Leading Literary Lady
Acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros dishes on drag queens, death, and new book ahead of Austin visit
Sandra Cisneros, beloved and best-selling author of The House on Mango Street, Woman Hollering Creek, and Caramelo, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, and a Texas Medal for the Arts, would like me to take time out of this profile to mention that if RuPaul should by some chance be reading this, she’d really like to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
To be fair, I was the one who brought up the whole drag race subject while speaking to her by phone about her forthcoming visit to Austin and her new book, A House of My Own.
While the book is being called a memoir, Cisneros thinks of it more as many “stories” from her life. I wanted to ask her how she classified the book because it’s a bit of a hybrid. At first it seems like a collection of essays and lectures she’s written over many decades, but when read linearly they become something of an autobiography, a group of true stories that together tell the tale of how a young writer searched for and found many homes of her own.
“I think it’s a kind of memoir,” she describes. “But you know I’ve always been writing from borderlands. My poetry reads like fiction and my fiction reads like poetry, so I’ve always written things that defy genres.”
Impersonating Sandra Cisneros
In one of those stories from her life, “Straw Into Gold,” which was originally a lecture she gave at the University of Texas while living in Austin in the 1980s, the older Cisneros of 2015 makes a footnote to tell readers all the things she would have preferred to be instead of a writer, including milliner, cartoon voice-over actor, popcorn vender, and judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
This brought us to our discussion on why she would make a great judge. She’s not only a big fan of the show, watching it regularly when she lived in San Antonio and then subscribing to a pay TV service after she moved to Mexico; she even binge-watched while she worked on A House of My Own. She wanted RuPaul to write a blurb for the book, but that dream didn’t come true.
I learned very early in my talk with Cisneros that asking her even the silliest of questions can lead to detours into both the hilarious and the profound, and one about why RuPaul should pick her to guest judge on his competitive reality show was no exception. That quick question diverted us into a conversation about the nature of femininity.
“Drag queens are about imitating femininity so that they’re more feminine than women, and I try to do that too. That’s why I think should be a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Which led her to a self-evaluation of her own relationship with femininity. “I’m a kind of female impersonator. Female impersonators really are more female than females. Females are restricted by patriarchal society. Female impersonators are not. Women have to be terrified of what men might say, or their mothers. ‘I can’t look like that; I’ll look slutty.’ But female impersonators don’t have to think like that.”
When I offered that maybe female impersonators are even rewarded for not thinking that way, her immediate affirmative then led to this remarkable realization: “I guess maybe I’ve lived my life as a female impersonator without knowing it.”
The irony of A House of My Own, which chronicles her trying on different homes for size and ending up settling for many years in Texas, is that recently she found her infamous purple San Antonio home — with its closets filled with enough parasols, opera gloves, feathered boas, and tiaras to satisfy the most fashionable drag queen — was not the home for her anymore. She has since moved to Central Mexico, but not before giving away many of her possessions.
When I asked her what the emotional toll was in leaving another home, she compared it to death, but a most delightful passing away.
“I felt like I died — and a part of me did die — and I was the executor giving away my material possessions, finding homes for my art, finding home for my animals, everything that had mattered, a record of my life. I was shedding. It was a good feeling. I didn’t feel sad. I feel like I did when I looked at my house in that last paragraph of the book: Let’s go. I’m ready. I felt very happy,” she says.
It was around this time that Texas State University came calling not for her art, animals, or even the boas, but to acquire her literary archives for the Wittliff Collections. So while her new home is across the border, much of the creative work she did here will stay in Texas.
“I’m so happy that the archives are going some place that they’ll be respected and taken care of. It was important that they stay in Texas and they stay in an institution that I felt respected me. It was important that people who are studying my work have to come to Texas. You have to if you’re going to study my work,” she says.
As a Chicago native, when she first moved to San Antonio she felt sometimes like an interloper, a carpetbagger, but now after living here for decades, she’s quite happy to return to Texas as a tourist.
“One of the tricks I realized of Texas is that if you come as a guest, you get treated really well.”
Sandra Cisneros will be at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, October 17 at 3 pm at the Central Presbyterian Church.