Revealing Ourselves to Ourselves

Revealing Ourselves to Ourselves
By Sandra Cisneros
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 400 pp., $28.95 paperback

Reviewed by Miroslava Chavez-Garcia

In A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros chronicles her journey toward building a true home. Honest and unapologetic, this collection of creative works, lectures, and introductions to books allows the reader to peer into the bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and closets where Cisneros has stored her personal treasures and the memories accumulated over a lifetime. Stories, she reminds us, “allow us to reveal ourselves to ourselves” and to others. She is herding these stories—the “stray lambs that have wandered out of sight”—and gathering them “under one roof.” “Where are you, my little loves, and where have you gone? Who wrote these and why?” she asks. “I have a need to know, so that I can understand my life.”

A nationally and internationally acclaimed, award-winning novelist and poet, Cisneros is one the most celebrated Latina authors of our time. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, the only girl among seven children, living in close and cramped quarters, Cisneros says she has spent much of her life searching for and crafting a house of her own, literally and figuratively. For her, home-sweet-home is a safe and familiar place for friends and family but also a space where she can write without interruption, preferably with only her typewriter and her dogs for companions. A house, she explains, provides nourishment and refuge to the spirit, and protects the physical and intellectual self; it is a haven for daydreamers, night dreamers, and dreaming. Homes have souls and spirits that should not be trampled. The Mexican adage “Mi casa es su casa,” as she describes so poignantly in her final essay, does not mean help yourself “to more than what is intended.” Rather, it is a generous offer of hospitality, even when you have little to provide. A home is like a story, Cisneros writes, for it is ultimately about becoming and knowing yourself, and about the self and the self-making process.

Cisneros’s experiences as a girl growing up in her large Mexican American family in a relatively small space figure prominently here. She explains that to finish The House on Mango Street (1984), a coming-of-age story that eventually became her most well-known novel (today, it is assigned in elementary school and college-level classrooms across the country, has been translated into many languages, and has sold more than 6 million copies), she made her way to the nearly deserted yet enchanting island of Hydra, Greece. The simplicity of the “Hydra House,” she explains, gave her clarity of mind, body, and spirit, as well as “infinite pleasure, and this pleasure allowed me to write.” To recognize a space as a home, she writes, you “have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own.”

Cisneros searches not only for home and self but also for a genuine literary voice. In “No Place Like Home” and “The House on Mango Street’s Tenth Birthday,” she chronicles the shame—the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual alienation—she experienced in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For Cisneros, the experience was one of exile: we are displaced, she writes, from our “real homes, from the blood kin we have honored on our pages . . . when we have drifted away from them on that little white raft called the page.” To protect herself, she unleashed her writing. “I needed shelter. Maybe I was never more homeless than during those two years in graduate school,” she reflects. By coming back to ancestors, immediate family, friends, and neighbors—as well as some of the students and teachers she encountered—Cisneros developed characters who represented the collective experiences of young and old, poor and working class, who managed to survive and thrive in their social and cultural contexts. Their stories—“all our stories,” she says—emerge in The House on Mango Street, and form a collage of sorts, depicting the “shame of being poor, of being female, and being not quite good enough.” Through writing, she could “examine where [the shame] had come from and why, so [she] could exchange shame for celebration.” In the process, she discovered a fierce voice.

The fierceness comes through in “I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work,” an essay whose title is inspired by the nineteenth-century painter Mary Cassatt, who declared, “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.” The essay affirms Cisneros’s identity as an independent, single woman, and a creative writer—a vocation that was not easy for her to discover. She struggled to find a place in a Mexican American, working-class culture that emphasizes family, marriage, and motherhood, and devalues female sexuality—as she chronicles in “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess.” “I don’t want be nice/quedar bien . . . I want to be una brava, peleonera, necia, berrinchuda,” she writes, that is, a fierce woman, fighter, stubborn, and ill-tempered. She also had to fight the isolation that comes with writers’ need to “lock ourselves in a room and work.” No fretting, crying, or complaining about the process, she says; just get moving and working. Finish, because “[n]obody’s going to do the work for you.” Creative workers need to find ways to spin “straw into gold,” she explains in the essay of that title—whether that involves making corn tortillas out of masa harina (corn flour) when we have no clue how, or whether we are weaving words into stories. Ultimately, she concludes, writing is “resistance, an act against forgetting, a war against oblivion, against not counting, as women.”

Devoting space not only to the search for self, voice, and home, but also to celebrating the artistic creations, friends, and family members who inspire her writing, Cisneros acknowledges sculptor José Luis Rivera-Barrera, Chicano poet Luis Omar Salinas, novelist Marguerite Duras, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Catalan novelist Mercé Rodoreda, composer Astor Piazzolla, political activist and writer Eduardo Galeano, and queer ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, among others. The friends who refigured her consciousness include Jasna Karaula, whom she met in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and who was later caught up in the war and rape of Bosnian women in the early 1990s, and Mariana Yampolsky, a photographer whose images capture the simplicity and splendor of humble houses in Mexico City. These and other friends’ unconventional artwork inspired her own, allowing her to “redefine beauty on more generous and astonishing terms.” Thus, the essay “Tapicero’s Daughter” is more than an homage to her father, an upholsterer, who led his life with dignity and pride; it also honors her mother’s collections from thrift stores, and garage and liquidation sales, which gave rise to Cisneros’s own interest in cultural artifacts.

The collection offers a range of personal and political insights into death and personal loss, in “An Ofrenda for My Father on Day of the Dead,” “An Ofrenda for My Mother,” and “Resurrections”; overcoming despair, in “Only Daughter”; listening with your heart, in “A White Flower”; the struggle to claim public space and history in “¡Que Vivan Los Colores!” and “Tenemos Layaway, or, How I Became an Art Collector”; and the takeover by foreigners of Mexican communities, in “Epilogue: Mi Casa Es Su Casa.”

A House of My Own is thought provoking, introspective, and engaging, especially relevant for anyone in the middle or muddle of writing or other creative process. By sharing the challenges of writing and idiosyncrasies of successful writers, Cisneros provides relief, humor, and insight into the craft. And though with the exception of a small handful these narratives have been previously published, they have been updated, revised, and polished—revealing the evolution of Cisneros’s writing and thought processes over the years. The pieces are brief—between two and twelve pages; they engage you quickly and invite you to read on.

With this work, Cisneros joins a small yet growing pantheon of distinguished Chicana, Latina, and other writers of color who have one-volume collections of significant work, including the late Tejana, queer, writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa (The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, [2009]); Chicana, queer, indigenous activist and scholar Cherríe Moraga (A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness [2011]); Dominican American novelist and poet, Julia Alvarez (The Woman I Kept to Myself [2011] and Something to Declare [2014]); the late African American Pulitzer prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks (Selected Poems [2006]); and the late African American poet and activist Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches [2007]).

The publication of A House of My Own comes at a time when we continually see men and women, children and elderly from across the globe leaving their homes, often forcibly, and searching for safe and stable places they can call their own. Cisneros reminds us that a home, literal or figurative, is a precious space that needs cultivation and protection. It is not fixed in time or space but can be transported in the heart and the mind over vast landscapes and terrains. Ultimately, she has given us new tools for constructing, utilizing, and interpreting “home.”

Miroslava Chávez-García is professor in the Chicana & Chicano Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is the author of States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (2012) and Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (2004). She is currently working on a history of migration, longing, and gender as told through 300 personal letters exchanged among family members in the 1960s across the US-Mexico borderlands.

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