicago to pursue her literary dreams in the city where Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and many others lived. During her brief stay there, she finds herself struggling with money, befriending beggar artists, and sleeping in crowded floors with other immigrants.
Martita and Paola, an Argentinian and an Italian as broke as her, supported her through it all.
Over the years, the three disperse to different continents, eventually losing contact, until Corina finds a series of old letters in a drawer that bring back intense memories of those days together.
“It started from a place in my own memory, with the real Martita that inspired this story – real Martitas, I should say, because we meet so many women in our lives, women who come to befriend us and have nothing. It’s always the people who have nothing who give the most,” Cisneros said in a recent interview with The Associated Press via Zoom from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. .
“So what started out as a true story about things that happened to me ‘se infló’ (inflated) — it went somewhere else,” she continued.
“Martita, I Remember You” (Vintage Original) was released last week as a bilingual paperback with Cisneros’ English story on the front and, when flipped, Liliana Valenzuela’s Spanish translation, “Martita, you recuerdo”.
Born in Chicago to Mexican parents, Cisneros is one of the most prominent Latino authors in the United States, with accolades such as the 1985 National Book Award for “The House on Mango Street”, the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature and the National 2015 National Book Award. Medal of Arts.
She began writing Martita’s story in the late 80s, early 90s, with the idea of including it in her award-winning “Woman Hollering Creek” collection. But she had only written the first part of the story, and her editor felt there was more to it.
In the last couple of years she took it out again and added a middle and an end.
“I guess they needed me to be older so they could write that part,” Cisneros said with a laugh. “I don’t know how old I was, my 30s? Yeah. I couldn’t write the ending because I was too young! Even though Corina is about 36 years old… I’m not as wise as Corina. The author had to be older to have a long-term view, to see it.
The book takes us back to a time before email and cellphones, when people exchanged physical addresses to stay in touch. There was the excitement of receiving letters from afar; Corina reads and rereads those she received.
“Actually, the first letter is based on a real letter that came to me after I left. Years passed…and a real letter arrived that ignited a feeling I had no name for,” Cisneros said.
“This whole story is my letter that I never returned to her, or to all the Martitas who befriended me when I was floating around the world. I felt like I had to write this unsent letter to understand what I had experienced in these (relationships with) very random and short people that I met when I was traveling.”
“It’s still very relevant now to all countries, and especially the United States,” she said, adding that she was “ashamed to live in that time and know that I’m a citizen of a country that separates children from their parents and treats refugees worse than animals, so I hope this book helps to awaken people, to change things.
“I absolutely believe that art can make a difference because it has made such a big difference in my life.”
Cisneros remembers “the generosity of foreigners” when she lived abroad, and said it helped her “understand what immigrants are like now, coming to the United States, being vilified, despised like the Parisians, you know, looked up to us…I understood my dad and I understood the immigrant situation now in a way that maybe I couldn’t understand, so I’m glad to having had this experience.
If she could hear from Martita, what would she tell her?
“Oh! I would be so happy! I was like, ‘Martita, where are you? I’m coming! What happened to you?’ I would love to see Martita again, I forgot her last name, I don’t know where she is, but she was the one who sparked these stories from many connected women,” Cisneros said.
She is currently finishing a collection of poetry which will be released next fall in English and Spanish: “Woman without Shame”/ “Mujer sin vergüenza”. She is also working on the libretto for an opera adaptation of “The House on Mango Street” with New York composer Derek Bermel, as well as a pilot for a television series based on this book.
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