18 April 2023
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
I’ve been stalling this writing. My past few days’ worth of writing have been like a foal’s first steps. Too many setbacks in both writing and life have left me insecure of my voice, my worth. I’ve shut down.
We’re moving in two days, but not a standard move like all of our previous USAF moves. This time, we’ll be moving ourselves—no contractors, no boxes, no paper, no semi. The move is just across town, but it will be on our own. So my mind is on cutting squares of bubble wrap to place between dishes in a giant black tub. My mind is on how many appliances can fit into a bin at once. My mind is on keeping the mattresses from dragging on the floor—especially the master bedroom mattress, a memory foam monstrosity that probably weighs more than an inhabited casket. My mind stalls on the contents of the cupboard under my bathroom sink. The disassembly of the treadmill.
My mind is so scrambled by extraneous details of the transition that it contains no vacant space for writing. And I hate that. And I know I must be patient but we all know that patience has never been my virtue. Every day given to this move my subconscious chalks up to another day “lost,” or squandered in the process of becoming.
And I think of the complexity of my current life and wonder—what would Cisneros do? She explains in her introduction how she gave up everything to write. Gave up her family home. Gave up her parents’ expectations of her. Took up a tiny space in a tiny apartment with nothing, really, of her own—at least at first. Alone.
…and I want to believe that this is what I want. I think I know that this is what I’d need in order to get my writerly self in order: solitude, silence. Of course, Woolf says it too. In her introduction, Cisneros replies to her publisher, Norma’s, question, “How did you do it?” She writes,
Norma, I did it by doing the things I was afraid of doing so that I would no longer be afraid. Moving away to go to graduate school. Traveling abroad alone. Earning my own money and living by myself. Posing as an author when I was afraid, just as I posed in that photo you used on the first cover of Third Woman.
And, finally, when I was ready, after I had apprenticed with professional writers over several years, partnering with the right agent. (xxiii)
But how can this be achieved by a woman with a husband and children and a home to manage? This question crawls up my legs, slinks across my torso, then settles itself heavy upon my shoulders. I don’t have answers except that I must try…that I must attempt everything at my disposal, even to the extent of recalibrating boundaries with everyone in my home. I suppose there is no better time for it, anyway. And all the more, I speculate about how Shelley did it. Did she have a nanny to care for her littles while she penned Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus? I have to suspect she did. My personal experience serves as evidence of it.
But a writerly life was just one aspect of Cisneros’s book that wormed its way deep into my brain and there constructed intricate tunnels…
I found it fascinating that The House on Mango Street is a compilation of her students’ stories. She writes, “The people I wrote about were real, for the most part, from here and there, now and then, but sometimes three real people would be braided together into one made-up person” (xxii). In this sense, she lived very much vicariously through those she encountered in life. And certainly her job at the school, Pilsen, was critical for her insofar as it provided human interaction and fuel for stories as much as a living wage. A-hem. Woolf again.
Nevertheless, as I read fictitious Esperanza, I couldn’t help but find myself inside Cisneros’s head…so much. The dream to write. The expectation to leave this town but come back to rescue others. All of this screamed of someone who knows that interior space. And certainly, that’s the case. Cisneros writes as much in her introduction: “I cut apart and stitched together events to tailor the story, gave it shape so it had a beginning, middle, and end, because real life stories rarely come to us complete. Emotions, though, can’t be invented, can’t be borrowed. All the emotions my characters feel, good or bad, are mine” (xxiii). Claro que sí. Esperanza is Cisneros.
So much lately I’ve been reading prose writers whose style borders upon poetry, and Cisneros is no exception. Like Jeffra, her sentences employ imagery that give a vague impression of a thing without its precise detail—such that we feel it rather than see it, its borders vague and smudgy rather than distinct. This happens throughout the book at various intervals, but my favorite was her description of the neighbor’s dogs: “They don’t walk like ordinary dogs, but leap and somersault like an apostrophe and comma” (71). Apostrophes and commas are elements of grammar that appear as half-breaths on a page. Just a flick of the pen. So with these dogs. An apostrophe, up in the air, seems a dog ready to bound upward to its human’s face—it’s an energy conveyed more so than an image.
Esperanza’s interiority reflects so much of my own that I tend to quash or ignore. In the chapter, Sire, Esperanza is compelled to compare herself to Sire’s girlfriend…because she wants Sire…because she finds Sire’s girlfriend less than. “She is tiny and pretty and smells like baby’s skin…She’s got big girl hands, and her bones are long like ladies’ bones, and she wears makeup too. But she doesn’t know how to tie her shoes. I do” (73). I feel this, Esperanza’s appeal to self-sufficiency as a virtue. I do this too…silently…sizing up other women, leaning in my head into my own self-assessed virtues: independence, wit, intelligence, self-sufficiency. Maybe we all do this but we all deny it. It’s not a pretty thing. It’s a petty thing. So we pretend it doesn’t happen, even though it does.
In the same way, we all stuff down and suffocate our monsters. Some of us more consciously than others. But Cisneros knows my monsters. Hers are the same. Esperanza dreams to tame men…that they will never control her. She will wield control—she has to, because of all she’s seen, all the ways she’s witnessed men trap women—because she will not be tamed. Cisneros writes, “In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away” (89). I want everything about this, and I wish all other women wanted it too. I want it for them. It smacks of Estés’s Women Who Run With the Wolves: that men will seek to tame us, but that we must retain our wild, our fury, our fire. What it means in the details of my own life is for me to ponder…but for the record, I am neither tame nor domesticable. I prefer it that way.
Let me end my review with my favorite chapter: “A House of My Own”
Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after.
Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before pen. (108)
I wish I didn’t want this so badly. I wish that just yesterday, when I told my kids that in the new house I’d need to use the rec space for writing every morning they hadn’t balked and flat told me “no.” There is a desperation within me for a space of my own…something I’ve never had. And I’m not quite sure how to go about it, but I know that Mama Woolf and Mama Cisneros are calling me home—and so this little wolf will find her way there. In time.