A House of My Own: Stories from My Life
400 pp., 36.38
D. L. Mayfield
At Home Everywhere and Nowhere
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.
How many of the people reading this review encountered The House on Mango Street in high school? I plucked it off the shelf my junior year, and read it while my classmates toiled away on essays. The cover was bright and vibrant, and so were the stories inside, the people piling up on one another, a neighborhood so different from my own rural upbringing in the Pacific Northwest. To transport, teach, and move a self-absorbed 16-year-old is no easy feat, but this is what Sandra Cisneros had accomplished. She was a bridge over the gaps of culture and class in America; she was beam of light into houses where I'd never been invited.
Cisneros' new book, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, is a series of autobiographical fragments, carefully threaded throughout with her fierce desire for autonomy and creative success. The book opens with recollections of the period in her life when she was finishing The House on Mango Street, her first work of fiction, published when she was 29 years old—the book that went on to define her career. It's a jarring place to start. Like most readers, I guess, I had my ideas about what the woman who wrote Mango Street should be like. I wasn't expecting to meet a young woman typing away on a Greek island, discussing her casual lovers and eccentric artist acquaintances, reveling in her lack of money and the incredible amount of freedom she has to be her own person. Her windows open into the sea breeze; she eats calamari on whitewashed steps overlooking the marina; and both the older woman writing the essay and those of us reading it know that success is just around the corner for her.
I realized, as I tried to make sense of my reaction, that I am envious of Cisneros, that her life seems glamorous and exotic and set in a world very different from the one I live in. I have two children and I live in a small apartment, surrounded on every side by immigrants and refugees. I never, ever have time to read or write or even think a clear-headed thought. My neighbors cook and smoke and play soccer outside or on their balconies; we are a little united nations of hardship and hard-won survival. My neighbors brought over a vegetable the other day, and we did not know what it was. It was green and spiny and tasted like squash; they brought over a little jar of honey for us to dip it in. We ate it gratefully, that little squash, that little cajeta. One more bridge was built in our life, one more glance into a world that was previously veiled for me.
But there's more to it than mere envy. Her truth—her memory of Greece—reads as fiction, mythical and unattainable. Which is the exact opposite of the reaction I had when I first read Mango Street.
Perhaps Cisneros is one of the artistic mothers of a topic that is currently being discussed from multiple angles: the reclaiming of spinsterhood, with an emphasis on the value of freedom, primarily from the standpoint of the creative and ambitious female. In A House of My Own, Cisneros details the barriers to pursuing her dream of independence: the pressure from her father, the expectations of what a latino woman can and cannot do, her sense that she doesn't fit within the white and highly educated literary world, the general lack of writing which reflects her background, or could be accessible in her neighborhood.
But she does it. She rents an apartment on her own, and she starts to write into the gaps. In the end, as it turns out, she will have to be the one to build the house she ultimately wants. On the back cover of The House on Mango Street, her biography said: Sandra Cisneros is nobody's wife and nobody's mother. And she has stayed true to that, all of these years later.
Of the essays collected in this book, two of the most interesting work as a pair of bookends: the introduction she wrote for The House On Mango Street on its ten-year anniversary, and the introduction she wrote on its 25th anniversary.
In the ten-year introduction, Cisneros writes about her time as a young woman longing to be acclaimed as a poet, pursuing studies at the acclaimed Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her mind is filled with the books she is told to read, until one day she realizes she has never read about a house similar to the ones she grew up in. Suddenly, she thinks about the shared stairwells, the stairways her family mopped with Pine-Sol. They took care of the communal space, even if no one else did. It mattered to them, and the scent of the pine and the ammonia signified their ownership of their lives and their situation. She realizes, surrounded by the best up-and-coming writers, reading the best books of their time and before, that she has never read a story where Pine-Sol was mentioned. And that is when she decides it will have to be her. And the stories start to flow.
"I found my voice the moment I realized I was different," she says, ten years after the book appeared. "My political consciousness began the moment I could name the shame."
Twenty-five years later, Cisneros writes like a woman in her fifties, a woman marked by her unconventional life. She writes mainly of her mother and her father. She recalls the time she taught in a high school and heard many of the stories that eventually wound their way into her first novel—how writing down those tragedies helped her to sleep at night. Twenty-five years in, there is a distance, a remove, that both time and privilege bring. Because, as Cisneros has been trying to tell us all along, she has spent the past several decades fighting tooth and nail for her own space, a house of her own. The losses are real—including estrangement from her culture and family, loneliness and isolation—but in the end she is determined to say: it was all worth it. It had to have been.
The footnotes that Cisneros inserts into earlier essays are fascinating. My favorites come from a lecture she prepared when she was in her thirties, in which she routinely referred to herself and her "poverty." With an asterisk, she tells us that she would never do that now, how a cousin remembered her family as being well-off, how in the end "wealth is relative."
It is indeed, and so is the experience of suffering for one's art. I think this to myself while I read her essays. I am a woman with no room or house of my own, and sometimes I feel a poverty of spirit indeed. But I know my own asterisk is coming, I know that these lives I am surrounded by—ones that cause me to sleep fitfully at night, the stories piling up around me, the scent of Pine-Sol in the stairwells—are actually a gift. But perhaps it seems that way just because I chose this life for myself.
In another essay Cisneros writes that "the paradox for the working-class writer is that we are never more exiled from our real homes, from the blood kin we have honored in our pages, than when we have drifted away from them on that little white raft called the page." This rift began in the early years of her career, when strangers would fawn over her writing while her own father for years never read a word.
As the essays show, success inevitably changes a person. She leaves behind the expectations of wifedom and motherhood and days spent cooking up authentic Mexican meals. She lives alone; she has a string of relationships; she wins awards and fellowships and grants; she travels all over the world; she buys the intricately woven shirts made by indigenous women in Mexico and hangs them on the walls of her San Antonio house. She starts to write about artists and gadabouts, she reflects on Mexican culture on the edges of America. When she is scholarly, the words blend together a bit. When she writes about feminism or magical spirituality, she is angry and soft at the same time. In one essay, she is asked to write about an art collection, but instead of talking about the famous works within, she writes about how each piece reminds her of someone she knows. A spotlight, for the rest of us.
In the end, the woman who once wrote about Esperanza and her neighbors with a fierce sort of breathlessness—"the anti-academic" literature she so badly wanted to be reading herself—becomes far removed from those very stories. In the end, we see the struggle of being at home nowhere, the isolation inherent in extreme independence, the grief at the abiding inequalities of the world. We see a woman who got what she wished for—space and solitude to be an artist, multiple houses of her very own—but perhaps gave up more than she ever realized.
D. L. Mayfield has a book of essays forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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