Miami Book Fair

Cisneros brings tale of loss and redemption to Miami Book Fair Tuesday

Sandra Cisneros’ Have You Seen Marie? is a short, sweet, illustrated story about two friends searching for a lost cat. The women scour an eclectic neighborhood based on Cisneros’ own quarter of San Antonio, Texas, encountering a series of characters and small adventures in a mundane but magical journey.

Cisneros has folded powerful themes into this seemingly simple fable: confronting and accepting the loss of a loved one, the importance of community, the presence of spirituality in our lives and the way that imagination and art can illuminate reality.

Have You Seen Marie? sprang from Cisneros’ own reality. In March 2008 the acclaimed author of The House on Mango Street and Caramelo was nursing grief over the death of her mother when her friend Rosalind Bell came to visit with her two cats. One ran away, and Cisneros unwillingly set out to help find her friend’s pet.

“I had been hibernating all winter and I didn’t want to go out or meet people,” says Cisneros, 57, who appears Tuesday evening in the Miami Book Fair International “Evenings With” program. “Rosalind is very gregarious, she loves chatting people up. I was a grumpy shadow behind her. I kept thinking I should be in my office working, I’m wasting my time. I was there in body, but not in spirit.”

An encounter with a young girl roused Cisneros from her funk. “She held up the flyer we had to her cat and said, ‘Have you seen this cat?’ And I laughed and thought, ‘This is the story you need to write down. It’s the story we’re living.’

“My friend had lost her cat, I’d lost my mom. So I said, ‘Let’s go ask that dog over there. Let’s ask that squirrel.’ I started collecting people we’d met, neighbors we should have met, people I knew on my block who had had this loss or that loss, and weaving it into the story.

“Once my imagination started paying attention, it reminded me that there are things of the spirit all around me. Once I knew that I could go back to my office. Because the real necessity of art is to transform and nourish us with life.”

Cisneros’ life is a rich source of nourishment. For 20 years she has lived in San Antonio’s historic King William neighborhood, a once-funky area of rundown mansions, small bungalows and cheap garage apartments where gentrification has helped create an odd mix of well-to-do, bohemian and working-class residents.

The inhabitants we meet in Cisneros’ story are equally eclectic, and many have suffered their own losses. After the death of her mother and brother, one neighbor has only her cat, Coco, for company. Another woman, with a tear tattooed under her left eye because she has “witnessed too much grief for one lifetime,” asks, “Isn’t it a shame to lose the one you love?” “Yes it is,” the Cisneros character replies, her heart feeling “as if someone had squeezed it.”

There are ominous shadows under houses and people who slam doors in the women’s faces. But there are also ladies who share their iced tea and potato salad and an elderly woman who waters their heads when the sun gets too hot.

They come to life not only in Cisneros’ poetic nuggets of prose, but in Ester Hernandez’s sweetly realistic color illustrations. Cisneros spent several years persuading her longtime friend, an artist whose work hangs in several museums, to collaborate on the book. The illustration of the kindly woman who turns her hose on the overheated searchers is modeled on Hernandez’s own late mother.

The book glows with Cisneros’ affection for neighbors like John, her mailman of 25 years, who knows “everything about everything in the neighborhood;” Dave the cowboy, who once came over with a baseball bat to combat a snake in Cisneros’ backyard, and the waitresses at her regular breakfast spot, who call everyone “ mamas” and “ mija.”

“Everyone is family here, everyone calls you ‘my mother,’ ‘my daughter,’ ” Cisneros says. “It’s so nice to be addressed with love. Makes you pay attention.”

In Marie, the river, the wind, the moon and an ancient cypress tree speak with the waitresses’ familiar sweetness, reassuring Cisneros that she is not alone in her loss. “Here I am, mija,’ ” they say. “I’ve been here all along.”

Cisneros hopes the book will comfort others dealing with loss.

“I want to help someone who is stuck in that place of grief,” she says. “When you’re sad, your heart is open. As an artist, when your heart breaks off at the hinges, we’re open to profound beauty as well as profound sadness. And that’s a wonderful thing, to know you’re so alive.”