In her poetry, Cisneros likes to speak directly from the heart, to the heart. Her poems are not complex; the diction is straightforward and the meanings of the poems usually reveal themselves on the first reading. There is rarely a need to tease out allusions or hidden themes; the punch is delivered quickly and with force. Anyone who has ever been in love, for example, will instantly recognize the symptoms described in “Once Again I Prove the Theory of Relativity”: the self in a state of wild abandon; the beloved contemplated as if he or she were a god; the intense feelings that create a kind of sacred space between two people, upon which the mundane aspects of life cannot intrude. The poem conveys a spontaneity and charm, almost a youthful naïveté, that suggests real experience. It gives the impression of having been written quickly, in the flush of that one overpowering and exhilarating emotion, whether felt at the time or vividly recalled later. And yet, the poem may not be quite what it first appears.
Cisneros sheds light on her method of composition, as well as making some revealing remarks about her poems, in an interview with Martha Satz published in Southwest Review. Cisneros says she wrote many of the poems published in Loose Woman for her private satisfaction only, never intending them to be published. She believes that her public life as a writer centers around her novels. As a poet, she feels free to explore the most intimate aspects of her psyche without a thought of how the results will be received by others: “The reason I write it is not to publish it but to get the thorn out of the soul of my heart.” Cisneros takes inspiration from Emily Dickinson, another poet who did not write for publication. Cisneros notes, “[Dickinson] knew that the true reason one writes poetry and works at the craft is simply to write that poem.”
Cisneros also comments in the same interview that in her poetry she does not decide what to write beforehand; the words just spill out, and she does not even feel in conscious control of the process. She writes what the inner levels of her psyche prompt her to write. Most readers would probably agree that many of the sixty poems in Loose Woman do indeed give this impression. These are not poems that have been much revised and reworked or agonized over. They are like quick snapshots of certain moods, attitudes, emotions, and situations. Taken together, they present a manysided portrait of the experience of being a woman involved in the affairs of the heart.
“Once Again I Prove the Theory of Relativity” presents one of the more innocent aspects of that many-sided portrait. The reader would hardly guess from that poem the persona Cisneros adopts in many of the other poems. “With Loose Woman,” Cisneros tells Satz, “I entered a realm where I am writing from a dangerous fountainhead.” By this, she means the sexual aspects of her poems, which she thought that men might find threatening: “I strike terror among the men. / I can’t be bothered what they think,” she writes in “Loose Woman.”
The title of the collection is meant, at least in one sense, ironically. “Loose woman” is how the persona of the poems thinks she might be described from a male, conservative, traditional standpoint; it is how a certain type of man might view her. From her point of view, “loose woman,” as the poem of that title makes clear, is a label she bears with pride because for her it means being free from repressive, restricted ideas about how a woman should think and behave.
It is as well to remember that Cisneros was raised in a Mexican American community, in which patriarchal attitudes were the norm. These attitudes included the belief that a...
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For Sandra Cisneros, “our familia is our culture.” Her stories and poems explore ethnicity, gender, language, and place where intimate and communal women-centered space provides ways of knowing the world of meaning and identity. Women’s relationships, magic, myth, religion, and politics figure prominently in Cisneros’ work, providing a rich matrix for her attempt to balance love and artistic work. In contrast to traditional representations of women, Cisneros foregrounds women characters who are often engaged to escape from the confinements of patriarchal determined roles common to two cultures, to interpret their own experience and redefine their lives. Her characters and situations are diverse and complex, reflecting realities that transcend stereotypes and categories. Once she found her own voice, Cisneros says, “I could speak up and celebrate my otherness as a woman, as a working-class person, as an American of Mexican descent” (Mango).
Cisneros’ narrative style rejects traditional short story forms in favor of collage, often a mosaic of interrelated pieces, blending the sounds of poetry with oral story telling techniques. Her ingenious use of language includes the rhythm, sound, and syntax of Spanish, its sensibilities, emotional relationships to the natural world and inanimate objects, and its use of tender diminutives. She also uses the poetry of urban street slang, children’s rhymes, and song creating her own innovative literary style at once musical, spontaneous, primal, and direct.
In her introduction to the 1994 edition of Mango Street she notes:
The language of Mango Street is based on speech. It’s very much an anti-academic voice—a child’s voice, a girl’s voice, a spoken voice, the voice of an American-Mexican. It’s in this rebellious realm of antipoetics that I tried to create a poetic text with the most unofficial language I could find. I did it neither ingenuously nor naturally. It was as clear to me as if I were tossing a Molotov.
