Required Reading: The House on Mango Street
“There I said, pointing up to the 3rd floor. You live there? There? ... You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing.”
Last week, for the first time in my life, I downloaded an audiobook. It was a desperate act.
I’d been dying to read A House on Mango Street since my first post in this series, when commenters overwhelmingly recommended Sandra Cisnero’s coming-of-age novel. But I live in a place without English-language bookstores, and the English-language sections of what bookstores there are tend toward dusty, five-pound copies of War and Peace. So I asked the Internet.
Turns out, hearing Sandra Cisneros read her story aloud is totally worth all the downloading and setting up. After all, The House on Mango Street is about voice. It’s about being heard. It’s about inventing new languages when the old ones don’t work. So what’s more fitting than foregoing the written word and letting the author whisper directly into your ear? One point for audiobooks.
Cisneros begins, “The language of Mango Street is based on speech. It’s very much an anti-academic voice. A child’s voice. A girl’s voice. A poor girl’s voice. A spoken voice. The voice of an American Mexican.” Meet Esperenza. The book is autobiographical, but don’t confuse teenage Esperenza with Cisneros: Esperenza is not yet a writer, not yet a holder of degrees. She wields no authority. She is a child at the lowest ranks of power: poor, of color, female. Which is perhaps why she begins her narration differently, introducing herself not as a speaking voice, but as an interpretation made by others: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish, it means too many letters.”
Instead of a single narrative, Esperenza’s story is fragmented into miniatures: a constellation of first-impressions, portraits and adolescent adventures. All are dedicated to las mujeres, the women. Esperenza renders with loving detail Cathy, the “queen of cats”; Mamacita who won’t leave the house for fear of speaking English; Sally who wears nylons; and Esperenza’s mother, who says, “I could’ve been someone else, you know?” But she is still critical—and sometimes ashamed—of Mango Street, and can’t wait to leave it. In one episode, Esperenza cries when asked to point out where she lives.
Esperenza and The House on Mango Street were conceived in one of Cisneros’ graduate seminars, where then-required reading included French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space,” which is an ode to the anatomy of a house: “nests,” attics, stairwells, and cellars. But, as Cisneros explains, a poetics of space is hard to get into when your own spaces have been unattractive, dirty, broken-down or disputed: “Attic! My family lived in third-floor flats…stairwells reeked of Pinesol; we shared them with the family downstairs…And as for cellars, we had a basement, but everyone was scared to go there! What was Bachelard talking about?”
Cisneros rejected continental aesthetics in favor of “the ugliest subjects I could find. The most unpoetic.” The result: The House on Mango Street. In real life, it may not have been much to look at, but its story is sublime. In 1985, The House on Mango Street won the American Book Award. It is now a required reading classic.
My favorite line: “Hips are scientific”.
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