This year, Sandra Cisneros was the Penn State English Department’s Steven Fisher Writer-in-Residence. Her recent novel, Caramelo, was also selected as the Center for American Literary Studies and Centre County’s community read event.
I assigned the novel in my own freshman composition course as the basis for a literary and rhetorical analysis project. When I mentioned this to Cisneros after a workshop she gave for graduate students and faculty, she called it “ambitious.” The novel is indeed a heavyweight: intricate, expansive, and utterly rewarding. Despite some initial trepidation, by the end the class coalesced around insights about family, heritage, identity, and destiny. The questions we confronted reflected deeply human concerns.
Professors Toni Jensen, Elizabeth Kadetsky, and Tina Chen provided invaluable support for Cisneros’ visit. They organized a panel discussion featuring Professor Lorraine Lopez of Vanderbilt, held a campus-wide writing contest, and gave introductions that illuminated the power and importance of Cisneros’ work.
I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts from the many sincere and frankly lucid responses that my students had to Cisneros’ reading:
“With ease, she changed her high-pitched tone in accordance to the character speaking. Even when they said very little, her voice alone brought life and a story to each character.
“My brief time with Sandra Cisneros proved to be quite memorable. The author I once viewed as “unique” had completely transformed into a passionate, dedicated woman that I admired. She exemplified hard work and doing what you love; wearing her heart on her sleeve and pouring her soul onto paper. She taught me to embrace one’s weirdness, as it is actually pure passion misunderstood by others. I can easily say Ms. Cisneros had a positive effect on me and it was privilege to hear speak.”–ZK
“As an avid collector of textiles, Ms. Cisneros has a tendency to liken many aspects of writing to clothing. “Make buttons,” she said; little anecdotes that relate to whatever is on your mind at the time. If you’re lucky, one day you might find the story—or article of clothing—to adorn it. Similarly, Cisneros also says her stories are like rebozos. She collects strands of fabric from herself and other people in order to intertwine them into a story.
“But most importantly, Ms. Cisneros encouraged students to write from their pajamas. What she means by this metaphor is that writers should strip themselves of all insecurities or airs in order to find their true voice. However, writing from your pajamas does not imply that you should be comfortable. “Good writing must cost something,” Cisneros explains. She alludes to the fact that while writing Caramelo, there were many things happening in her life that made writing harder. From breakups to the death of her father, Cisneros had to force herself to write a few pages each day. Furthermore, Cisneros refers to writing as medicine or therapy. She encourages students to write for the sake of writing. “The process is more important than the product,” she says. It does not matter if you publish your work for thousands to read, or tear it into a thousand pieces.”–MS
“The way that she dealt with her family secrets intrigued me. By exposing them to the world brought her peace and clarity, yet she was still able to maintain a sense of privacy for those she was writing about by changing minute details. She had her own little secret and found her peace without hurting anyone in the process.
“Her family’s privacy and communication skills actually helped her with her writing. They forced her to look at secrets as stories, and since she could not talk to her family about them, instead she told the world. I could not imagine the courage needed to spill intimate details about my own life to the world. Authors are the most transparent workers. They have to be.”–KF