A Microinterview with Sandra Cisneros and Liliana Valenzuela


A Microinterview with Sandra Cisneros and Liliana Valenzuela

A Microinterview with Sandra Cisneros and Liliana Valenzuela

Sandra Cisneros and Liliana Valenzuela
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This conversation was co-organized by The Believer and the 2018 Texas Book Festival, and occasioned by the publication of  Sandra Cisneros and Liliana Valenzuela’s Puro Amor (Sarabande Books), a bilingual chapbook illustrated by Cisneros.



SANDRA CISNEROS: Lili, how long have we known each other?

LILIANA VALENZUELA: We go back bastante, to the ’80s, maybe ’87, after your stay at the Paisano ranch?

SC: I won the Dobie Paisano Fellowship as I was packing to leave Texas, thinking I would never come back again. I was wrapping a vase with newspaper, I remember, when they called and gave me the good news. But instead of responding with a “Yay!,” I said flatly, “Oh.” Because I didn’t have a car and was going to have to buy one. I was going to have to stay in Texas. My first year had been rather brutal, so I thought the award was bad news: Oh, I gotta stay in Austin and live on a ranch for six months! But I did it and it changed my whole attitude about Texas. Before then, I didn’t understand how anyone could bear to live someplace without a lake or an ocean. After my residency at the Dobie Paisano ranch, I realized you had to look up, and there it was—that blue everyone needs to save your life. We met in ’87 after this discovery.

LV: El cielo de Texas es muy grande, muy azul.

SC: Muy grande, muy azul, y gratis para todos.



SANDRA CISNEROS: I wanted to ask you about the process of translation. I think you should have won an award for translating Caramelo, which was done in a very short amount of time. You did it while the book was in production. In how many months?

LILIANA VALENZUELA: I translated it into Spanish in about six months. It was a simultaneous publication in English and Spanish.

SC: And I wrote the book in nine years.

LV: Right, yeah. [Laughs] It was a very short amount of time for such a lengthy novel, and the novel is very poetic as well, as is all of your writing. On the surface, it may look deceptively simple, but your work is very well built, very well put together. There’s a lot of poetry, a lot of sounds I needed to re-create. It was slow for you to write and it was slow going for me to translate because of that.

SC: That’s why you do it so well, because you’re a poet too. You wrote an essay about the process of translating it that is only in the Spanish version of Caramelo. You called the essay “El revés del bordado,” “The Reverse of the Embroidery.” It’s a beautiful title.

LV: That’s right. I compare translation to weaving or making a huipil, or an embroidery. When you translate, you’re looking at the backside; it has to look almost the same. You shouldn’t be able to see ugly stitches or anything from the back. The translation should make the same impression as it did for the original reader: the same shock, delight, joy, or puzzlement.



SANDRA CISNEROS: Your translation is particularly challenging because I do a lot of code-switching in Spanish. So you have to find something that’s the equivalent that can parallel what I’m doing.

LILIANA VALENZUELA: Yes, because you portray so well the different Englishes and Spanishes of Chicago, of Texas, the way people speak in Mexico City, the dialects of the countryside and the city. And there are lots of juego de palabras, wordplay, lots of back-and-forth between different cultures. And so, when I translate it into Spanish, it can’t be identical or like an exact mirror image.

SC: Your mom said something very interesting when you were pressured to try to finish that in so few months. She said, “Ay, mija, can’t you get someone to help you?” And you said:

LV: “No, I can’t, I have to do it myself.” And she said, “Oh, it’s like when you’re knitting and you have a certain style of knitting, and if someone helps you, it’s either going to be too loose or too tight and people can tell it’s not the same. It doesn’t have the same flow.” I said, “Exactly!” [Laughs]

SC: I thought that was a wonderful metaphor for the process of translation, and for why you can’t, you know, just parcel it out to friends to help you.

LV: I have to imagine the voices of different characters and how they would sound in Spanish. Like you, I must find a particular register, whether high or low or in-between, or play with code-switching. Just as you hear those voices when you’re creating the work, I have to hear equivalent voices in my head. Someone else can’t take over.



SANDRA CISNEROS: I was thinking of that press Taller Leñateros. It comes out of Chiapas, in a very poor region, run by an American woman, a wonderful poet named Ámbar Past. And she makes books, little chapbooks with recycled materials like cardboard and mimeograph paper. She does the books trilingually, but not just in Spanish and English. She’ll have Spanish, English, and Japanese, you know.

LILIANA VALENZUELA: And indigenous languages of Mexico.

SC: And indigenous languages. Mayan. I think that at this time it’s not enough that we just do Spanish and English. We need to do Korean, Spanish, Mayan. There should be books made to unite communities.





Q: Could you share one of your favorite moments when someone had an outrageous or profound reaction to your work?

SANDRA CISNEROS: I get letters from people old and young. After reading The House on Mango Street, an older man wrote to me. He was not Latino, not a person of color, but said that after reading my book, he could not ride on the New York subway in the same way as before. He found himself looking with empathy and with an open heart at people that I was writing about. And I think that’s the power of reading books about someone who is most unlike ourselves. If we can see ourselves in the person most unlike ourselves, then literature will have done its work, don’t you think? That was a wonderful letter, one I always treasure and remember.

LILIANA VALENZUELA: As Sandra’s translator, which requires being an extremely close reader, there are times when I come upon a phrase or sentence that is so well crafted that I have a moment of aesthetic bliss. It’s like eating a box of candy and hitting one that’s perfect and I can’t believe I get to do this as work.

SC: Thank you.





Q: Here’s my question: I was raised that chingona is a bad word.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Yeah, you know why? It’s a bad word because only men use it, and they use it as a weapon against you, against women and gays. I feel that we as women have to take words that are stones and file them down and remake them to empower ourselves. So I use it in a very different way, as a way of defining a woman in her own power who’s not judged by men, in the same way that the gay community took back the word queer.





Q: Do you have any advice for finding your voice when you’re a Latino writer and when you’re a woman and when you’re struggling in Oaxaca and in la Ciudad de México?

LILIANA VALENZUELA: Sandra has taught the “10 by 10 by 10” exercise in workshops. She would tell us, “OK, think about the ten things that make you different from the people in your own family and then the ten things that make you different from the people on your block and the ten things that make you different from the people in your town and your country, your job—”

SANDRA CISNEROS: Your profession, your economic level—

LV: And so then you get to the very specificity of your own life story, your own views, your point of view, your perception. And if you start writing from that place…

SC: That’s your voice. That’s your fingerprint. And I add to that list ten things you wish you could forget. If you write only light things, you’re not getting to the heart of your demons. Write about the things you wish you could forget, as if it was too dangerous to be published in your lifetime. And then I will add three rules that I give writers. One: Earn your own money, because you probably won’t make money from your writing, and don’t expect to. So have just two or three jobs. Earn your own money. The more you control your own income, the more you control your destiny. Two: Control your fertility. Your fertility does not control you. It might veer you off your brilliant career. And number three: Solitude is sacred. We tend to chastise ourselves when we don’t have a partner, when we don’t have a date, when we’re not being social. But for writers, that alone time is our time to discover and develop our art. So earn your own money, control your fertility, solitude is sacred. Put it on a T-shirt.

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