With a phrasing and bravado echoing Saul Bellow’s Augie March, Sandra Cisneros writes:
I was north-of-the-border born and bred, an American-Mexican from “Chicano, Illinois,” street tough and city smart, wise to the ways of trick or treat.
Yet, even as she writes those words, originally published in Elle magazine in 1991, she’s undercutting them, explaining that, because of her Chicago birth and upbringing, she knew nothing for a long time about a key element of her heritage, the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead.
I wish I’d grown up closer to the border like my friend Maria Limon of El Paso.
Cisneros’s new autobiographical work A House of My Own is very much about borders and about houses, particularly “the house one calls the self.” It is made up of 42 non-fiction chapters, most of which have previously appeared as book introductions or articles in newspapers and magazines, or were presented in lectures. “My stray lambs,” she calls them.
Complex and nuanced
Make no mistake, though. A House of My Own isn’t a greatest hits collection or a slap-dash clean-out-the-archive grouping. It is a surprisingly resonant account of Cisneros’s life which is woven through each of these pieces, regardless of their subject.
Written at different times in various locations for a variety of reasons, these essays provide a multiplicity of perspectives on Cisneros, dating back to 1984. A House of My Own is a place — call it a home — where each of these writings can talk with the others, where a conversation can take place while the reader eavesdrops. A complex, nuanced picture of the writer emerges — think of a mosaic, a collage.
It is a writer who, after hanging out in Naples for a day with Polish reporter-poet Ryszard Kapuściński, was disappointed that she’d failed to ask him:
“Does a writer have to live in a perpetual border in order to be able to see?”
It is also a writer who knows the answer to that question.
In the mid-1980s, for a contributor’s note in a literary anthology, she wrote, “I am the only daughter in a family of six sons. That explains everything.” A few years later, however, she realized that it told only part of the story:
[F]or the reader’s sake I should have written, “I am the only daughter in a Mexican family of six sons.” Or even: “I am the only daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother.” Or: “I am the only daughter of a working-class family of nine.”…I was/am the only daughter and only a daughter.
During the 30-year period covered by these 42 chapters, Cisneros is constantly finding herself standing at borders, usually on both sides at the same time.
Here she is, for instance, as a 22-year-old graduate student at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. She’s one of the writers, but never speaks in class because of the shame of being different.
One seminar has to do with Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space” — about a house of memory with its attic, stairwells and cellar. It’s a discussion based on a middle-class existence, and it’s totally foreign to Cisneros.
Attic?…My family lived upstairs for the most part because noise traveled down. Stairwells reeked of Pine-Sol from the Saturday scrubbing. We shared them with the tenants downstairs; public zones no one thought to clean except us…Basements were filled with rats. Everyone was scared to go in there…
The intersection of many borders
It was when she was in Iowa that Cisneros began writing her novel The House on Mango Street, and, through it, she found a way to deal with her feelings of being on the outside looking in. She made her narrator a teenage girl which
allowed me to speak, to name that thing without a name, that shame of being poor, of being female, of being not quite good enough, and examine where it had come from and why, so I could exchange shame for celebration.
Poverty, though, isn’t only a divider. It has also been, for Cisneros, a bridge across borders of race and ethnicity.
For instance, an important inspiration for Mango Street was the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks “who wrote about the bean eaters in the Bronzeville kitchenettes” on Chicago’s South Side.
I knew plenty of bean eaters too, [Cisneros writes] but they lived in the Mexican communities of Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Little Village, or Logan Square.
As she recounts throughout A House of My Own, Cisneros no longer lives in her old Chicago neighborhood. She travels much, and she spent two decades relishing the space and solitude of a large house in San Antonio as well as a large social circle of other writers and artists.
As a single woman, living alone, she had invented herself and, as a professional writer, had sailed on the sea of life “on that little white raft called the page.” But at the cost of feeling exiled from her flesh and blood — of no longer fitting into their world.
Living as she did at the intersection of many borders, Cisneros was long captivated by the dream of owning her own home and was later filled with joy at the reality. In 1998, she called her San Antonio home “my beloved…my heart leaps when she’s in sight.”
The roots of her yearning for her own house, though, go back to before she was a writer, back to her childhood when she and her brother Kiki fell in love with a picture book they found at the Chicago Public Library, The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton.
They were inner-city kids, she explains, and did not even know that regular people could buy books. From a card inside The Little House, though, they knew how much it would cost to replace. So they hatched a plan to steal the book. They’d save their allowances and then to go to the librarian, saying they’d lost the book but had money to pay for its repurchase. As it turned out, they were too scared to tell the librarian a lie.
In Burton’s book, the Little House is bright and beautiful when first built in the country. But, over the years, it gets worn down and shabby as it becomes surrounded by the city. Finally, the descendants of the builder come, move the house out to the countryside and spruce it up as beautiful as ever.
This was a story that Cisneros needed at a wobbly time in her life:
I knew what it was like to feel like the Little House when it was sad, afraid, and run-down. I needed to know that, though the world around me was often frightening, I would be all right in the end…
Her new home
For two decades, the house in San Antonio was, for Cisneros, the bright, beautiful home at the start and the end of “The Little House.” And then it wasn’t.
Then it was a pain in the neck, “a curmudgeon constantly banging a stick on the floor for my undivided attention,” and she writes, “I no longer [felt] at home in my home.”
So, as she turned 60, she sold it and, crossing the border, moved to San Miguel in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, the home of her mother’s family.
And now her new home.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review was originally published in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune on October 1, 2015.