In the series of 44 brief, poetically charged vignettes which compose Mango Street, the voice of Esperanza Codero observes and documents the lives around her, women who look out the window and “sit their sadness on an elbow” (“My Name”). In this coming of age story, Esperanza writes about women who are alienated, confined, restricted, trapped by poverty, and often deserted by lovers and husbands. There is Rose Vargas, with too many kids and a husband who “left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come” (“There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn’t Know What to Do”), and Esperanza’s own mother, “a smart cookie” who says, “I couldn’ve been somebody, you know?” She speaks two languages and can sing an opera but can’t get down on the subway (“A Smart Cookie”). Esperanza’s environment is characterized by both poverty and racism as well as the warmth, intimacy, and humor of her culture. She is nurtured and empowered by women who share stories and poems with her, who encourage her to keep writing because it will keep her free, who remind her never to forget who she is, that she “will always be Mango Street.” As Esperanza’s voice gains strength, she provides a powerful, carnal, poetic, and “unofficial text” which critiques traditional western discourse. Unlike the women around her, Esperanza escapes confinement and isolation, refusing to...
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[Rodríguez Aranda]: Lets start with what I call the soil where Sandra Cisneros’ “wicked” seed germinated. Your first book, The House on Mango Street, is it autobiographical?
[Cisneros]: That’s a question that students always ask me because I do a lot of lectures in Universities. They always ask: “Is this a true story?” or, “How many of these stories are true?” And I have to say, “Well they’re all true.” All fiction is non-fiction. Every piece of fiction is based on something that really happened. On the other hand, it’s not autobiography because my family would be the first one to confess: “Well it didn’t happen that way.” They always contradict my stories. They don’t understand I’m not writing autobiography.
What I’m doing is I’m writing true stories. They’re all stories I lived, or witnessed, or heard; stories that were told to me. I collected those stories and I arranged them in an order so they would be clear and cohesive. Because in real life, there’s no order.
All fiction is giving order to that. . . .
. . . to that disorder, yes. So, a lot of the events were composites of stories. Some of those stories happened to my mother, and I combined them with something that happened to me. Some of those stories unfortunately happened to me just like that. Some of the stories were my students’ when I was a counselor; women would confide in me and I was so overwhelmed with my inability to correct their lives that I wrote about them.
How did the idea of Mango Street turn into a book?
The House on Mango Street started when I was in graduate school, when I realized I didn’t have a house. I was in this class, we were talking about memory and the imagination, about Gustave Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. I remember sitting in the classroom, my face getting hot and I realized: “My god, I’m different! I’m different from everybody in this classroom.” You know, you always grow up thinking something’s different or something’s wrong, but you don’t know what it is. If you’re raised in a multi-ethnic neighborhood you think that the whole world is multi-ethnic like that. According to what you see in the media, you think that that’s the norm; you don’t ever question that you’re different or you’re strange. It wasn’t until I was twenty-two that it first hit me how different I really was. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was a Mexican woman. But, I didn’t think that had anything to do with why I felt so much imbalance in my life, whereas it had everything to do with it! My race, my gender, and my class! And it didn’t make sense until that moment, sitting in that seminar. That’s when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn’t write about. I couldn’t write about what was going on in my life at that time. There was a lot of destructiveness; it was a very stressful time for that reason, and I was too close to it, so I chose to write about something I was far removed from, which was my childhood.
So you are and you’re not “Esperanza,” the main character in The House on Mango Street. Now, at some point she says to herself that she’s bad. Is that something you felt when you were her age?
Certainly that black-white issue, good-bad, it’s very prevalent in my work and in other Latinas. It’s something I wasn’t aware of until very recently. We’re raised with a Mexican culture that has two role models: La Malinche y la Virgen de Guadalupe. And you know that’s a hard route to go, one or the other, there’s no in-betweens.
The in-between is not ours. All the other role models are outside our culture, they’re Anglo. So if you want to get out of these two roles, you feel you’re betraying you’re people.
Exactly, you’re told you’re a traitor to your culture. And it’s a horrible life to live. We’re always straddling two countries, and we’re always living in that kind of schizophrenia that I call, being a Mexican woman living in an American society, but not belonging to either culture. In some sense we’re not Mexican and in some sense we’re not American. I couldn’t live in Mexico because my ideas are too . . .
. . . progressive?
Yeah, too Americanized. On the other hand, I can’t live in America, or I do live here but, in some ways, almost like a foreigner.
Yes. And it’s very strange to be straddling these two cultures and to try to define some middle ground so that you don’t commit suicide or you don’t become so depressed or you don’t self explode. There has to be some way for you to say: “Alright, the life I’m leading is alright, I’m not betraying my culture. I’m not becoming anglicized.” I was saying this last night to two Latinas in San Antonio. It’s so hard for us to live through our twenties because there’s always this balancing act, we’ve got to define what we think is fine for ourselves instead of what our culture says.
At the same time, none of us wants to abandon our culture. We’re very Mexican, we’re all very Chicanas. Part of being Mexicana is that love and that affinity we have for our cultura. We’re very family centered, and that family extends to the whole Raza. We don’t want to be exiled from our people.
Even in the eighties, Mexican women feel there are all these expectations they must fulfill, like getting married, having children. Breaking with them doesn’t mean you are bad, but society makes you feel that way. . . .
Part of it is our religion, because there’s so much guilt. It’s so hard being Catholic, and even though you don’t call yourself Catholic anymore, you have vestiges of that guilt inside you; it’s in your blood. Mexican religion is half western and half pagan; European Catholicism and Precolumbian religion all mixed in. It’s a very strange Catholicism like nowhere else on the planet and it does strange things to you. There’s no one sitting on your shoulder but you have the worst censor of all, and that’s yourself.
