Zibby is joined by literary icon Sandra Cisneros to talk about her latest book, Martita, I Remember You, which she actually began writing in the early 1990s. The two talk about what made Sandra move forward with publishing this story now, why she feels the need to share as many stories as she can “with the time she has left,” and what she would be doing if she weren’t a writer (hint: it’s still something incredibly creative).


Zibby Owens: Sandra, I am so honored to be talking to you today for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for joining me.

Sandra Cisneros: Thank you so much. I’m finally here.

Zibby: You’re finally here, yay! Congratulations on Martita, I Remember You: A Story in English and Spanish, which conveniently — I’m showing this on the screen — comes both ways, in English and Spanish in different sides, which was beautiful. Thank you for this beautiful story. I’m just so excited to talk to you about your career and everything. First, could you tell listeners a little bit about, why this story? Why now?

Sandra: Because I had it stashed away like a dress that you want to wear one day. You always know that dress is in the closest. I’ve never worn it. I had to finish it. It was something that I started early nineties when I was closer to the experience that I had lived that started this story and the people that inspired it. It was way back when I did a story collection called Woman Hollering Creek. This was supposed to be one of the stories, but I didn’t finish it. I handed it in with just the first portion. None of the Chicago portion was there. My editor said, “This is not done.” I thought, well, okay, I’ll put it away. I always meant to go back to it. I just got busy with life, you know? That’s how it is.

Zibby: It happens. So you dug it out and finished it up. Now here it is, beautiful. I know that a lot of this is dialogue, but a lot of it is also in letter form. You weave in the epistolary. Was that the way you had always envisioned it, or is that a new wrinkle you’ve added?

Sandra: The original story was just the first part. It ends in the first part in the middle section with the letters. The end wasn’t there. I just thought that was enough, but it wasn’t. I had to build a frame around it. The character, the protagonist, she’s scraping the varnish off woodwork. In Chicago, a lot of the apartments have that hutch. I have scraped that woodwork. I don’t know how I remembered that, but I put that in there. That became the frame, the bookend of the story. That was not something that was there originally, nor did I know it was going to be there. I take little pieces of my life. I remember something that happened to me when I was twenty-five and something when I was twenty-eight and something yesterday and something that happened to you, like building a little puzzle. Whatever will fit and make the story believable, that’s how I write. I write in what I call little buttons. I write the little buttons. Sometimes two people say a couple of phrases. That’s all I have. I don’t know who’s speaking. A little memory or a smell, sensory details, I save them and put them together.

Zibby: Wow. I read in your memoir about when you were writing House on Mango Street and everybody was asking if it was about you. You wrote a whole essay about, is it me? Yes and no. It’s about me. There are things about me and my family and the people in the community. Is it me? It is, and it isn’t.

Sandra: It’s about all the stories that you’re witness to in one day, the things people tell you, the things you see on the way to work, the things that you remember. All of these things are part of you because you’re a witness. Some of them happen to you. Some of them happen to bounce into your heart and stay here. Some of them just lodge themselves in your heart when someone tells you a story and you can’t forget it. Those are the things I write about. I try to focus on the things I wish I could forget because I know that they’re debilitating. want to be released, like that song. “Please release me.” A lot of those are in my heart catalog. I write them because I just want to stop thinking about them. Even if they’re something silly and small, I just want to get them out, so that’s what I do.

Zibby: So stories are essentially your exorcism.

Sandra: Yes, or my limpia, my cleansing, because I think they’re transformational to write. It’s my way of reducing stress in my life and making me understand things that happened to me and why they stay with me. In essence, writing, for me, is really good medicine.

Zibby: I agree. It’s basically the best way. Without this tool in my toolbox, I don’t know how I would ever make sense of my life.

Sandra: I know that periods that I have not had the writing, even just writing a little button — I know moms are busy, but if you just write a little button, one sentence, that helps me to get clarity about something that happened, something that’s haunting me, or something that I want to savor. Sometimes it’s not that you want to extirpate it from your life. Sometimes you want to savor something nice that happened to you or something nice that someone said or that you witnessed that was positive. It doesn’t have to be negative. It could be neutral too. It’s like a sitting meditation. I wrote House on Mango Street when I was the busiest. I was teaching high school dropouts. I would write a little button, just a paragraph or two, and save them up and put them together. That’s how that book got written.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. You also feel just as passionately about reading. I read in A House of My Own — I’m going to mispronounce this. The chapter is titled Mercè Rodoreda. Is that right? Does that sound right?

