“I do not like writing. I like having written. It's like going to the gym. Nobody likes to go, but everyone likes
San Antonio, Texas
August 29, 2012
I am catching up with mail that backlogged due to travel in 2012. Since February I've been to Japan, Mexico, Argentina, and several cities across the nation. It's only now that I found a letter dated 2/9/12 from a teacher at Northeast Middle School in Reading, Pennsylvania. Her name is Ms. Katie Burchert, and she was kind enough to collect letters from her then 7th grade Language Arts class. By now they must be starting 8th grade and, with apologies, I am finally gathering their marvelous questions here to share with them and with you.
They wrote stories about their neighborhoods with details about the smells and sounds and characters that made their city come alive for me. I was so moved, I decided to devote a page here on my website to their questions, which were intelligent, refreshing, and original. So here finally are my answers.
Dear Former Students of Katie Burchert, Northeast Middle School, Reading, Pennsylvania,
Your fantastic letters were moved about in my office from one desk to the other, and we finally uncovered them as we tried to catch up with our mail. Imagine how surprised I was to find such honest writing.
You said you wished there were no problems in your neighborhood and that you wished everyone would get along. You told me things that you should tell the mayor of Reading, about drug dealers and abandoned houses, gun shots and blasting music, cigarette butts and worse littering the curbs. I suggest you write your mayor a letter. The mayor needs to know that there are problems as well as blessings in your town. Don't forget to tell your mayor that each of you -- no matter if your neighborhood was noisy and dangerous, overwhelmed with violence or funky smells -- each of you remembered to mention someone you loved who loved you. You all felt loved and loving, and this love brought you joy and made your lives rich and meaningful. And that's the most important thing in the world, isn't it? I hope this love will inspire you to work to change your neighborhood for the better. How? Wait mindfully and the answer will come. But don't wait for the mayor to fix everything!
You also talked about things in your school you wish you could change. Again, write a careful letter to your principle, with love and respect, and ask yourselves how you could work to make change peacefully. It is possible to change the world around you, but the change must begin with you. Are you part of the solution, or are you part of the problem?
How old are you?
I am fifty-seven years old now, but my birthday is coming in December. I am very happy to be this age. It's a time of growth for me, of changes. A new chapter in my life is beginning, and I'm excited about it. I no longer look as I did when I was younger, but I would never want to be young again. When I was younger I had more energy and was beautiful in the way young women are, but too often my energy was wasted on silly things and silly people that weren't important. I am now, at fifty-seven, discovering the beauty that comes with knowing myself and liking who I am. It makes me happy to be like no one else and draw near me simple things I respect and love, whereas when I was young I was always unhappy because I thought I had to think or act or look like other women, or own the things everyone said would make me happy.
Was college hard or easy for you? What did you do there? Was it ever easy? How did they treat you?
Did you go to lots of parties? Was a degree worthwhile?
My first four years in college were spent in Chicago working on my undergraduate degree in English. This was at a university in the city, so I commuted there from my home in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Every day was a trek to get to school: two subway trains and a bus. I liked the subway rides, especially when they soared over the city on an elevated track. I could peer into people's back windows, but only for a second. I could see wonderful things whoosh past. A baby's fist trembling above a crib. A man dark as a caramel carrying a white cat on his shoulders. A tea kettle on the stove letting go a flag of steam. But later I was able to catch car rides with friends, and though this made the commute easier, it was a lot less interesting. While at the university, I took a lot of classes I enjoyed. Some were required and some I chose. All were hard and a few were harder. All of them were a lot of work, but anything that's work always helps us to grow. I
learned a lot, even though it was a big school, and I felt afraid at first. But I got over being afraid after the first few days. My favorite classes were studio classes in art, which I took for my own pleasure. My worst classes were those that involved logical thinking, like Statistics, which I had to take to get my requirements to teach.
