Sandra Cisneros’s writing is honest and poetic, and lacks the self-consciousness of someone aspiring to be erudite. I mention this because I think for someone who is multi-lingual, who has read a lot, and lived and traveled around the world; who graduated from a prestigious writing program, and has been lauded with the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship among other awards and honors it seems she could have easily gone in another direction – speaking a lot of academese, for instance – but instead she remains grounded, centered in her own voice and its tributaries as well as the aspiration to appeal to people from all walks of life and possibly people who don’t read many books.
A House of My Own refreshed me from how we are often encouraged to think about writers and writing, where the focus is on stamina and discipline and the mechanics of the writing life. Or content-wise its about revealing the heinous; and the struggle to crack the code of whatever is deep and dark and repressed. Or whatever the currents are in identity politics so the content of the writing is only approached through the lens of key words and phrases such as “the immigrant experience” or the “LGBT culture,” etc., or more awful things about “what it means to be black” (-sigh!)
Very little is said about the dreamer side of being a writer, the spiritual aspect, the celebratory, the love of words and readings and ways to discover meaning and make meaning. We see the hyper-intellectual or code-breaking aspect of writing discussed in ways that exclude huge amounts of people from participating in the joys, revelations, and complexities associated with the life of the mind. I remember how exciting it was for me when I first read writings by bell hooks in the 1990s because (-despite the clunk-and-drag of the language she often used-) she always expressed exuberance about the time she enjoyed alone, thinking and dreaming.
With A House of My Own Sandra Cisneros inspiringly celebrates houses and homes – the houses of spirit, the houses of of friendship, the houses of refuge, houses of work, houses of language – people and places which have nourished her life, her feelings, her perspectives and informed her creativity up to this point in time.
Subtitled Stories From My Life, A House of My Own comprises 40+ writings spanning 30 years of stories of Sandra Cisneros’s life, some of which were first commissioned as lectures, essays, introductions to her own or other artists works, or appreciations and stories she wrote just-because. Also included are:
- ofrendas for each of her parents
- a letter to Gwendolyn Brooks
- a letter to a parent who wanted to see The House On Mango Street banned (Cisneros did not write this award-winning-book for children yet it has become required reading in many schools)
- tributes to visual artists, other writers; the musician Astor Piazzolla, and significant books
A House of My Own is printed on good quality paper and includes nearly 100 color and black and white photographs, so it has a beautiful keepsake quality to it.
I went to a few bookstores looking for the books and authors Cisneros mentions throughout the book, and some – like Nellie Campobello, Cherrie Moraga, Juan Rulfo, and Luis Omar Salinas – I have yet to find, but the hunt, nevertheless, is on.
Rather than talk about the whole book I am going to kind of ramble and roll about the 41st selection, titled “A Borrowed House,” which I’m saying is my favorite even though I have been reading this wonderful book since early March and just about every other selection I say to myself Oh! I love this one!
In “A Borrowed House” Cisneros talks about her favorite childhood book, The Little House. En route to telling us what The Little House is about, Cisneros also tells of how library books were borrowed from libraries before their holdings were catalogued in computer databases and identified with bar codes – not so long ago. I myself have special memories of the school librarian at Louis Pasteur Elementary school in Detroit in the 1970s.
Her name was Miss Robinson and she loved the color purple. She dressed in purple skirts and sweaters, and wrote with purple felt pens. Stepping into the school library we always felt welcome to browse books or ask for help finding what we wanted. It was a peaceful, book-filled, inspiring, organized, purple-accentuated environment where Miss Robinson also showed us how the Dewey Decimal System worked, but I digress.
And so does, Cisneros. She digresses wonderfully. While reading “A Borrowed House” I wanted to laugh and cry sometimes. You know how something poignant rubs awake memories of things you forgot you cared about? A lump swells your throat then collides with the laugh that’s rising from your belly at the same time?
Well Cisneros talks about the Chicago Public Library not extensively, just a couple of paragraphs and then one paragraph about how she and one of her [six] brothers, Kiki, hatched a scheme to save up their allowance for a few weeks in order to buy the library’s copy of The Little House. They, like many children, didn’t know there were bookstores where people could purchase books of their own. “We meant to tell the librarian we’d lost it and pay for it, so it wasn’t technically a theft. But the idea of lying to a librarian was infinitely more difficult than stealing a book, and we gave up on the plan before carrying it out.”
