About a million years ago, a good friend of mine mailed me a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and said it would probably change my life. He was right. This book holds everything I love about literature inside of it–and really, a blog post isn’t enough–you should read it and then we should meet for coffee to talk about it.
It is a collection of snapshots that chronicles the coming of age of Esperanza (in English, hope), a girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago. Cisneros’ use of vignettes instead of a standard narrative structure captures stolen moments and insights that together create a portrait not just of Esperanza, but of longing and small beauties, anger and angst. Though short and incredibly readable, this story is complex. Her poetic style brings the beautifully tragic peripheral characters of Mango Street to life, each desperately seeking freedom, each desperately breaking and inspiring my heart:
Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.
Alicia, whose Mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university. Two trains and a bus, because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.
Cisneros gives Esperanza an eye for tiny details and a writer’s heart that carries the weight of her neighborhood. She writes a poem:
I want to be
like waves on the sea
like clouds in the wind
but I’m me.
One day I’ll jump
out of my skin.
I’ll shake the sky
like a hundred violins.
Esperanza, who is not beautiful, but is smart. Esperanza who is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, a tiny thing against so many bricks, who looks at trees.” I love picturing this girl gathering her strength and her pen and shaking the sky with all of her might.
Toward the end of the novel, her aunt almost prophesies over her:
You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free.
As a person who writes often, and especially as an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time wondering what exactly this means. For Esperanza, it helps her to channel her emotions and her anger:
I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.
This is why I love writing–and introducing students to writing. I have found that the times in my life that I feel most at peace–even if life is swirling in a thousand directions–is when I am writing. Most of the time it is nothing important, and often words I may never reread. But just like Esperanza, once I’ve thought through my life with pen and paper, whatever ghost was haunting me doesn’t ache so much.
Esperanza reminds me of so many of my students–trying to figure out what it means to be a young adult, what it means to love, where to put anger, how to be themselves. They all come from different places, and yet I think that there are vignettes of beauty inside each of them–and that somehow life would make more sense if they understood that. I’m trying to remember if coming of age novels meant anything to me when I was their age or if I love them now in hindsight after surviving adolescence.
I realize it is naive to think that the world could be saved by writer’s notebooks. But perhaps we’d all be a little more emotionally healthy? Free from the demons that eat at us, free from the insecurities that plague us, because we’ve written them away rather than having them wake us in the morning and whisper to us as we try to fall asleep.