Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thank You, Sandra Cisneros

By Claudia Ricci

It is a Monday in early November. Mid-day. A milky sky is overhead. Sunshine has been missing for days, maybe weeks. The breeze is up, and yellowing leaves are cascading to the streets.

The woman is a writer, but lately, she hasn’t been writing.
She’s been fighting to write. Dying to write. Desperate to write.

But lately, she’s begun to face reality: it just isn’t happening. As her husband gently pointed out the day before, as they toured an art gallery, “you can’t force it.”

Today, she is grading a few papers, and preparing for her class at the university. She opens a book. She begins to read the words of Sandra Cisneros, who has written a new introduction to her classic work, The House on Mango Street.That book is 25 years old this year and in her introduction, Cisneros is telling the story behind the story, how the book – a set of marvelously poetic vignettes – came to be.

The House on Mango Street is much more than a story about a house. It is the tale of a quest. It tells in vivid bursts of language the story of a young Latina woman named Esperanza, whose name translates into “hope.” The book is about Esperanza’s growing up in Chicago, and the painful realities she faces in her neighborhood.

It is also the story of Esperanza’s invention of herself in words. It is about the place of quiet serenity that Esperanza – and Cisneros herself—seeks. It is about a place in a rundown Chicago neighborhood and a place beyond, a space into which she can escape: “a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”

When the woman reads Cisneros’ words, she is sitting at her kitchen table in her apartment in the heart of Washington, DC. It is quiet, except for the occasional garbage truck backing up, loading: there is the crunch and fracture of recycled glass.

She is calmly eating a salad for lunch. But somehow, the urgency of Cisneros’ words makes her heart beat a little bit faster. This is what she reads:
“She thinks stories are about beauty. Beauty that is there to be admired by anyone, like a herd of clouds grazing overhead. She thinks people who are busy working for a living deserve beautiful little stories, because they don’t have much time and are often tired. She has in mind a book that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who doesn’t know what came before or comes after.”

The woman thinks about what she has read. She thinks about a book that can give tired and stressed people something that will boost their tired spirits. She thinks about the people she knows who read the Bible. How some of them pick it up and open it at random, and let their eyes fall on some words that give them hope. Comfort. Inspiration.

She thinks about the world around her. The world she sees on CNN, and in the newspapers, and on-line. She thinks about the constant reports about swine flu, about the deaths of soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. About the bombs in the Middle East.About the tensions in Iran and elsewhere.
She thinks about the problems some of her dearest friends are facing. They would like to be working for a living but they have lost their jobs. They are now in danger of losing their homes. They have no health insurance.
She thinks about the way stories operate. About how important they are to our lives. About how they give us food for thought.Nourishment for our souls.She thinks about how they show us what is good – and what is not so good – about being human. About how they instruct us. And distract us, from the stress and monotony of our lives.

She keeps reading what Cisneros wrote:
“She experiments, creating a text that is as succinct and flexible as poetry, snapping sentences into fragments so that the reader pauses, making each sentence serve her and not the other way around, abandoning quotation marks to streamline the typography and make the page as simple and readable as possible. So that the sentences are pliant as branches and can be read in more ways than one.”

And with that, the woman puts down her fork and stops eating her salad. She goes to the other end of the kitchen table, to her laptop. She has to write. Something.

A story. Yes, a story. She’s not sure what she will write.But she will write a story. As she starts, the sun is suddenly sending bold stripes of light across the wooden floor of the apartment.

She begins typing, and then she thinks to herself, oh yes,I should write a thank you note, before I forget, to Sandra Cisneros.

Writer and Professor Claudia Ricci is on sabbatical teaching at Georgetown University. Her first novel, Dreaming Maples, is available through She is a founding Contributor to Wordsmith Wars.