If you've read your way through a contemporary lit class in the past 20 years, then you've probably read The House on Mango Street. Sandra Cisneros' lively, spare, bestselling book helped bring rich stories about Mexican-American culture to the attention of mainstream readers.

Cisneros, a novelist and poet, began her latest book as a homage to her father, Alfredo Cisneros del Moral, a Chicago upholsterer, who died in 1997. Nine years in the writing, the book grew into the multigenerational epic Caramelo.

The book is narrated by Lala Reyes, who spends her girlhood split between the Mexico of her ancestors and the poor neighborhoods of her own immigrant family's life in Chicago and San Antonio. As she comes of age, Lala switches between her native languages, English and Spanish, while arguing with living and dead relatives about the healthy lies and truths that are the foundation of her family's history.

Cisneros spoke with WW about the poetic image, the borderlands between truth and autobiography, and the rich cultural history of Mexican immigrants.

Willamette Week: How did this image of the caramelo, a candy-striped rebozo or Mexican scarf, come to have so much meaning in the course of the novel?

Sandra Cisneros: This book uses my love of clothing in general and gave me an excuse to research something I loved. I collect a lot of vintage stuff, and the rebozos, the shawls, are just so much a part of my forays to Mexico.

Are readers interested in the autobiographical nature of your stories?

That's the real liar's craft of fiction, if a writer can convince readers that it happened to you. But that doesn't mean there aren't strands or filaments of truth in the work. Out of filaments, you create a fiber. Weave it with something else you love and the next thing you know you've got cloth.

Why were you inspired to write a novel based on your father's history?

He had seven children and was an upholsterer. I had never read about an upholsterer in American literature. He moved down in class when he crossed the border [moving from Mexico to Chicago]. People don't know that story. We usually think about immigrants pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. After he passed away, I was worried that when we talked about history, no one would be talking about immigrants like my father.

How does your training as a poet inform your work?

I think about positive and negative space, the way a theater person does. Timing in poetry is everything, the spaces where people pause, the pauses between stanzas. And then there's that last line, which should have the gleam of fine crystal. The story ends before I think it's going to end, when I find there's a line that says it all. I think I'm creating something bigger, but once I write that line, I always have to stop to close the book and think.

The novel is composed of vignettes. Why such little pieces?

I think of my work as being more female. I don't think in a linear way. I write in what I call little buttons, and then I line them up. It could be years before I find a home for that button. You just go on the naive faith that all of these characters and all of these strands are going to come together.

Sandra Cisneros

will speak at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Oct. 28, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway.

$15-$24. Tickets available at the door or by calling 227-2583.