My other college experience was the two years spent earning my Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in Iowa City. Because it was four and a half hours away from my family in Chicago, it was my first experience living on my own. I hated my time in Iowa, and I often felt like giving up and running back to Chicago, but being there turned out to be a positive experience in the end, because I forced myself to make something positive out of a negative. I used my anger to fuel me to write the kind of book I had never seen in a school or library, and that book, which I wrote on my own time, not for college credit, was the beginning of my first novel. If you want to know more about this time in my life, read the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The House on Mango Street.
Parties? Yes, I went to parties. I loved to dance. This was the Disco Era, and though I wasn't the best dancer, compared to my classmates I was John Travolta. Folks who knew me in my Iowa days remember me as the dancer. One of my best friends, then and now, Dennis Mathis, recalls how I once dragged him on to the dance floor during a dance contest. A judge came up to us afterwards and said we would've won if we had been entered in the contest. But I like to remind Dennis that's only because everyone else in town danced like donkeys. Even though it was tough work and a time when I often felt sad and lonely, in the end the degrees were absolutely worthwhile. It brought me a level of respect with other writers and with employers, and I'm sure the degrees helped me get jobs that allowed me to keep writing. But the most important benefit was that I learned so much about the world and about myself, and once you have that knowledge, you can never be bullied.
How did you feel constantly switching schools? Did you like moving and meeting new people? Did you
have many friends?
The period when I moved around a lot was during my childhood, and again in my thirties when I had to pack up once or twice a year to follow a job. I didn't like it as a child, because it wasn't my choice. (It made me withdrawn. I had few friends if any. It wasn't until we stayed in one school for more than three years before I felt I had real friends.) However, as an adult I chose to move across the country in order to be able to support my writing. I did this during a decade when most women are thinking of marriage and kids. I was thinking of books, not babies.
How did you get over your shyness?
Believe it or not, I'm still shy, though I give talks all over the U.S. and internationally. I've learned to be comfortable talking to an audience of thousands, and yet talking to just one person, especially a stranger, is hardest of all for me. I've learned to act like an extrovert on stage, but at the end of the day I know I'm pretending; I'm exhausted and need several days by myself to recharge. On a book tour I try my best to make my audience feel at home, as if they were sitting across a kitchen table from me. It's work to make them feel at home. I have to be funny, or tell them a secret, or make them feel I know them somehow. I do this because I know if they feel comfortable, then I'm comfortable. By the way, being shy helped to make me a writer. When you have something you really want to say, but you're too afraid to say it out loud, you can always tell it to a blank sheet of paper. I feel most myself on the page.
Do you like your job? Did you like teaching and stuff?
My job now is being a full-time writer, but that doesn't mean I have time to write every day. Some days (like today) I have to catch up on mail. Some days I have to unpack boxes of old papers that have piled up and organize my office. Some days I have to wash dogs, or pick up groceries, or pay bills. But the best thing about working for myself is that I set my own hours. I like to sleep late, usually till 10:30 a.m. I'm not a morning person, and working at my own schedule is the best thing about earning a living by my pen. I don't teach anymore. Long ago, I taught at universities, but I never felt at home there. For the past fifteen years I've taught each summer in writer workshops organized by the Macondo Foundation I started; the idea of Macondo was for writers to support and teach each other. Now I'm retreating from my involvement with Macondo, since it takes so much time away from my own writing. I might return to teaching at another time when my energy and well-being is restored.
How is it on the road and do you like it?
I'm not a good traveler, but I must do it, because I earn my living from my books and part of my job is to take the stories out there to those who need to hear them. I do, however, enjoy meeting my readers and seeing new places. I especially enjoy performing my work, but it's hard to deal with take-offs and landings on planes because I'm afraid of flying. I do it because I must, and try to get over the fear. To help me with this, I read on planes or sleep, and I always try to meditate to calm me down.
Did you ever meet the singer Adele?
