Thursday, April 27, 2006
As a graduate student in the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the acclaimed writer and poet Sandra Cisneros felt alienated by a discussion of French philosopher and literary critic Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book, The Poetics of Space.
“What was this guy talking about when he mentioned the familiar and comforting ‘house of memory’? It was obvious he never had to clean one or pay the landlord rent for one like ours,” Cisneros wrote in the introduction to the 10th-year anniversary edition of her classic novel House on Mango Street, back in 1994.
The daughter of a Mexican father and Chicana mother, Cisneros draws heavily on her ethnic heritage and childhood life experiences for her work, which addresses poverty, cultural suppression, identity and gender roles.
But it was the sense of alienation and anger she felt when reading Bachelard’s essay that inspired House on Mango Street, the lyrical, anti-academic and semi-autobiographical novel that describes a working-class Chicago neighborhood through the eyes of a young Mexican-American girl.
House on Mango Street became an instant classic and was hailed as a “literary masterpiece,” primarily because of its fresh, informal voice. In 1985 it won the Before Columbus Book Award and became a flashpoint in the ensuing debates that raged over multiculturalism.
Today, House on Mango Street is a staple text in high schools and universities across the nation. During a telephone interview from her home in San Antonio, Texas, Cisneros attributes the book’s tremendous success to its language and universal appeal.
“It’s a book that lends itself to readers and non-readers, for people with a high literary palate and for people who may be intimidated by a book,” she says. “I tried to write it with some sophisticated themes but in a way that could get past the censors so that children could understand it on one level and adults on another. Plus, it’s a very spiritual book.”
One of the primary themes in Cisneros’ work is immigration. When asked if she plans on addressing the recent immigration protests in her lecture Tuesday at CSUMB, Cisneros says she has always addressed immigration.
“It’s what I’ve always written about. That’s who I am. I am the daughter of an immigrant,” she says.
She’s not the least bit surprised by the massive, well-organized response to the recent federal anti-immigration measures.
“Actually, I’m surprised that people are surprised. We’ve been here a long time, since the time of the pilgrims,” she says. “Of course we’re well-organized.”
Cisneros also believes that the United States is inexorably tied to its immigrant population both historically and legally.
“Every single person that you meet benefits from this community of people,” she says. “We are all complicit in breaking the law. So if they punish these people for breaking the law, then they also have to punish you, me, everyone, even the president.
“Especially the president. Immigrants haven’t caused as many deaths as that man’s illegal war.”
The woman who Publisher’s Weekly once called, “the writer who put Mexican-American culture on the map,” describes her home as “a violet house filled with many creatures, little and large.”
When Sandra Cisneros originally painted her house a “very brilliant shade of purple” in 1997, the city board objected. For two years the dispute went on, until the paint faded to a shade of lavender, which the city deemed “historically appropriate.”
Obviously, Cisneros is not the least bit afraid of controversy and her strength comes from a lifetime of resistance. For years, even after the publication of Mango Street, Cisneros struggled financially. In 1987, her money ran out and she could not find a job. She wanted to stay in Texas and even tried to start a private writing program. She passed out fliers in supermarkets to get interested people to join, but the program failed. Broke, Cisneros left Texas to take a teaching job at California State University in Chico.
Undaunted, Cisneros received an NEA grant to write Women Hollering Creek and Other Stories, which Random House published in 1991, making Cisneros the first Chicana to receive a major publishing contract for a work about Chicanas.
She calls her impulse to write about Chicanas a “mission,” andsays she writes to empower not just herself but an entire culture.
“My mother says when I grow older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean,” she writes in The House on Mango Street, “but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.
“In the movies there is always one with red, red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives men crazy and laughs at them all the way. Her power is her own. She will not give it away.”
Cisneros’ writing is like that beautiful, cruel starlet
with the red, red lips. Its power is its own. Cisneros will
not give it away to literary critics such as Gaston
Bachelard—and for this, she is celebrated.
SANDRA CISNEROS presents a free lecture at 6:30pm Tuesday, May 2, in CSUMB’s University Center Ballroom, 100 Campus Center, Seaside. For more information call 582-3009.