I realized it was November and I was way behind on my goal of rereading ten favorites from the last ten years (I blame The Waves, I think). What I realized, though, was that as much as I love the books remaining on my list, they weren’t the titles that felt urgent. What I mean is, I haven’t stopped thinking about the article One Way to Bridge the Political Divide: Read the Book That’s Not For You. The author writes of Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation: “Reading a book, Lucas says, is a “protracted engagement” with people who are different from you personally, culturally and — perhaps most important at this moment — politically. “We all need to be reading across the lines we’ve drawn in our lives,” she says.”
I have a lot of new books to read in that regard, but I felt it was important to go back to some of the touchstone texts for me–the ones that really helped me see and begin to understand the lives of others. I chose The House of Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. This is something I believe in so deeply for children (please check out We Need Diverse Books), that I thought it was time to take stock and think about my own reading life as well.
The House on Mango Street was given to me by a dear friend at a perfect time: I recently finished high school, and though I loved my English program there deeply, it was a “classic canonical” reading experience. I volunteered a lot in college with high school students who were very similar to me demographically. This book is one of the first in my memory (other than perhaps historical fiction) that focused on a life very different from mine. Cisneros’ writing style awoke a passion for words and narrative voice in me, and Esperanza, the narrator of this collection of vignettes, has stayed with me ever since. I have reread it so many times that I had to retire my original copy in fear it would fall apart.
The beauty of this book is though it seems simple at first glance, each time I read it, a new complexity appears. Honestly, I could write a blog post on every vignette in the collection. Esperanza is one of four children in a latino family who frequently moves throughout the poorest parts of Chicago. She has always longed for her own house–the kind in storybooks. Each vignette is about a place or person near their new house on Mango Street and gives life to the beauty, complexities, struggles, and hopes of those in the neighborhood.
A nun from her school once saw where she lived and said “You live there?” Esperanza continues: “There. I had to look to where she pointed–the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn’t fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.” I ache thinking about the way this woman (un)intentionally shamed Esperanza. I ache thinking about the casual talk and assumptions among the privileged about those with less.
Later in the book, Esperanza says “People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget about those of us who live too much on earth. They don’t look down at all except to be content to live on hills. They have nothing to do with last week’s garbage or fear of rats. Night comes. Nothing wakes them but the wind. One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I”ll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house. Some days after dinner , guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble. Rats? they’ll ask. Bums, I’ll say, and I’ll be happy.”
This is a good time of year to start thinking about giving–not just financially, but in what moments can I offer grace? Practice patience? Share my time? Choose to see the actual person rather than judge? Whose stories do you need to hear? What vision do you want to cast for your 2017?