Sandra: Mercè.

Zibby: Mercè Rodoreda. You wrote, “I often remember where I was when meeting a book that sweeps me off my feet. I remember the moment and the intimate sensation of devouring a beloved text as distinctly as I recall the most sensual encounters of my life. Is it like this for everyone, or is it like this only for those who work with words? I want to believe everyone falls in love with a book in much the same way one falls in love with a person that one has an intimate personal exchange, a mystical exchange as spiritual and charged as the figure eight meaning infinity.” I just love that. I feel exactly the same way. I just loved it.

Sandra: I love it. I love when I meet other people that are crazy about words. It’s so great.

Zibby: Actually, I have a memoir coming out, and this is my whole thing, is where I was when I read books. When I see them, I remember where I was, not just headspace, but physically a lot of the time or where I carried it.

Sandra: I remember what I was wearing. Do you remember details of your clothes? I remember crazy things. I think, does everybody remember it? What do you do with all that flotsam and jetsam?

Zibby: I know.

Sandra: What’s the name of your memoir?

Zibby: It’s called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. It’s coming out this summer.

Sandra: Love it. Great title.

Zibby: Thank you. I’ll send it to you. No, I don’t really remember as much what I’m wearing because my brain never thinks about that. I do remember how I felt or where I was when I cried while reading it or something that moved me about it. I feel like just touching and seeing it all the time, it comes back in little snippets. You’re right, flotsam and jetsam, I keep worrying I’m going to run out of room. Where does it go?

Sandra: I know. What do we do with all this stuff? I’ve been, lately, because I’m going to turn sixty-seven in a couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about, you haven’t written about that. I’m one of those people that, if you know me and you tell me a story, I’ll say, have you written about that? I’m always reminding other people what they should write about. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, did I write about — I need to write about that. I’ve made a whole list. Write about… There’s just so much. Even if I got put in prison for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t have enough time to get it all down. I just hope that I have good health because we want to honor all the people we’ve met, the people that have brushed past us, and people that are in our lives, and people we just glimpse in a second. There’s so much that enriches our lives even if they’re exploding cigars. Sometimes those are the things that teach us the most. We need to examine them to understand this thing called our life. I hope by the time we get to the end of our lives that we’re wiser and more brilliant and better human beings.

Zibby: What’s one thing on your list that you’re going to write about?

Sandra: I just write so many. There was this girl that I went to school with in seventh grade. I wrote a poem about her in my first book of poetry. I just talked about this at the Miami Book Fair. She used to eat Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in class and sneak them. She was not very popular. She was kind of gordita, a little chubby. She had shiny face and acne. She was a mess, but I liked her. I could see her inner talent. She always would eat these Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups when she had her period. This was in seventh grade. She already was a woman, whereas I was like a little boy. I sat next to her. I always associated the smell of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups ever after with my period. When I finally got my period, I had to run out and buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I always, when I pick up tampons, pick up Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Zibby: Yes, you’re right, you definitely have to write that down. That’s hilarious.

Sandra: I have a nose. I think I have the power of bloodhound to capture scents. That’s in my writing a lot. Writer, want-to-be-writers, I always tell them, focus on smell. That’s ancestral and scientifically proven to bring back the past. I try to focus on scents.

Zibby: I had COVID almost a year ago, and I feel like my smell is still not a hundred percent back.

Sandra: Oh, that’s sad.

Zibby: I know. I think it’s close, taste and smell, but they’re not a hundred percent. Everybody else is like, oh, gosh, do you smell — then it just takes me that extra little bit. I’m like, now, finally, I do.

Sandra: Maybe you need to practice. Get a big bin of cinnamon.

Zibby: I’ll put that on the calendar, cinnamon inhalation smell-sharpening session. I’ll send you a picture with my nose in a jar.

Sandra: I would do that with students to wake up their five senses in their writing. I would bring things for them to touch or smell. Those little children, they had cinnamon at home, but everybody wanted to smell the little box with the cinnamon. I guess it was very pleasant for them. Of course, cinnamon appeared in all their poems.

Zibby: Interesting. I love that. It’s true. I think that’s part of what makes your writing so vivid. I was actually curious — I know I keep talking about — I’m sort of obsessed with your memoir and essays and everything in addition to this beautiful new story. I was interested in the fact that you included so many photos because your words already are painting such a picture. It’s already so vivid, what you’re saying. Why the photos?

Sandra: You mean the visual photos?

Zibby: Yeah.

