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Sandra Cisneros writes fable for grieving grown-ups

By Cindy Y. Rodriguez, CNN
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
Author Sandra Cisneros wrote
Author Sandra Cisneros wrote "Have You Seen Marie?" after the death of her mother.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chicana author Sandra Cisneros wrote a new book, "Have You Seen Marie?"
  • Her book "The House on Mango Street" was banned from Tucson schools
  • Cisneros is planning to move to Mexico for the first time
  • "I just need to be in an environment where all I hear is Spanish," she said

Read this article in Spanish/Lea este artículo en español

(CNN) -- Chicana author Sandra Cisneros is perhaps best-known for her 1984 coming of age novel, "The House on Mango Street," a story about a young Latina who leaves behind her barrio for a chance at a better life. The novel, also released in Spanish, has sold more than 4 million copies and is a considered a classic of Chicano literature.

But not everyone is a fan, specifically the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona, which banned Cisneros' book in its suspension of its Mexican-American studies program. It still bewilders Cisneros and her fans: How can a character who spends most of her time at the library and shares her experiences with her mother and blind aunt offend a school district?

Cisneros is on a national book tour this month for "Have You Seen Marie?" a tale about a woman's search for a cat who goes missing in the wake of her mother's death. It's a fable for grieving grown-ups, and at less than 100 pages, she hopes the book will be medicine for hearts broken from loss.

California-based artist Ester Hernandez, known for her depiction of Latina and Chicana women through prints and pastels, represented the unique and colorful characters, all based on Cisneros' neighbors. They make up the quirky King William district of San Antonio, Texas, where the story is based.

Cisneros tell us what inspired the tale, why she is planning a move to Mexico and how she feels about her famous book being banned.

CNN: What inspired you to write "Have You Seen Marie?"

Cisneros: I was working on the 25th anniversary tour of "The House on Mango Street." I wanted to make a small book that people could have or give to someone in a place of grief. My mother had just passed, but I still felt the need to create something. My friend and artist of the book, Ester Hernandez, had just lost her mother too, and I proposed that she join me, and she very reluctantly joined the project.

CNN: What do you want your readers to take away after reading this book?

Cisneros: I hope that they understand that when they are in a time of grief, there is something to be gained during the time, even though we tend to focus on what we've lost. But when you have your heart broken wide, you are also open to things of beauty as well as things of sadness. Once people are not here physically, the spiritual remains, we still connect, we can communicate, we can give and receive love and forgiveness. There is love after someone dies.

CNN: Were you surprised to hear that "The House on Mango Street" was the list of banned books in Arizona? Have you ever considered yourself a controversial writer?

Cisneros: Gosh, no! I don't think they read the books. They just eliminated the entire whole Mexican-American studies without thinking. It should be called American studies, and all the books should be re-introduced. Then there would be less of an uproar. The fact that there is a hyphen there tells you a lot about our times. And our whole relationship with Mexico, which has always been very controversial, especially now.

CNN: There has been talk about you wanting to improve your Spanish; is that true? And por qué?

Cisneros: What's always a challenge for me is that my Spanish is not the level of my English. Nor do I read in Spanish the way I read in English. I want my Spanish to be like that of a newscaster. ... That's a different kind of Spanish. I feel comfortable in Spanish, I chat like a parrot, but I don't have the confidence in Spanish that I do in English. I'm perfectly fine in the mercado, and I can make people laugh and tell a story, but my vocabulary is limited. For example, I don't know the Spanish word for "contractor."

But I'm going to Mexico to live for a year! This is the first time I'm going to live there. I just need to be in an environment where all I hear is Spanish.

CNN: There's a lot of debate of whether or not knowing Spanish makes you a "less Latino." How do you feel about that?

Cisneros: It doesn't make you less. You are just missing out on one of your senses if you don't have the language. It's like not having any taste buds. You are missing out on the pleasure of Latino food. The more you speak more languages, the more you understand about yourself.

It's like being blind. You aren't less of a person, but you're missing out on wonderful things.

CNN: Finally, what you are reading right now?

Cisneros: I'm read essays, poetry, fiction, art books and more all at the same time! On my various bookshelves in my home are: "The Five Acts of Diego Leon: A Novel" by Alex Espinoza; "The Distance Between Us" by Reyna Grande and "What You See in the Dark" by Manuel Munoz; "I (Heart) Babylon, Tenochtitlan and Ysteléi" by Richard Villegas Jr.; "Slow Lightning" by Eduardo Corral and "Looking for The Gulf Motel" by Richard Blanco. And I just finished Marie Arana's "American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood."

Is that a lot?

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