2014 Thomas Wolfe Prize: Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros is one of the most beloved writers working en las Americas today. The House on Mango Street, her 1984 novel about a working-class Mexican-American girl growing up in inner-city Chicago, has sold more than two million copies, been translated into twenty languages, and become required reading in high schools and colleges across the country. And that was just her first book.
Cisneros was born the only sister to six brothers—and that, she once wrote, “explains everything.” Her father shuttled the family back and forth between Chicago and his native Mexico in their station wagon so often, she felt they were “straddling two countries but not belonging to either.”
After graduating from Loyola University of Chicago in 1976, she won a slot in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There, during a discussion of their childhood homes, she realized how radically different a life she’d led than her privileged peers.
The House on Mango Street was thus born, in which the alienated narrator dreams not only of a room of her own, but a whole house with “a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”
Such themes of home and identity, race and class, and above all feminism pervade Cisneros’s work, which includes the poetry collections My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987) and Loose Woman (1994), the 1991 short story collection Woman Hollering Creek, the 1994 children’s book Pelitos, the 2002 novel Caramelo, and the 2012 picture book for adults Have You Seen Marie? As the first Latina published by a major house, she is credited with blazing the literary trail for an entire generation of writers whose stories previously went untold.
The New York Times Book Review has called Cisneros “not only a gifted writer, but an absolutely essential one.” She is also a highly decorated one, with an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Lannan Foundation Literary Award, an American Book Award, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
Upon winning a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1995, she established what might be her most enduring legacy. Gathering some writers around her kitchen table in San Antonio, Texas, she implored them to think not just about their craft but about their conscience. The best way to become a good writer, she said, is to become a good person. This philosophy seeded the Macondo Foundation, which holds annual weeklong workshops for socially-engaged writers from across the nation. It also awards money to Latina/o writers “in need of time to heal their body, heart, or spirit.”
Cisneros doesn’t just nurture the artist within herself, but within us all. As she once declared in an interview, “We’re world leaders, too. We don’t think of that. Everybody that you come into contact with and everything that you do is going to have an effect. Not just everything you say, but everything you touch. You can act wisely, or you can act unwisely. Or you can do something.”
Author, activist, benefactress: Sandra Cisneros is not just a literary legend but a cultural icon as well.