Sandra: I think that’s how I view the world, through images. I could have been and should have been, maybe, a visual artist. I get along and have friends who are visual artists. I understand their work. I always think of that as the road not taken. If I hadn’t been a writer, I would’ve liked to have done something with textiles or fashion, clothing. I’m very fascinated with people who work with clothing and textiles and design, maybe because my father was an upholsterer. He brought home scraps of fabric, just like in the book. I had wonderful, beautiful fabric from France and England, the best. My father worked with high-end interior decorators. He would bring the little scraps for my mom to make dresses for my Barbie dolls. I got used to having really beautiful textiles at a very young age and loving their colors. Originally when we’re writers, we all start as artists. We draw before we go into language. That has stayed with me. It’s something that I still love. I still sketch. My book, Puro Amor: Chapbook, has my illustrations of my pets and pets of my friends. I still long and wish I had enough time to start another career. I love the shows where people design clothing. I like those. I just feel like I have the visual in me, the visual passion. Maybe that’s why you see it in the story.

Zibby: Interesting. You think it’s too late? If I have time to stick my nose in a box of cinnamon, maybe you have time to just spend an hour a week on making clothing.

Sandra: Full disclosure, my friend Nancy Traugott from Homefrocks in Santa Fe, she and I have a project that got delayed or detoured by COVID. We were working on a text and textile project where her clothing line would have some lines of poetry. , and so I have handkerchiefs and children’s dresses and pillowcases with words, stories that I get other people to embroider because I can’t even sew a button. This concept of doing a show with text and textiles and collaborating is something that’s been put on hold, but I still want to explore where we would display that, where that would be.

Zibby: Don’t exhibit. You should sell it.

Sandra: No, this is the problem. When I find a beautiful vintage piece and I write on it, I give it to her. It’s one of the pieces in her shop in Santa Fe. Everyone wants to buy it, but the thing I make is not for sale. For me, it’s like, why would I want to sell that? It’s one of a kind. Why don’t you buy my books instead?

Zibby: I think because what you’re creating is so — the uniqueness of it, people want to share in that self-expression.

Sandra: We’ll see what we can do so that I can satisfy my need to keep . Maybe we can photograph these items and put them in a book so that you could see the stories. They’re on the clothing. There’ll be a wash towel, and it’ll be about my mother and how she would wash clothes until her hands blistered. She had an allergy because of the soap. I’ll buy these little vintage towels. She taught me how to rummage and buy old textiles. There’s stories on the cloth. My idea was to hang them up with clips and display them somewhere. Maybe we can document them and photograph them and make a little book. That would be nice.

Zibby: That would be great.

Sandra: Okay, you planted that seed about a book in my head.

Zibby: You’re going to do it. I’m so excited about it.

Sandra: It begins here with a thought. That’s how I made my reality happen. I was in fifth or sixth grade when I visualized a book on the shelf in the library with my name on it. I’d tell young people, this is where everything happens. Everything begins with a thought. You don’t have to tell anyone, but you have to hold it there and walk towards it every day.

Zibby: I’m so excited you have now another button to put on your to-do list. It also sounds like you’re such an inspiring teacher.

Sandra: I don’t like teaching too much because I want to work on my own things, so I kind of retired from that. I only teach once in a while at Macondo, the working workshop I started which people can apply to. I don’t appear there anymore. I’m just the founder. I feel like now at sixty-six, I need to focus on my own writing because I don’t know how much time I have left before my Uber driver honks the horn and says, let’s go. I got to focus on my work.

Zibby: That is really elevating Uber drivers here to quite a spiritual realm.

Sandra: They’re honking all over the place around us with COVID, so we have to be very, very conscious and grateful and filled with an awareness of the temporality of our times and the fragility of our lives and work on something like it’s the last day on your life because sometimes it is.

Zibby: I totally agree with that. I constantly feel like I’m fighting against time. Every day, I’m like, oh, gosh, I hope I get to finish this. I hope I get to finish that. What if?

Sandra: Do you feel like you’re a bad person if you haven’t done something creative? If you’ve only done balancing your checkbook or something domestic and you hadn’t done anything creative, don’t you feel like a bad person when you go to bed and think, what did I do today? Oh, I answered emails. Oh, I unpacked. Oh, I cleaned the kitchen. Nothing creative, what a bad human being I am.

Zibby: I’m very self-punitive, but maybe not in the exact same way. Those are the days when I say, “Ugh, I didn’t get anything done.” My husband will say something like, “What do you mean? You were working.” I’m like, no. I think that’s what it is. What did you do? What did you put down in the world? What happened?

