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A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, by Sandra Cisneros.

November 29, 2015

A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, by Sandra Cisneros.  Knopf (2015), 400 pages.

5 stars—A favorite book for me.

“Writing is resistance, an act against forgetting, a war against oblivion, against not counting, as women.”

An important, unusual autobiographical account which includes past articles and lectures by an amazing Latina writer describing her perspective on writing outside the mainstream.

Sandra Cisneros is a phenomenal writer who has created her own structures for conveying her own life as the daughter of Mexican immigrants.  In fiction like House on Mango Street and Carmelo (See my reviews), she has told stories from her own life. Now, as she enters her sixties, she says her new book is a way of “claiming my real life and differentiating it from my fiction.” In the process she weaves together and comments on short non-fiction pieces that she has written in past decades. With her comments about the earlier writings, Cisneros analyzes what she has said in the past in the light of what she understands now.

So I’m gathering up my stray lambs that have wandered out of sight and am herding them under one roof, not so much for the reader’s sake, but for my own. Where are you, my little loves, and where have you gone? Who wrote these and why? I need to know so that I can understand my life.

Her account of her own life features the same careful attention to words that her other writings have had. This is a book worth reading for its intense beauty of language and its thoughtful content, especially her perceptions of writing and the value of diversity.

A House of My Own is structured around the places Cisneros has lived which have fostered her writing. For her home has meant finding a place she can write. Her childhood was spent in a large household in various small apartments in Chicago. . While finishing her first book, she lived in a rock house on a beautiful Greek island. As she developed as a writer, Cisneros took refuge living alone in a small apartment in Chicago. Moving on she tells about the brightly painted Victorian house in an historical neighborhood in San Antonio where she lived and wrote for years before moving to a small town in Mexico. Essentially wherever she calls home, she writes about the ever-changing “house one calls the self.”

In addition to her houses, Cisneros writes sharply focused vignettes about the people who have been important in her life. Her stories of her parents are particularly appealing. Her mother had little formal education, but she had discovered museums and libraries, institutions she relentlessly shared with her children.

I became a writer thanks to a mother who was unhappy being a mother. She was a prison-of-war mother banging on the bars of her cell all her life. Unhappy women do this. She searched for escape routes from her prison and found them in museums, the park, and the public library…

It’s her tough, streetwise voice that haunts all my stories and poems. An amazing woman who loves to draw and can sing opera. A tough cookie.

Her father was a dreamer and a charmer who supported his large family by his skill as an upholster.   He was troubled by his daughter’s decision not to marry and have children. Throughout the book, Cisneros also emphasizes the importance of her friends, especially the mentors who fostered her writing. She touches lightly on early romances, but eventually she puts romance with men aside for a life of “living alone and loving my work.”

Cisneros’s education and early jobs are also featured in the book. She tells of the formal education she gained from the Catholic schools she attended as a child. After college, she taught Latino students who were falling through the cracks of the Chicago educational system, and from them she heard stories that needed to be told. “A high school teacher, I had no idea how to save my students from their own lives except to include them in my writing.” The highly respected graduate program for writers at the University of Iowa helped her see that the stories she had to tell were different from those of other writers and, for that reason, vital. But the process was difficult. Settling in San Antonio, she worked at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Here she was in the heart of a community of artists and other eccentrics, some of whom are portrayed in A House of My Own. After years establishing herself as a writer, Cisneros decided that she had been in the “Fatherland” long enough and she was ready to move out of the home she had made in San Antonio and settle in Mexico.

Although Cisneros chronicles many aspects of her life, her book’s core is the development of her craft and of her own voice. Time and again Cisneros stresses the need for stories. “We tell a story to survive a memory in much the same way the oyster survives an invading grain of sand. The pearl is the story of our lives.” While she values what she has learned from a variety of other writers, her own stories are rooted in her own experiences as a Latina. These are stories which were not appearing in mainstream literature when she began writing. While at the Iowa Writers Workshop, she realized that she did not share “the house” of her professor and other grad students. None of the books she read for classes had included a home like the ones where she grew up.

I was trying as best I could to write the kind of book I’d never seen in a library or in school, the kind of book not even my professors could write. Each week I ingested the class readings, and then went off and did the opposite. It was a quiet revolution, a reaction taken to extremes maybe, but out this negative experience that I found something positive: my own voice.

The result was Mango Street, her first novel which she describes as “naming my otherness.” She discovered that “Once I could name it, I wasn’t ashamed or silent.” In writing her first book, she discovered her own voice; “an anti-academic voice, a girl’s voice, a poor girl’s voice, the voice of a Mexican American.” Initially she thought that Mango Street would be a memoir, but instead it became “a collective story peopled with several lives, from my past and present, placed in one fictional neighborhood—Mango Street.   Although focused on Cisneros, A House on Mango Street retains the sense of a community story which mixes past and present as well as different stories of who she is and has been. The title of her new book is taken from a segment in her first book.

For Cisneros, “Writing is resistance, an act against forgetting, a war against oblivion, against not counting, as women.” Although she never knew most of her grandmothers, she seeks to “invent” the truths of their lives. She rejects their “petty jealousies and the silence that went with them.” She does not “want to “inherit mothers laying down their lives like a Sir Raleigh cloak and asking everyone to step all over them. I don’t want to inherit my mother’s fear of doing anything alone or her self-destructive anger.” What she seeks to claim is “the witch in my women ancestors” so that she can “create art beyond rage” and “devour my demons.

Throughout her book, as throughout her earlier books, Cisneros acknowledges “the fluidity between the physical and spiritual world, a porous border where the living and the dead cross without papers.” Her beliefs are grounded in her own experiences and tradition.

My Virgen de Guadalupe is not the mother of God. She is God. She is face for a god without a face, una indigiena for a god without ethnicity, a female deity for a god who is genderless, but I also understand that for her to approach me, for me to finally open the door and accept her, she has to be a woman like me.”

In telling her own story, Cisneros again tells us about her own community, a community invisible to those of us who are outsiders. She also shows us the power and beauty we as readers can share if we are open to her words.

The frequent use of old photos of her past further enriches this book. We can literally visualize how she grows from a somewhat hesitant young girl into a cosmopolitan and skilled woman sure of who she is and what she has to say.

I recommend this book as perhaps the best book I have read this year. This is a long book, but sections dealing with diversity and writing should be required reading for all. As we follow Cisneros’s growth and development, we can all learn from her while enjoying the beauty and intensity of her words.

Special thanks to Edelweiss for sending me a digital copy of this book to review.




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