I found it very hard to deal with redefining myself or controling my own destiny or my own sexuality. I still wrestle with that theme, it’s still the theme of my last book, My Wicked Wicked Ways, and in the new one that I’ve started and the one that comes after, so it’s a ghost I’m still wrestling with.
Talking about ghosts, would you say that writing is a way of getting rid of your guilt, of saying: “You might think I’m wicked, but it’s not about being wicked, it’s about being me.” Some kind of exorcism. . . .
I used to think that writing was a way to exorcise those ghosts that inhabit the house that is ourselves. But now I understand that only the little ghosts leave. The big ghosts still live inside you, and what happens with writing—I think a more accurate metaphor would be to say—that you make your peace with those ghosts. You recognize they live there. . . .
That they’re part of you. . . .
They’re part of you and you can talk about them, and I think that it’s a big step to be able to say: “Well, yeah, I’m haunted, ha! There’s a little ghost there and we coexist.”
Maybe I’ll always be writing about this schizophrenia of being a Mexican American woman, it’s something that in every stage of my life has affected me differently. I don’t think it’s something I could put to rest. I’ll probably still be writing about being good or bad probably when I’m ninetyyears old.
It didn’t seem to me that in My Wicked Wicked Ways there was a conflict over being a Hispanic woman. What I saw was the telling of different experiences, memories from childhood, travels, love affairs . . . of course you can’t get away from the fact that you are Mexican and that you experience life in a certain way because of this.
These are poems in which I write about myself, not a man writing about me. It is my autobiography, my version, my life story as told by me, not according to a male point of view. And that’s where I see perhaps the “Wicked Wicked” of the title.
A lot of the themes from Mango Street are repeated: I leave my father’s house, I don’t get married, I travel to other countries, I can sleep with men if I want to, I can abandon them or choose not to sleep with them, and yes, I can fall in love and even be hurt by men—all of these things but as told by me. I am not the muse.
Some men were disappointed because they thought the cover led them on. They thought it was a very sexy cover and they wanted . . . I don’t know what they wanted! But they felt disappointed by the book. The cover is of a woman appropriating her own sexuality. In some ways, that’s also why it’s wicked; the scene is trespassing that boundary by saying: “I defy you. I’m going to tell my own story.”
You see, I grew up with six brothers and a father. So, in essence I feel like I grew up with seven fathers. To this day when any man tells me to do something in certain way, the hair on the back of my neck just stands up and I’ll start screaming! Then I have to calm down and realize: “Well, alright, okay, you know where this came from, you don’t even need an analyst to figure this one out!”
In Mango Street there’s a story called “Beautiful and Cruel,” where Esperanza obviously feels an admiration towards the woman in the movies who was “beautiful and cruel,” the one “with red red lips” whose power “is her own.” Is that why you colored your lips on the black and white photograph of the cover of My Wicked Wicked Ways?
I never thought about that. I was looking at women who are models of power. I suppose that for someone like Esperanza the only powerful women she would see would be the same type that Manuel Puig idolizes, those black and white screen stars. People like Rita Hayworth, the red-lip women that were beautiful. They didn’t have to cling to someone, rather they snuff people out like cigarettes. They were the ones in control, and that was the only kind of role model I had for power. You had to have beauty, and if you didn’t have that, you were lost. The cover was trying to play on the Errol Flynn years of film, the lettering and everything.
I got a lot of objections to that photo. People said, “Why did you paint the lips? It’s a good photo.” The photographer himself didn’t want his photograph adulterated. But then, if the lips weren’t painted then you’d think I was serious.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer or that you were a writer?
Everytime I say I’m a writer, it still surprises me. It’s one of those things, that everytime you say it . . . me suena muy curioso. It’s like saying “I’m a faith healer.” Sounds a little bit like a quack when you say it; something a little immodest, a little crazy, admitting you’re a writer.
I guess the first time I legitimately started saying that’s what I was instead of that’s what I wanted to be was when I was in graduate school, when we all had the audacity to claim our major as what we were. But you never get used to saying it because we’ve always had to make our living other ways. I had to be a teacher, a counselor, I’ve had to work as an Arts Administrator, you know, all kinds of things just to make my living. The writing is always what you try to save energy for, it’s your child. You hope you’re not too exhausted so that you can come home to that child and give it everything you can.
It’s hard to claim in this society that that’s what you are. I feel a little more legitimate saying it these days after I’ve been doing it professionally for more than ten years. When I’m riding on a plane and I’m off to do a lecture somewhere and the person to the right of me says: “Well, what do you do?” I don’t say “I’m a professor,” because I only started doing that recently and that doesn’t have anything to do with writing. I say “I’m a writer.” And the next question always is: “Oh, do you publish?” That really makes me mad like you have to have your vitae with you. But it’s nice to say, “Yes, I do.”
There’s a story in The House on Mango Street where...
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