Sandra: What did you create? We’re mothering art. I always talk about my books as being my children. I know what it is to be a mother because I was the nanny for my niece for the second, third, and fourth month of her life. I know how busy moms are. It’s exactly like that when you’re a writer too. Your life is pulling you in different ways. If you can just write one little button, it will indicate your day. You can go to bed in peace and think you did something positive in the universe.

Zibby: Yet you have to balance actually getting new inputs from all of your experiences. You can’t just lock yourself in a room. You’ve got to be out and about.

Sandra: I’ve been doing this on my phone, I write a list of things I must write about. They’re just little notes that are buttons about buttons. They’re not even a button. They’re about a button. Write about the girl with chocolates and her period, the little things like that that I remember so I don’t lose them. In one day, you may have fifteen or fifteen million ideas. You just got to document enough so that you’ll remind you when you sit at your desk. You don’t wait to get inspired. You go to the button jar, and you pick out something. You write the one that’s going to take off.

Zibby: Ooh, maybe as part of your book on textiles you should have a jar of buttons.

Sandra: I have an essay called “Writing in my Pajamas.” That’s another unfinished project about things I share with young writers about writing tips. That’s another unfinished manuscript.

Zibby: I think you should get multicolor buttons. You could explain your whole button theory.

Sandra: I think collected works is going to be blurbs. I think I’m the one who blurbs than any other writer in the universe.

Zibby: Do you read all the books?

Sandra: Yeah, I do.

Zibby: What are some of your favorite books? If that’s too hard, just something recently that’s really moved you.

Sandra: I read this book called Gordo. I always forget — Jaime Cortez, I think, is the writer, Gordo. It’s short stories about memories growing up as a migrant child. They’re so sad and funny. Nothing can be funny unless it’s sad. Nothing can be sad unless it’s funny. To make a really great story, you have to have both. That book, I blurbed it. It’s on my bedside so I can read it again. I also blurbed a book called American Bastard by the poet Jan Beatty. I just finished rereading that one again. She w like a poet because she is a poet. That’s really great. Then I’m reading Baggage by Alan Cumming, a memoir, a follow-up to his first memoir, Not My Father’s Son. That’s really great too. Those are all things among tens of thousands of books that are all clamoring around my bed for attention.

Zibby: In your memoir, you had one line that said — it was some introduction you were writing. You said, I’m the only girl with seven brothers growing up in my house.

Sandra: Six brothers.

Zibby: Six, I’m sorry. Six brothers. You were one of seven. You said that’s all you need to know about you. Why? Tell me about that.

Sandra: It’s all I need to know because everything goes back to my six brothers. They’re in my head. When you grow up with boys, they always make fun of you. Why are you wearing trenzas? Why are you wearing braids with those ugly glasses? They just whittle you down to nothing. They’re in my head when I write. That’s a terrible line. Why did you think that was going to be good? No, you got to go back and rewrite that. That’s trashy. You’re terrible. You’re nothing. They’re in my head. They have no idea that I’ve incorporated them as my personal editors. I guess I need therapy. Therapy’s great, if you can. I’ve gone through depressions when I haven’t been writing. I strongly recommend, go to seek a therapist because it’s like getting a professional story listener. When you write, you have the page as being your listeners. Sometimes you need someone to be your bruja, your shaman, your guide.

Zibby: Where did I hear — someone recently told me on this podcast — now I’m going to forget who it was. They were talking to a friend of theirs who was a therapist. They said that, I just think that everyone has the most interesting interior life. What goes on in people’s brains, everyone has these amazing stories. I guess the therapist said back to this person, not true.

Sandra: When I was in therapy, sometimes I had nothing to say, so I would just talk stupidities. I always thought, I wonder if my therapist thinks, this is a brilliant writer, and she’s telling me about the last episode of Sex & the City.

Zibby: I saw this therapist a long time ago. I was sitting in the waiting room. She was running late, which she never used to do. The door finally opened. Out walked this widow, a young widow of a very famous man who had just famously passed away. It was all over the news right then. She walked out. I was like, oh, my gosh. I went in and sat down. I was like, actually, I’m fine. How can I compete with that? Everything is good. I think I should just leave.

Sandra: When I was a kid, sometimes we had to go to confession in Catholic school. I didn’t have enough sins, so I would make some up. Just to try to be nice to the priest, I’ll think of a couple extra. I got in that position with the therapist that I had to think of a good story, something to entertain her. I think that’s how you get when you’re a writer. You feel like you got to always be on. You’ve got to perform. You have to please others. That’s when you know you need therapy.

