Because today has not been a good day. I considered not attending the Evening With Sandra Cisneros, but I am so glad I did. When she walked on stage, I knew right away this was not my typical author-visits-college-to-impart-literary-wisdom-to-aspiring-writers sort of reading. This was a cozy, exciting conversation. Cisneros brought a green Frida Kahlo tote bag on stage, which oddly complimented her sea-green dress with an under-ruffle of maroon and then green again, black stockings, beige suede shoes. Swanky. She got the audience comfortable and then said she was going to read a story about her deceased mother to whom she had built an altar of "Dumbo statues next to French plates and political pins." This story was part of her altar-building: "Ofrenda for My Mother."
She prefaced the story with a warning: "Now, when I read my story, I don't want to hear you call it magic realism...I don't call your religion magic realism. This is my religion." I was immediately struck by two things: her voice—which can only be described as cute but self-assured with rounded, precise articulations and firmness—and her rich language. She described art as flags fluttering on the corner of a rooftop, "mangoes sliced like roses and served on a stick," "wife kills husband and serves his head in tacos" (a true headline, she said). But beneath this language is both lamentation and respect for a mother who creeps into her writing, she said, because she died without reaching her full potential, remembering only what she had not accomplished rather than what she had. A professedly difficult relationship with her mother seems to be reconciled in Cisneros' prose. Cisneros read Have You Seen Marie? in its entirety, which took only about twenty minutes. This was written for adults she said (OK, but why are there pictures?) although children seem to really like it (Why wouldn't they? The pictures are beautiful). So instead of reverting back to my child-self, I tried to stay an adult as I listened to her read, although the very act of listening to someone read a story is childlike in itself. The book follows the narrator, a fifty-three-year-old woman who helps her friend Roz search the neighborhood for her black-and-white cat. The book is comprised of a series of questions and responses. "'We haven't seen nothin',' they said. But I knew they had seen a lot." Indeed, the story is layered with a sense of loss: loved ones, lifetimes, pets. '"I'm so sorry, honey,' Beverly said and hugged Roslin. I felt like asking for a hug too." About halfway through the story, so did I. At one point, I stopped taking notes. I had put my fourteen-year-old dog down earlier this afternoon, after having spent the more memorable twelve years with her. Listening to a story about searching for a lost pet was almost too much for me in certain moments. Coupling the day's event with Cisneros' reading, I felt like terrible understanding had bloomed in my body, the human weightiness of living and losing something precious, the agonizing search for peace. "I'm afraid. I'm alone. I have never lived on this earth without you," the narrator says when addressing her mother vicariously through the missing cat, Marie. "Here I am, mija," say the river and trees and clouds and birds. "Here I am, mija," say both mother and cat. Marci Calabretta is a contributor to the Florida Book Review. Calabretta attended Sandra Cisnero's talk on Tuesday, Nov. 13. You can check out FBR's full live blog of the 2012 book fair here.