Sandra Cisneros wins PEN Award for “awe-inspiring body of work”

BY ISABEL RODRIGUEZ ’21

Sandra Cisneros, an acclaimed Mexican-American novelist, has won the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. According to PEN America, this award is given annually “to a living author whose body of work, either written in or translated into English, represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship.” Cisneros is the third author to receive this award, following Adonis and Edna O’Brien in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

On Feb. 26, Cisneros accepted her award at the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony hosted by Hari Kondabolu at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

The judges for this year, Alexander Chee, Edwidge Danticat and Valeria Luiselli, highly praised Cisneros’ work. “In a formidable and aweinspiring body of work, which includes fiction, memoir and poetry, Cisneros brings us astounding and lyrical voices from burning, maligned, devastated as well as reassembled houses and nations,” they said in a statement announcing her win. “It’s hard to imagine navigating our world today without her stories and her voice guiding us toward much needed reclamation and endurance.”

Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954. One of her most famous works, “The House on Mango Street,” was partly inspired by her Chicago upbringing. Since its publication in 1984, “The House on Mango Street” has sold more than six million copies and been translated into 20 languages.

Cisneros’ journey has not always been an easy one. Her debut into the literary world was her poetry collection “Bad Boys,” published in 1980 as a part of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series. According to NBC News, at one point she was selling “Bad Boys” for only one dollar. “I never thought I’d make money writing,” she said. Now considered a collectible, the book sells for thousands.

Today, Cisneros feels that it’s part of her responsibility to support young authors, particularly young Latinx authors, whom she said “are probably being discouraged by their families not to write and who are not being published by the big presses. Also, not all the good writers get attention and win awards, so I feel I need to give back.”

Generosity is an essential part of Cisneros’ career. She is planning to give the $50,000 prize from the PEN/Nabokov Award to her assistants to help them purchase a home. “With money and fame comes responsibility, and the amount is exactly what they need,” she told NBC News in a phone interview. “They’ve been looking for loans, and the interest in Mexico is 39 percent. I can’t describe how happy it makes me to be able to do this for them.”

Cisneros has also made an impact on the Mount Holyoke community. “I read ‘The House on Mango Street’ last semester for Professor Rosa’s Intro to Latina/o/x Studies course,” said Marisol Fernandez ’20. “Cisneros sheds a light on many stigmatized topics in the Latinx community, such as financial instability, the ‘American dream’ and the cycle of patriarchy in our community. The work she does helps provide representation in the literary community.”

PEN America Literary Awards Program Director Nadxieli Nieto is confident that Cisneros’ work aligns with the mission of PEN America. “Cisneros has not only changed the world of international literature, she has expanded American literature to include the Americas beyond the United States,” said Nieto in a statement released by PEN America. “A focus on cross-cultural dialogue, translation and international literature has long been at the heart of PEN America’s Literary Awards program, and it is especially fitting that a binational writer with such an impressive and lyrical body of work is the PEN/Nabokov honoree this year.”

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