Zibby: Maybe, or you just go about your day and makes lots of other people really happy.

Sandra: say, I need to write about that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, yes, this endless list of things to write about. I also do that with other people too, by the way. I’m always like, oh, that would be a great story. That would be a great story.

Sandra: That’s a good story, when someone else seeds the conversation and gives you the gift of listening and silence, absolute silence. They’re hanging on your words. That, to me, is a good story. I grew up in a house with everyone speaking at the same time, nine people all talking at the same time, or radios on, televisions on. When you could say something that would shut everyone else up in the house and they’d listen to you, that, to me, was a sign. Oh, power in storytelling. I’ve said something that’s funny or that’s captured their attention. I think that trained me to become a storyteller.

Zibby: Interesting. I guess then there’s hope for one of my four kids because it’s often — one time, I was so sick of everybody cutting each other off all the time at dinner. I was like, “Okay, you have to be holding this slice of red pepper. I’m going to pass it like a microphone around the table. You cannot talk if you are not holding onto this pepper.” That lasted for like one minute.

Sandra: Maybe they’ll be playwrights or filmmakers and create all the dialogue mishmashing into each other, you hope.

Zibby: I hope. Yes, oh, my goodness. Sandra, this has been so much fun.

Sandra: Liliana Valenzuela translated my book. She’s brilliant. She’s been my translator since I met her in the early nineties, so do the math, how long we’ve worked together. She’s practically translated all my books, not all. We met each other in Texas where she lives. Every time I work with her on a project, it’s like going on a car trip with your best friend. Really, it is. We laugh so much. She’s also just the best poet. It’s great to have a poet who is your translator because they pay attention to the same thing that poets pay attention to, the syllable. That’s so great in that she makes the lines sound beautiful in Spanish. I just want to shout out to Liliana Valenzuela and let readers know that even if they don’t speak or read Spanish, it’s nice to take a look and see. It’s also on audio, which I taped.

Zibby: Oh, good. I’m going to listen. Did you record it in English and Spanish, or just English? Both?

Sandra: I did the Spanish for the very first time. It was scary because I had to practice, practice, practice. We had two actors that did the letter portion with Martita and Paola. I also had to practice accents. I had to practice Argentine Spanish. I had to practice Paola’s way of speaking English. I had to practice French words that I’d never said out loud in my life. It was a lot of stress. It came out so beautiful. It’s like a radio play. It’s the right length that you could just listen to it. It’s like going to a play. It’s just the right length of what your seated behind will withstand, just an hour, a little bit longer than an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Really great project. I just heard it a couple of weeks ago when I was in the car. I had not heard it since I was in the studio. I was mesmerized. I encourage everyone out there to take a listen.

Zibby: Excellent. I can’t wait. I’m going to go back and do that. Thank you. Thanks for chatting with me today. This has been so amazing. Now I’m just going to be eagerly waiting to see what else comes out of that —

Sandra: — I have a new book of poetry that I’m just reviewing the galleys this week. It’s called Woman Without Shame. It’s about thirty years since I’ve come out with a book of poetry, not because I don’t write poetry. I write it all the time, but I don’t publish it. I’m finally gathering a collection that I like. It’ll be out next fall. Liliana Valenzuela is going to be working on the translations. It will be two volumes, one in English, one in Spanish. Those of you who don’t know, I’m a poet, take a look. Those of you who remember, you have not seen poems like these in thirty years, so please follow me. Follow me on Instagram or on my website to see where and when I’ll be appearing.

Zibby: So exciting. Women Without Shame.

Sandra: No, woman, singular. Woman Without Shame.

Zibby: Woman Without Shame. This is what happens when I try to take a note at the same time that I’m talking. Multitasking failure. I’m excited for that, then. Fantastic.

Sandra: Felicidades on your memoir. I look forward to getting a copy.

Zibby: I’ll send you one. As soon as I have the final galley, I will send you one.

Sandra: Sign it to me, please. I like to have them personalized.

Zibby: I will sign it to you. I would be honored.

Sandra: That’s a lot of years being by yourself to write something, a lot of hours. People don’t realize that. Each book, every page is a lot of hours spent by yourself. Felicidades. Celebrate. Eat a donut. Eat something you’re not supposed to eat. Just celebrate.

Zibby: Okay, all right. You too. Donuts R Us. Bye. Thank you.

Sandra: Thank you. Bye.


MARTITA, I REMEMBER YOU by Sandra Cisneros

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