When Sandra Cisneros took to the stage at the end of February to receive the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in Literature, she dedicated the prize to those who inspire her, those whose stories go unrecognized, and to her family. Since 2016, PEN has honored a “living author whose body of work, either written in or translated into English, represents the highest level achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and or/drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship.”
Before she delivered her powerful speech, journalist María Hinojosa gave us personal anecdotes about her talent and what makes her special. Hinojosa explained that Cisneros had given her great writing advice throughout the years, including “Write like you are sitting in your kitchen in your pajamas” and “Don’t write what you remember; write about what you wish you could forget.”
When Cisneros took the stage, she once again demonstrated her commitment to disenfranchised communities. She opened by dedicating the award to the “poets, our prophets in the era of lies, and to the truth-seekers, the journalists who brave censorship, dismissal, defamation, detention, torture, death, for they are our light in the time of darkness.”
She then went on to talk about people who have inspired her, authors like Norma Alarcón, Maria Herrera Sobek, Denise Chávez, her sixth grade teacher (whose name she can’t remember), who taught her to love herself. When discussing her own family history, she talked about the history that’s been forgotten and the migration that affected them, which made her end up in Chicago, where she was born.
Knowing how borders can influence families, she also spoke about immigration. “I dedicate this award to all divided by borders, the mothers and fathers punished for seeking asylum, for the children traumatized by separation,” she said. “For the North Carolina woman Cruz who lost her son twice, once to deportation, and then again to suicide. For the undocumented globally, for the stories they carry inside them, a burden too big for one body to contain.”
And before thanking all those who shaped her work – her editor and literary agent – she thanked her immigrant dad, “whose longing for home taught us to love and know our own story.”
Check out the rest of the speech below.