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Language bearer

Cisneros cooks up a spicy history in Caramelo



Reading Sandra Cisneros can be like shopping at a Latin American market. The author seduces the senses with exotic smells and arresting colors, convincingly immersing the reader in an altogether foreign place.

In her new novel, Caramelo, a sweeping, multigenerational saga of a Mexican-American family, Cisneros often groups images into mouthwatering grocery lists, and shops for meaning in sensual detail. As in her last novel, the widely celebrated The House on Mango Street, the author peppers her prose with Spanish words and phrases, producing a melting pot that works for poetic effect but which may leave some gringo readers scratching their heads.

"If there's something that you don't get, it's because you don't need to get it," says Cisneros, who comes to Atlanta this week as part of the Woodruff Arts Center's Page to Stage literary series. "It's like a long car trip. You're not going to miss a turn because you didn't quite get one small phrase. You have to trust that I know what I'm doing. Just come along for the ride and don't ask questions."

Appropriately, Caramelo kicks off with a long car trip of its own, following the rambunctious Reyes clan in its annual caravan from Chicago to Mexico City. Lala, the young narrator, relates her struggles to make sense of her family and find her own place at the table, a plot at least somewhat reminiscent of The House Mango Street. That book, written in 1984, established the author as a rising star of Latin American fiction, and today is required reading for many college and even high school literature classes.

But Caramelo eventually proves to be much more than a coming-of-age novel, flashing back to tell the story of Lala's "Awful Grandmother" and chewing on a mouthful of Mexican history along the way. The title refers to the candy-striped pattern on a traditional rebozo, or shawl. It's a fitting image for such a tactile and flavorful slice of family folklore.

Cisneros, 47, bristles when asked why it took her so long to write a second novel.

"I've been writing all along," she says. And indeed, since Mango Street, she has published collections of poetry and short stories -- even a children's book. "I don't consider myself a novelist. I consider myself a writer who writes many forms. I do many things."

The author says she was surprised by just how big the book eventually grew. What started as a short story somehow exploded into a 400-page novel, with copious footnotes and a historical timeline tagged onto the end. (Cisneros calls this unexpected appendix a "pilón," something extra the grocer tosses into your bag).

But she believes she has accomplished her original goals: to tell the story of her father and to honor other often-overlooked immigrant families. In fact, given the rapidly rising tide of Mexican immigrants settling in the States, the most curious thing about Caramelo may be that this story hasn't been told before -- at least not in such an ostensible voice. American businesses, after all, are becoming more clued-in to the diversity of U.S. consumers. And they are increasingly targeting once-ignored niche markets. Caramelo, for example, is being published simultaneously by Alfred A. Knopf in both English and Spanish.

Given those trends, Cisneros could prove to be a forerunner of a coming boom of Latino authors, a new generation with multi-market appeal.

"It's kind of funny to say 'boom' because we've been here all along," Cisneros says with a laugh. "The 'boom' was the arrival of the Europeans."


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