On the Way to Anywhere
Conversations with Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, and Jimmy Santiago Baca
"What is the panel about again?" asks Sandra Cisneros, on the phone from her home in San Antonio. The panel is about Mexican-American authors. "Well," she says, "that could go anywhere." If Cisneros seems a bit winded, let it be known that she is in the home stretch of a monster book tour for her latest novel, Caramelo (Knopf), a big-hearted book about a family -- large and loving and troubled, like so many -- moving between America and Mexico. Since the public school system canonized her slim, masterful first novel, The House on Mango Street, Cisneros has been the Chicana writer of her day -- endlessly anthologized, heralded as both the savior of Latino literature and everything that's wrong with it. But this will be her first appearance at the book festival since Laura Bush began it in 1995. That's because Cisneros has spent the past nine years working on Caramelo, which began as a short story about her father and ballooned into a 430-page multigenerational epic that is both political and personal, wise and tender, a portrait of "all emigrants caught between here and there." "I kind of feel like I'm coming out of hibernation," she says. "I'm still blinking when I see the light." She admits a certain weariness toward the expectation that she is "ambassador of all things," that she can speak eloquently and on demand about such lightning-rod topics as bilingual education or the state of Mexican-American literature. "You know, these panels for writers can be deadly," she admits. "But if Dago's there, I know it will be a lively discussion." That's Dagoberto Gilb, the famously outspoken author of Woodcuts of Women (Grove), an alternately charming and unsettling series of vignettes about men stung by passion. In person, Gilb cuts a mighty figure -- he has the mouth and mass of a construction worker, a job he held for 16 years, but still says things like "You know, I think of myself more as a woman." The delightful (or terrible) thing about Gilb on a panel is that he just can't hold back. When I ask what issues he'd like to discuss, he sets off on a classic Gilbean jag. It starts with the latest election. ("Watching Ron Kirk get beat was so discouraging. I mean, the other guy, he's dead. How did that happen? A DEAD man got elected!") He grouses about a culture that talks down to Latinos. "We're still treated like, 'Aren't they cute?' -- not like we're writing literature that counts, like French or German people who write literature that counts. We're still the exotics to the side." Does it bother him to be on a panel about Mexican-American writers? "No, this is the conflict, the ambivalence. I'm really glad," he says. He is on a tear, gloriously uncensored, all ideas and contradiction. "In my younger days, I'd say don't call me a 'Chicano writer'; I'm a 'writer.' And the more you get away from that, the more you start realizing you have to come home." He takes a long breath. "So I'm glad to be home." Rounding out the panel will be Albuquerque poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, whose Thirteen Mexicans (compiled in the book C-Train and Thirteen Mexicans from Grove Press) is an extraordinary riff on America's shameful past and present. "Celebrate how Europeans stepped off every wood line, sea line, mountain ridge, and valley line and fenced them as their own/celebrate how los indios waved with children in their arms and how the captain shot them," begins the first poem in the collection. Baca has built a career writing about imprisonment and addiction, life in the barrio, but never with such a politically unflinching eye. "It was good to feel anger again," he says. "People are hesitant to talk out now, because they're afraid they'll be thought of as un-American." A former inmate at San Quentin who taught himself to read and write while in solitary confinement, Baca isn't afraid of much, which makes his inclusion all the more exciting. The panel is about Mexican-American authors. "Well," says Cisneros, "that could go anywhere." Indeed.
Jimmy Santiago Baca, Sandra Cisneros, and Dagoberto Gilb comprise the "At the Crossroads: Mexican-American Literature" panel at 11:15am on Saturday, Nov. 16, in the House Chamber. Also on Saturday, Gilb will join Annie Proulx for "Heart Songs and Gritos" with Tom Grimes at 2:15pm, and Cisneros will be interviewed by Rich Yanez at 3:30pm. On Sunday, Baca's "Poetry & Fiction" discussion takes place at 12:15pm. See schedule for more information.