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Tuesday, October 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Books

Father's death opened new insights for 'Caramelo' author Sandra Cisneros

Special to The Seattle Times

Author reading


Sandra Cisneros, novelist and poet, will read at the Seattle Arts & Lectures series, at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Benaroya Hall. Information and tickets: www.lectures.org or 206-621-2230.

Sandra Cisneros laughs warmly, generously and often — a trait she shares with many of the characters of her sprawling most recent novel, "Caramelo."

The novel, an intricate tale of four generations, both in Mexico and the U.S., has been almost universally praised by critics and was just released in paperback.

Young people, in particular, are fans of Cisneros, 49, who will be reading Monday in Seattle. She is a hero to many young Latinas, but her writing appeals to all ethnic groups. In schools across America, students have been assigned her coming-of-age book, "The House on Mango Street." She is also the author of "Woman Hollering Creek"; a children's volume, "Hairs/Pelitos"; and poetry.

The most affectionately portrayed character in "Caramelo" is a man named Inocencio Reyes, an abstract portrait of Cisneros' own father. Inocencio's story is rooted in the family legends that came before him. Inocencio — known as Papá to the narrator, Lala — laughs often. "It's a laugh," Cisneros writes, "like the letter 'K.' " Inocencio also tells many lies — "healthy lies" meant to comfort another person.

In a chapter titled "Very Nice and Kind, Just Like You," Inocencio shares war stories with an Anglo Texan. Both, as it turns out, served in the Army at Camp Blanding. Inocencio even remembers the man's father, a general. "Oh my Got!" Inocencio says, "I remember! Always, he say, 'my son, my son.' So proud he was."

The Texan leaves. Lala's mother says, "What a liar you are! Mother says you didn't go to Camp Blanding! You went to Fort Ord." Inocencio replies, "I'm not lying. It's being polite. I am a gentleman."

We recently spoke by phone to Cisneros, who lives in San Antonio, about the difficulty, the responsibility — to her fans and to her family — and the joy of writing "Caramelo."

Q: The characters in "Caramelo" are based on your family, but this is not an autobiography, correct?

A: Yes, they are based on real people. All the aunts and uncles are based on real people, real relatives. My father's voice is my father's, my mother's, my mother's. But their actions and their hearts and their emotions, those are based on my own actions. That's where I had to put myself on the line.

I had to really rummage in my own heart and see my own ghosts, my own passions, my own foibles and put them into these puppets that I created. Because I don't know about their hearts. They're the kind of people who wouldn't talk about it even if they could.

Q: You said in "Caramelo's" acknowledgements that your father opposed your life as a writer.

A: He did. He really wanted me to settle down and get married so I would have some economic stability. That was the only way he could see that I would stop living this kind of bohemian lifestyle ...

Q: Was he able to see your success when you won a National Endowment for the Arts grant — or later, a MacArthur grant?

A: Well, no, because he didn't know what that meant. If your parents are from another culture, they know you've received a lot of money, but they don't know what the NEA grant is. But he was with me once when I had to deposit an early grant check. He made me take a picture. I have a picture of me holding the check, the $35,000.

The day I bought my car with the second part of my advance for "Woman Hollering Creek" — that was another moment. He looked at my check and said, "Ah, the years I would have had to work to earn this amount."

But what made him actually understand that I was indeed a professional writer was two things: one was the MacArthur, not because he understood what the MacArthur was, but because he understood the amount ($255,000). The other thing was that he saw Carlos Fuentes on Spanish-language TV and Carlos Fuentes mentioned my name as one of the writers he admired. That my father understood.

Q: You teach often. What advice do you give to writers?

A: It depends what age level I'm talking to. If I'm talking to really young women, I tell them to get an education and get a library card. I tell them to become economically independent because you have to presume you'll never make any money from your writing — and making money isn't a measure of the worth of your writing.

Young writers so desperately want to get published. ... I always tell young writers to be in a hurry to become a good writer. The publishing will take care of itself.

Q: Working on "Caramelo," did you encounter writer's block?

A: I think every day was writer's terror with this book. One of the things that saved me was the MacArthur grant. It gave me a kind of safety net, so that I could focus on the writing, and not on the deadline. Also, I knew that Dorothy Allison was coming to town. We had a really nice visit, where we sat down and had pancakes together.

I used to use one of her poems from "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure" as my mantra: "In the world as I remade it, anything was possible." It was the possibility that I could re-create the universe.

The other thing was a friend who told me that with this book, I needed to have fun. I needed to get out of my house. I needed to go out at night and have a glass of wine. You know, I was so involved in my book that I didn't leave my house for days. I'd just wander around in dirty pajamas. (laughs)

Q: Did you have any concerns that you may be betraying certain people by portraying them a certain way, with all their flaws? Especially the character of Inocencio, based on your father?

A: My father, yes, I did. My father passed away when I was writing this book, and it was something I suspected would happen even before I began the book. ... I had one of the saddest years of my life. I put all of that sadness in the book because I just couldn't stop. There would be times when I would just be on my back with grief. I would feel like I was on a huge galleon in the ocean with no breeze.

The book saved me from the sadness. Because you can be extremely heartbroken and write about something heartbreaking, but if you stay with it long enough, it will bless you with light. That's the wonderful thing; that's why we write. It's the light, and that spiritual connection.

With his passing into the spirit world, I could understand and make the questions that I couldn't ask in the physical world. I could go places in the book I couldn't as a daughter. I would meditate and ask and really say, "You're gonna have to trust me. I'm going to tell the truth." I would do that as part of my meditation.

I think it's important as a writer that we put things out that have a good intention. In that way, we can be wiser, and smarter, more spiritual, more generous, more compassionate than in real life.

Jen Buckendorff: jenb@elvis.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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