Then Cisneros outlines the story of The Little House, and explains who she was, and what life felt like for her as a little girl who discovered this book and how the book had a mooring or safe haven quality to it; a raft that floated into her life at just the right moment before she even knew a book could be a friend.
Coming of age on the tail-end of the “children should be seen and not heard” era in the 1970s, I remember that my job was to listen to adults who told me what to do and then obey them. No one wanted to know what kids thought, and it was wisest to keep questions to a minimum. Still, there was always stuff going on in my mind. Books were the friends who let me know other people had dreams and imaginings, and things in their lives that puzzled and hurt.
I loved the part of “A Borrowed House” where I learned that little Sandra Cisneros felt kinship with The Little House because it sometimes was “sad, afraid, and run-down.” Reminding me that so much of children’s lives isn’t really theirs; its what the adults in their lives assign. Kids just roll with it, adjusting and adapting as best they can. Their little feelings snapping back and forth like this and that.
When I was a little girl and groceries got low in our house (I think grocery-shopping trips must have coincided with my dad’s pay schedule), my mother would fry an egg and put it between two pieces of bread smeared with mayonnaise and that was the sandwich I took to school in my lunch bag. But at school this healthy option was met with teasing: the kids said it smelled like a fart and then they scooted away from me at the lunch table, making gross, funny sounds every time I took a bite.
Kids have these things they deal with but sometimes adults forget or don’t care or file it under “character-building,” not thinking that kids, too, have their days when their eyeglasses get tossed and crushed on the playground and everything they do is wrong and their hair looks stupid and nobody wants to be their friend and they just want to come home and throw back a stiff shot of chocolate milk and VENTILATE!
Anyway, Cisneros goes on to remember and describe various addresses that were once synonymous with “home” and “house” for her immediate, extended, and ancestral families. Then comes the paragraph where her father finally decides to purchase a house for their family of nine:
“In January of 1966 the pipes in our old brownstone froze, burst, and forced us to haul water up four flights of stairs in glass milk gallons. When Father saw our icy coat sleeves, shoes, and mittens, he realized it was time.”
Later in life when her father is ill, and close to dying, he confesses to Sandra his sad regret that he had not fulfilled a desire to leave each of his seven children a house. I have to admit I choked-up with anguish over this testament to parental aspirations that are sometimes hard to fulfill.
We may hold a range of narratives and character traits – from the lovely to the dastardly – that we attribute to our parents without ever suspecting that also inside of them there just may reside the heartache of some significant expression or gesture of love that they could not manifest for us. We may not contemplate our folks that way: that to the end of their lives there was something they’d hoped to give but couldn’t.
“Necessity. That’s what he gave us.” Cisneros responds. “Necessity taught us to value what we worked for, to recognize others who, like us, didn’t have much, to be generous to others because we hadn’t had much. When you haven’t had much you never forget what that feels like. Compassion. That’s what Father gave us.”
Elsewhere in A House of My Own, I get a fuller sense of other gifts that Cisneros received from her father but I also was moved by this way of looking at valuables we receive from people in our lives that don’t come wrapped in pretty paper. We also tend to want to give gifts that are kind and smell like sugar-and-butter cookies to make people feel good and celebratory….But what if someone is receiving another sort of “gift” from me that I wouldn’t consciously want to give? That’s how funny and strange real life really is, I suppose.
With “A Borrowed House” Sandra Cisneros muses on history and geography woven with elements from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space -to express what it means for her as a dreamer, as a writer, to have a house of her own “a sanctuary all my own to share with animals and trees, not one to satisfy the needs of others as my previous homes have done, but a house as solid as The Little House, a fortress for the creative self.”
While reading A House of My Own I was strongly reminded of myself as a younger woman determined to make a life of following my own lights. Maybe you are someone who aspires to create beauty and value in the world without marrying and having children. Maybe you, too, aspire to a house of your own, but you’re afraid of seeming selfish, or you wonder if enjoying your solitude may backfire into loneliness.
Personally, I am placing A House of My Own alongside Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens and a favorite bell hooks’s book because these are voices of women writers who have said to me: Yes! You may love love and enjoy companionship but absolutely celebrate the life of your mind and the journey of your spirit. The expression of your truth is important so don’t be afraid to clear sacred space in your life to nourish and nurture that.
Referencing Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own seemed too obvious so I didn’t do it.