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Sandra Cisneros

The novelist and poet, 64, on the power of art, the impact of depression, and the splendor of a Chicago dog

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

When I worked across the street from the Art Institute as an undergrad, I spent a lot of time in that museum. Being near things of beauty nourished me for the next couple of hours of sitting in a cubicle, listening to people on the phone complain about the gas company.

Art gave me an illumination and an imagination. It gave me a vocabulary.

I spent a lot of time contemplating life riding the L from Humboldt Park to the Lake Shore Campus of Loyola. I loved traveling behind the apartment buildings and would think, What if I lived there? I guess I’ve always been kind of a busybody. I like seeing other people’s lives.

When I was 21, I was hit by a car in Iowa City just months after I’d gotten there for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was frightening because I was all by myself. I had fought really hard for that freedom to live alone. So in the emergency room, when they asked if I wanted to notify anyone, I said no. I really wasn’t clear about what had happened until I showered and looked at my scraped and bruised body. I started to cry and realized, I’m not in control of this life I thought I was in control of.

I think depression is especially profound with artists. But if you come from a working-class family, you tend to dismiss it because your parents and your grandparents and ancestors had much more terrible lives than you. After I published The House on Mango Street with a small press, there wasn’t enough money to pay my rent, so I went through a period of great doubt. At 33, I didn’t have the things other people had. I didn’t have insurance or a car or a house. And I couldn’t face borrowing money from my mother and father yet again. It just felt easier for me to think of being dead. I had to call a suicide hotline.

My intuition told me I needed to go home for Christmas. When I got there, my mother said, “There’s a letter for you from Washington, D.C., and I think it’s good news.” I opened the envelope, and it was $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Now I could pay all my loans back. More important, someone had decided my writing was worth living for.

You could put 100 women in a room, and I bet 98 of them would give you a #MeToo story. I certainly have mine. When I was growing up, I was so trusting of every human being I met. And then when men, even old men, would say, “Could I have your phone number?” it was like a whipped cream pie being thrown in my face. The House on Mango Street girl was talked into giving the man in the coatroom a kiss because it was his birthday. I was 15 when that really happened to me.

I was in the room when my mother died in 2007, so I felt her energy when it left. In real life, she was this loud, unhappy, creative, intelligent force. But this was a sweet, loving energy that felt like a fluttering little moth made of light. It shocked me. How did she disguise that? How many disappointments and frustrations and fears and rages covered that vulnerable side of her? If I hadn’t been there, I probably would not be able to speak to you about my mom in a loving way.

At 64, I have to protect my energy now. I can’t go to dinner with more than three people. It drains me. It affects my writing.

You have to find your own moments of enlightenment. No one can proselytize or tell you what to do.

I don’t eat meat very often, but I make an exception for Chicago hot dogs. I’m kind of snobby about it. It’s gotta come wrapped in paper, and you have to eat it standing up. No french fries? No poppy seeds? That’s not a hot dog.

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