LOS ANGELES – Draped in her signature shawl, Sandra Cisneros stood in front of an audience of about 100 people at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural bookstore in Sylmar, California, after reading a poem about her many lovers and their physical attributes, and proclaims: "I'm not ashamed of the lovers I've had in my life. I wish I had more. Anyone interested?"
Admirers of the "House on Mango Street" author – who filled Tia Chucha's to the brim while others crowded outdoors near a window to catch a glimpse of the poet – erupted in laughter and applause throughout the night as she joked, flirted and opened her heart.
Cisneros is currently on a book tour for her new poetry collection "Woman Without Shame," (Knopf, 176 pp., out now), and as the esteemed Mexican American author writes in the opening poem: She's a mujer sin vergüenza, not a sinvergüenza. Know the difference.
Cisneros tells USA TODAY she "grew up wanting to be a woman without shame," and while to her that shedding is a "lifelong process," she's fearless when speaking her mind, putting pen to paper and owning what she wants out of life at 67.
That fearlessness is on display in her newest poetry, where she ruminates on memory, desire, aging, self-love and her life in Mexico with evocative imagery. Cisneros, who has never married nor had children, details in her poems the freeing solitude that comes with breaking from these notions of womanhood.
It's been 28 years since Cisneros' last poetry collection, and "Woman Without Shame" is her way of "kind of shedding (layers) within myself speak about what I was ashamed about."
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Cisneros is not ashamed or afraid to speak her mind, even if that means disappointing fellow Latino writers in the process. One day before her Thursday reading, The New Yorker published a profile on Cisneros in which she spoke out in support of her decision to champion and blurb Jeanine Cummins' controversial migrant novel "American Dirt" in 2020.
At the time, the book was condemned for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Mexico and not handling with care the struggles of real migrants at the border. Cisneros told The New Yorker that the criticism "made me really sad, because I saw my own people acting worse than the Trumpers with one another and with other writers."
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Last September, Cisneros published "Martita, I Remember You," her first work of fiction in almost a decade. Earlier this month, she was named one of 11 recipients of the Poetry Foundation's 2022 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious awards given to American poets.
Sitting at a small table inside a reading room at Tia Chucha's, Cisneros gleefully signed dozens of books ahead of her reading while imparting gem after gem of wisdom on aging, sex and life.
Sandra Cisneros on women feeling 'powerful' at any stage in life
As women's rights continue to be at risk – in June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – Cisneros wants women to "take control of their body, especially their reproductive rights."
She also wants women to celebrate and honor their bodies, especially as they get older.
"I want women not to be ashamed of their bodies. I want them not to be ashamed of getting older," Cisnero said. "I really want women to be empowered, because I'm empowered in my 60s."
As women age, Cisneros believes they shed a lot of the opinions projected onto them throughout their lifetime. "I want them to feel like they’re just getting started when they turn 60, not that they’re old. I want them to really feel like they’re in the prime of their life," she adds. "I want women to feel complete, strong and powerful."
Sandra Cisneros on women owning their sexual desires at any age
In "Woman Without Shame," Cisneros unflinchingly writes about her sexual desires. In "Making Love After Celibacy," Cisneros writes "I bled a little, like the first time. … A female body, ashamed of itself again. Not a girl's modesty."
"The fact that our society doesn’t think we have a sexuality before or after a certain age is nonsense. I still am a sexual being," Cisnero said. Even with "no one in my life," she said, "that doesn’t mean I’m celibate."
"You know, you can have sex with yourself," she added. "That's the best kind."
Cisneros also doesn't shy from talking about what and who she's attracted to simply because of her age. "To me, a man who reads a book is sexy. The sexiest thing a man can do is read a book in front me," she said.
Sandra Cisneros on making the 'worst mistakes' in love
For Cisneros, love comes in different forms. "Love … may come as a pirul tree, or a gardenia. Love is all around you," Cisneros said during her reading. It doesn't always come in the form of a person.
"(When I was younger) I certainly was looking for my media naranja (better half) … get married and then maybe have kids later, you know? And then I would say no, I'm not going to have kids," Cisneros said. "Or maybe I'll be a single mom. That kind of thing that you think is romantic when you're young and then you go to the school of trancazos (school of hard knocks)."
For Cisneros, that was making the "worst mistakes" and picking "the worst boyfriends, the worst." But to her, what matters is how you move past the pain: "How do you get up and survive those mistakes? That's what makes you strong."
On what success as a writer means to Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros was first published in 1980 with her short book of poetry "Bad Boys." Four years later, she published her first work of fiction, "The House on Mango Street," the novel that would define her as a key figure in Chicano literature.
"Every day I laugh and the best part is, I'm laughing by myself down the street thinking, 'Man, I pay for this house with my pen,' " she said, then giggled. "Every time I sign a book as I'm signing now, me da una risita inside (I laugh a little inside), because I can't believe I wrote this book and look, I'm signing it! It's like the icing on a cupcake."
Writing for Cisneros, now, isn't about fame or money but rather how her work transforms her and how it serves others.
"How is my work changing and improving my life and in turn, educating and transforming the lives of others? That to me is a success," she said.
"Whatever demon that haunts us, if I know that my book was of service and changed people's lives for the better then I know it has done its work."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sandra Cisneros talks 'Woman Without Shame' poetry book, aging and sex