No, I have never met Adele, but I have met some other famous people like Elena Poniatowska, Salman Rushdie, Studs Terkle, Dorothy Allison, Helena Maria Viramontes, Julia Alvarez, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Gary Soto, Cherie Moraga, Dagoberto Gilb, Rudy Anaya, Gloria Anzaldua, Edwidge Danticat, Eduardo Galeano, Gwendolyn Brooks, and John Phillips Santos, to name a few writers I respect and admire. As far as folks you might already know, in Barcelona I once rode in an elevator with a bottle of champagne being taken to the opera singer Pavorotti's suite! One day I would love to meet Pee Wee Herman, RuPaul, and John Waters... hopefully all at the same time.
Did you really have a great connection with your parents? Did you have trouble with family members?
Was your family always there when you needed them most?
I think I would not be human if I never had trouble with my family. I especially had a hard time with my oldest brother and with my father, because they had such rigid plans for how they thought girls ought to behave, but I made peace with both, thankfully. I always find myself in conflict with someone in my family, because we're all necios, stubborn. I love them all, even when we disagree. When my mother was alive I felt she did not understand me, but during the last ten years of her life I worked hard at trying to understand her, and that made all the difference in our coming to a more peaceful place. I miss my mother and father, but they are still with me in spirit form now. When they were alive, they were always there for me when I needed them most, and I have to remind myself they still are. When I am still and silent, when I sit under a tree or under a full moon, I feel them near me. It's only a matter of being quiet and still, and asking them to come and protect me. Then I feel their love and presence.
Are you Mexican or Puerto Rican?
I was born in Chicago to a Mexican-American mother and a Mexican father who became a U.S. citizen after he served in the U.S. Army in the Second World War. I was raised in many neighborhoods of many colors, but an influential period, the period The House on Mango Street is based on, took place in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, though there were also Poles, Ukrainians, Mexicans, African-Americans, and other folks on my block.
Where do you live now? Is it a nice place?
You can check here on my website to see where I live now, in San Antonio, Texas. You can watch the video about my next book Have You Seen Marie? to get a sense of my present life. But I'm moving from Texas soon and will be living somewhere else. I don't know where yet, but it will be fun searching! My house was once peaceful and quiet, but it has become very noisy and distracting with so many
people walking the footpaths along the river behind my house where there used to be only weeds. Folks seem to love the improvements -- the bike trails, the native flowers -- but I liked it the way it was before with the wildlife undisturbed keeping the two-legged beasts away.
Do you like writing books? How long did it take to write your first book?
I do not like writing. I like having written. It's like going to the gym. Nobody likes to go, but everyone likes the results. My first book was a collection of poems called Bad Boys. I wrote the poems over two years, but my next book, The House on Mango Street, took eight years to write. I was lucky. I received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allowed me to quit my day job and finish it, otherwise I'd still be writing it now.
Did you wear uniforms when you were in school?
I did! From third grade through twelfth. (My first two and a half years were in public school.) I didn't like them as a child, because we were poor and my only skirt was mended. My mother burnt it when she was ironing. I thought everyone could see that my skirt was patched, and this made me have low self-esteem. In high school I was grateful I didn't have to spend a lot of money I didn't have on clothes. By then I was glad to have the uniform rule.
Who do you admire?
I admire the Buddhist teachers Pema Chodren and Thich Nhat Hanh. Every day I meet people I admire.
Most recently I admire the Dreamers, the young men and women of the Dream Act, who didn't come to the U.S. by the official route, but were brought here by their parents looking for work and safety. Now these children are grown up and are speaking up for the rights of immigrants even though they risk being deported or worse when they do so. I am encouraged and inspired by their strength and courage.
What age did you learn English?
I learned English and Spanish together, when I was a baby learning to speak. I spoke both then, I assume, because my father spoke Spanish to me while my mother's first language was English. I remember traveling to Mexico with my Father once on a plane. I think I was three years old or four. That must've been when I spoke my best Spanish. I am always trying to improve my Spanish, because I am much more comfortable with English. When I go to Mexico I'm told I speak Spanish with an accent, so I'm working on eliminating this.
