Acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros is best known for her novel “The House on Mango Street,” has just released a picture book with illustrator Ester Hernandez called “Have You Seen Marie?”
The story involves two women searching for a missing cat, touching on themes of loss and grief in a way that all ages can relate to. Cisneros explains that she was inspired to write the book while dealing with the personal grief of losing her mother.
Cisneros joined Take Two to talk about how she came up with the story, what she is trying to say about mourning and why its a story perfect for children and adults alike.
On how the story was inspired by Cisneros' grief over her mother's death:
"It's based on a true incident of a writer coming to stay in San Antonio from Tacoma, Washington and having her cat take off as soon as she arrived. I was living in a state of mourning, hiding in the house. I think when you've had a death as I have had when my mother recently died, you don't like talking to people you don't want to come out and meet anyone. You always feel like a glass of water filled to the top and any motion can set it to tipping. I was afraid that I couldn't control my emotions because people might look me in the eye and I would burst into tears. They might say something or I might feel something and I didn't want to be exposed, I felt very vulnerable like a snake without its skin. So in order to avoid this I stayed in the house.
How a forced situation made her take the first step out of grief:
"Here I had a guest who lost the cat. She was a gregarious person someone who likes to chat up everyone she sees and I had to go out with her, I was obligated to go out with her and look for her cat and put up flyers. Here she was chatting up all my neighbors, she could have run for mayor she was so popular chatting with everyone. I just felt sick…In the course of searching for the cat an idea came about to write the story that I was living. It didn't happen that I thought, 'Oh this is a brilliant idea,' I was actually was resistant. Usually we have a story dangling in front of us and we don't want to do it. And I was in that state of being in complete grief."
On the event that motivated her to write "Have You Seen Marie?":
"This little girl who picked up the flyer said, 'How much was the reward?' and her little sister, who was even smaller than her, took the flyer over to her cat and she said, 'Have you seen this kitty?' and the cat sniffed the flyer. I was so astonished at that moment and thought, 'Wait a minute, that's a great story.' What if I write a story about two women looking for a cat and make all of the animals and plants in the neighborhood, include them in the story? So that was how the idea started. Eventually in the story it includes all of the neighbors and you've seen all the loss that they have had and it becomes a very poetic and spiritual journey of transforming grief into light. That's basically what the story's about. Where do we put this grief? how do we handle it and how does it transform and change us so that we can be reborn."
Why she decided to let this story stand alone:
"I found that I had a profound effect when I would read this story, perform it out loud and I could tell which members of the audience were living in a state of grace, that state of mourning when their hearts are broken open. I would talk with them afterward and they would say 'When will that story be published?' I actually thought it was part of a collection, but the more I read it the more I thought, 'Gee wouldn't it be nice if it was its own little book?' Something you could give someone during a time of mourning, or someone can give it to someone else who's mourning. My friend Ester Hernandez, the renowned Chicana artist from San Francisco, she also lost her mom and I sent the story to her to help her heal during that time, and that's when I got the idea: 'Wouldn't it be nice, Ester, if you did the drawings and we did a little book together?'
Why the book is for kids and adults alike:
"I kept insisting this when I was reading this when it was still in paper form and it wasn't even a book, 'Oh no, no this isn't for children," but I had to concede that its for everybody. I will read it to adults and there will be children in the room. Children are the most honest critics, most difficult critics. If they don't like something they'll get up and leave. They would stay until the last paragraph. They were listening. Afterwards they would come up to me and say, 'Are you the lady that read the story about the cat?For them its a story about a cat… It's a story, I have to admit now, for orphans little and big, or people who have had a loss little and big."
On the intended message of "Have You Seen Marie?":
"I remember when I was a kid there ware a couple of things I couldn't think about without getting a headache. One was the infinity of the universe, the second one was the infinity of numbers, and the third one was finiteness of my mother and father. I think that this book is very much in touch with the indigenous way of looking at the universe, the way that Mexicans look at death. Death is not separate from the living world, it's very connected to our daily life. We don't think of people leaving us when they are transformed. We think of their presence, we call them forth when we need guidance, we meditate and ask them to take care of us, and, if we've very lucky, we can feel their presence and feel their guidance and feel their light. I wasn't trying to speak about anything magical, I wasn't talking about magical realism or metaphors I'm talking about the literal connection to the spirit world and not being afraid of it because you know you have loved ones who are your spiritual allies."