Monday, December 20, 2010

Our Houses, on Mango Street, Painted Purple or More Subdued

Today is the birthday of Sandra Cisneros, one of a generation of artists who showed us what great art can be made out of being an outsider. She's probably most famous for her book The House on Mango Street, which was published to little fanfare or acclaim, but has gone on to be one of the most widely assigned books in U.S. middle and high schools.

I must confess to being a bit mystified by the book. It's one of those books that I want to like. Some of the short stories lead to a great discussion of how we decide to assign genre. Is it a short story, really? Or just a vignette? Or some sort of blended form, a bit of poetry, a bit of essay, a bit of something we don't have a name for?

I probably came to the book too late. I can imagine falling in love with it as a high school student, being thrilled at its depiction of ordinary people, being enthralled by its experimental bits. But it was published in 1984, and I was already gone off to college, where we studied primarily dead, white men writers, and it would be years and years before I discovered her.

I've always admired the fierceness of Cisneros. I remember when she came under fire for the color that she painted her house, a purple as I remember, although the Wikipedia article says it was pink. It was a shade her neighbors considered garish and threatening to their national historic register kind of status. Cisneros, as I recall, did research to prove that the color had been widespread in San Antonio in the native cultures. I believe she won that battle.

Even if Cisneros is not an author whose work I read, I hold her in high esteem for carving a path for the rest of us. She's part of a generation who claimed that the stories of women, of the poor and marginalized, of the immigrant--those stories were important, vital, and deserving of a voice, deserving of study. If not for artists like her, we'd all be writing very different things. Well, maybe we wouldn't be writing differently, but we'd sure be reading differently, and we wouldn't have the same sorts of publishing opportunities.

Happy birthday, Sandra Cisneros, in your purple house! Those of us writing our work that in earlier times would have been roundly rejected--to you we lift a mug of hot chocolate (another gift from the Mexican ancestors of Cisneros)!


Kathleen said...

I've read excerpts from this in anthologies for college students but never the whole book. Wonderful to see the purple house via your imagining, and wonderful to taste the hot chocolate.

drew myron said...

I love the "House of Mango Street" and came to it very late (as a 40-ish adult).

I appreciate the book precisely because it defies categorization; it beautifully blends all of the forms: poetry, prose, novella, even memoir.

Thanks for the reminder.

I just recently discovered your blog, and enjoy your perspective.

Kristin said...

Thanks, Drew, for reading! I like the idea of the book as defying categorization. I like knowing that people are still discovering authors (although 40-ish is not so very late).

Thanks, Kathleen, for reading and commenting so faithfully--may you always have quality chocolate in your life!