What was your favorite subject in school? What are your favorite colors? Do you like boots or sneakers? Did you have a mascot when you went to school?
My favorite subject was art when I was in school, because I liked to draw and use my imagination. My favorite colors were once blue, and then red when I was older, and now as a woman in my fifties, my favorite colors are turquoise and violet. I do like boots, especially vintage cowboy boots with pointy toes. I have one pair of high-top sneakers hand-painted by Mexican artists from Oaxaca, but I wear them only once in a while. Our school didn't have a mascot, but if you look at my website's photos you'll see I live with many mascots now. Does that count?
Do you have any kids?
When I was young, I kept putting off marriage and kids for later. I wanted to concentrate on creating a book, not a family. As I struggled to earn a living, I realized I wouldn't be able to afford a child, and I certainly wouldn't have time, especially since I fell in love with the worst possible fatherhood candidates. I knew if I had a child alone I would be an unhappy woman, frustrated and impossible to be around. So I made a conscious decision not to have children. I don't regret this decision. It was the sacrifice this writer had to make to be a writer.
I have many young writers friends I've mentored who are like family to me. I also have many books, and each one is my child.
Did you ever live in New York? Where were you born?
I was born in Chicago, a big city, but not in the neighborhoods where tourists go. I didn't like the city. It made me feel afraid all the time. As a result, I'd never live in New York. You have to have a lot of money to live in a big city, especially if you are a woman alone. When I moved to San Antonio, I intended to live here only one year, but I was able to afford a house eventually, the house I live in now. I've felt safe and secure here. It was once quiet and country-like, even though I live only a mile or two from downtown. But things change. That's the nature of the universe.
We want to know why you started fighting for women? How old were you when you had your first boyfriend? Who was your favorite sibling? Where was your favorite place to live?
If you perceive me as fighting for the rights of women, you are correct. I am a feminist, because I've witnessed many abuses of women, especially my own students. I write about what I know firsthand and what I've learned from many women who have shared their stories with me, and I hope writing about them will help open people's eyes, especially their own. My first boyfriend? Well, I didn't have one until I was in college, believe it or not. I was 19. His name was John, and he was Italian-American. I didn't like him at first, but he was persistent. My favorite sibling was and is my brother Kiki. He is an artist, though he doesn't make his living that way. My favorite place to live was a house I rented once on an island in Greece. It was the first house I ever had, and I loved it because I lived there all by myself, and I could write. I finished The House on Mango Street there. I had the happiest dreams in that house, and I still remember it with joy. More recently, however, I feel like writing whenever I'm in Mexico.
What is your favorite Spanish dish? What kind of hobbies do you like to do? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?
I love many kinds of food from all over Latin America and Spain. I like Spanish tapas, which are small appetizers of all kinds. I like Puerto Rican steak sandwiches between fried plantains. I like Cuban picadillo and their espresso coffee. I just came back from Argentina where I indulged in their pastries filled with dulce de leche. And in Mexico my favorite foods are often vegetarian, like pumpkin flower quesadillas or huitlacoche, the corn mushroom. I'm very fond of food, especially potatoes. I like to say, I never met a potato I didn't like.
My hobbies are drawing, singing rancheras as loud as I can (even though I am not a singer), and sleeping, because my dreams are way better than anything created in Hollywood.
As a child I wanted to be a performer, a comic, an actress, a ballerina. And a writer. As a writer I get to be all of those, because I perform my stories, and have to act, be funny and, on occasion, sing. I have yet to be a ballerina, but I can always dream!
What inspires you?
You do! Letters like yours remind me why I lock myself up in my office for hours at a time staring at a blank screen. It is often lonely, frustrating, exhausting, and depressing. But reading your letters is like drinking water when you're thirsty.
Thank you for your kind letters telling me how much you connected to my writing. This is the best gift you can give a writer.