Built to Last
Sandra Cisneros on the 25th anniversary of 'The House on Mango Street'
Writer Sandra Cisneros still has that distinctive voice that's as bright as a new penny. Yet when asked what it means to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her first and most celebrated book, The House on Mango Street, she said she thinks it means she's getting old.
"I just put my head down for a minute, and a couple of decades have gone by," she said wryly. It was only a few weeks before she was to embark on a multicity book tour to commemorate The House on Mango Street, and Austin is one of the first cities on the schedule. "It's like my oldest child," she continued in a telephone interview from her San Antonio home. "I don't feel old enough to be a mother, although I'm old enough to be a grandmother! But that book ... it's a celebration. A celebration and harvesting of a future I planted, a confirmation and a blessing."
The House on Mango Street is the title that brought Cisneros to the forefront of U.S. Latino arts and letters and indeed solidified her place in American literature. The book is a series of interrelated vignettes loosely centered around a principal character, Esperanza Cordero, and following her coming-of-age in inner-city Chicago. The book gained attention when it appeared in 1984, both for its spare, lyrical language and its distinctly Mexican-American backdrop. Latino readers first embraced the book, awestruck to see their experience, diction, and culture poetically illuminated, but it quickly earned a wider audience. In 1985, it was an American Book Award winner. Thereafter, Cisneros earned several other awards, including the prestigious MacArthur "genius grant." Today, Mango Street is studied in grade schools and in universities and is widely anthologized, with translations throughout the world. An estimated 4 million copies are in print, and in the U.S., Vintage Books is releasing an anniversary edition of Mango Street in conjunction with the book tour.
"It's funny, but I had – I guess I would have to call it a vision – when I was writing [Mango Street]," Cisneros said. "I was talking to a friend, and I just saw that this book was going to have a life of its own and the ability to attract a wide audience like The Little Prince." ("Of course, my book is nothing like The Little Prince," she's quick to add.) In fact, her model when writing Mango Street was Jorge Luis Borges' Dreamtigers, a collection of seemingly unrelated pieces that can be read individually but have greater resonance when considered collectively.
"I didn't find out about 'story cycles' until after the fact," she said, referring to her work and others that can be read out of sequence. She was also highly conscious of not excluding readers. While Mango Street rings with humor, it also has moments of violence and sexual aggression. She diligently used language and images that a more seasoned reader could decipher and a less mature reader could still enjoy.
And Mango Street is not, as some readers assume, autobiographical. Over the years, the book has been analyzed, sometimes arriving at conclusions that somehow become mythologized interpretations of Cisneros herself – as in one narrow assessment that Mango Street's Esperanza longs "to be white."
"The voices are true, the characters are true. But it's not a memoir," she said. "As a writer, you draw from every house you lived in."
While Cisneros agrees that Mango Street is the most beloved of her books, she admits that there are things she could change.
"There are some lines I could rewrite. I would be more consistent with punctuation – things maybe another writer might appreciate," she said. "At the time, I thought I had more stories. People ask for sequels. I guess I could, but why? I did what I set out to do. And I had other questions I wanted to approach craftwise. To me, books are always questions. ... I write my way toward the answer."
The Austin Public Library and the APL Foundation present an evening with Sandra Cisneros celebrating 25 years of The House on Mango Street on Monday, March 23, at 7pm at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. The event is free and open to the public, but seats must be reserved at www.austintheatre.org/cisneros. For more information call 974-7400.