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Sandra Cisneros' Career

Jane Juffer

In the introduction to Alfred A. Knopf's 1994, ten-year anniversary reprinting of her House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros recalls what initially inspired the now internationally acclaimed novel. As a graduate student in the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Cisneros felt alienated by discussion of Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space. She says, "What was this guy talking about when he mentioned the familiar and comforting 'house of memory'? It was obvious he never had to clean one or pay the landlord rent for one like ours" (xiii-xiv). Cisneros' alienation gave rise to anger, which in turn prompted the writing of House on Mango Street; the lyrical novel describing the life of a young Mexican-American girl growing up in a working-class Chicago neighborhood, much as Cisneros herself did. In an attempt to establish the difference of this kind of home from the one her fellow students remembered, Cisneros sought what she calls an "anti-academic voice--a child's voice, a girl's voice, a poor girl's voice, a spoken voice, the voice of an American-Mexican" (xv). Ironically, this anti-academic novel has become widely acclaimed as a "literary masterpiece," beginning in 1985 when it won the Before Columbus Book Award. Furthermore, it has represented an important position in debates over multiculturalism--the ability to speak to specific cultural experiences and yet claim literary, even canonical, value. Since the late 1980s, House has been part of the university culture wars, perhaps most prominently at Stanford University, whose revamping of its traditional Western civilization requirement became the subject of much right-wing moralizing. Since then, numerous critical articles and further acclaimed publications by Cisneros have largely succeeded in quieting defenders of the canon who feared that texts such as House did not meet literary muster. By 1998, with multiculturalism largely integrated into English department curriculum, Cisneros was included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature for the first time; it excerpted six short stories, all told from a youth point of view, from her 1991 collection, Woman Hollering Creek. Cisneros has in many ways become the representative Chicana in the reconstruction of the canon, yet much of her work has been elided in the focus on House and the youth stories in WHC. Even as these texts appear regularly on American literature syllabi, Cisneros' three volumes of poetry and adult short stories, the latter appearing in the second half of WHC, have been largely ignored in academia. Although the acceptance of the youth stories has been an important step toward increasing access to Chicana literature, it has dramatically simplified Cisneros and suggests that the push for multiculturalism and inclusion does not always extend to the difficult intersections of adult sexuality and race nor to representations of "minorities" who are not "role models." Anthologies and even, to a somewhat lesser degree, critical articles, find it easier to focus on the more "universal" coming-of-age themes and stories that present ethnic role models than those texts that represent the sometimes angry and disenchanted, frankly sexual, often ambiguous and always complicated adult Chicana that speaks in much of Cisneros' work. An example of this voice appears in the Oxford anthologized poem "Little Clown, My Heart"; the poem speaks to the ambiguities of desire--the heart as both "fleshy undertongue of sorrows" and "Acapulco cliff diver." It comes from Loose Woman, whose title poem of the same name speaks to Cisneros' fierce sexual independence: "I'm an aim-well, / shoot-sharp, / sharp-tongued, / sharp-thinking, / fast-speaking, /foot-loose, /loose-tongued, /let-loose, /woman-on-the-loose / loose woman. / Beware, honey" (114). Cisneros' career is indicative of the slow but steady growth in the acceptance of Chicana/o and Latina/o writers throughout the 1990s, both in academia and more broadly; as such, it provides an important way to study the advantages and disadvantages of "mainstreaming." Cisneros' first book, a volume of poetry entitled Bad Boys, was published in 1980 by Mango Publications of San Jose, CA, in the Chicano Chapbook series edited by Gary Soto. The House on Mango Street was first published by the Latino/a press, Arte Publico of Houston, in 1984; by the latter part of the decade, the novel was winning widespread acclaim not only as a singular text but as part of a new movement of Chicana writers including Denise Chavez, Ana Castillo, Helena Maria Viramontes, Cherrie Moraga, Pat Mora, and Gloria Anzaldua. In 1987, Third Woman, another independent press, published Cisneros' volume of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. The success of House on Mango Street and My Wicked, Wicked Ways apparently convinced the mainstream publishing world that Cisneros was a risk well worth taking. In 1991, Cisneros received what is considered to be the first Chicana contract with a major house when Random House published her collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek, and simultaneously reissued House in a Vintage paperback edition. In February of the same year, Publishers Weekly identified Cisneros as one of a handful of Latina/o writers making the move into the mainstream. Crediting Oscar Hijuelos' 1990 Pulitzer Price for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, PW defined the early 1990s as a "period of transition" for Latino/a writers in which they were moving from small publishing houses to major houses and attracting mainstream audiences, extending beyond Spanish speakers and the label "minority writer." Cisneros is identified prominently in the article as a "Chicano" (stet) writer with the ability to crossover. However, Cisneros says adamantly that she is determined not to sell out: "'I mean to raise hell, and I think my stories do. I'm very curious to see how they will be understood or misunderstood. The people they're really for are the Latinos. They'll get the subtext'" (Barbato 20). More generally, the article defines "the movement for multicultural literacy" as a broad phenomenon that Latino writers help produce and benefit from. In 1994, Knopf published Cisneros' third volume of poetry, Loose Woman; the following year, Knopf also published a hard-cover edition of My Wicked Wicked Ways. Yet interestingly, even as these moves signal a broadening audience, Vintage (a division of Random House) has recognized the ongoing importance of the Spanish language market; they published translated editions of House on Mango Street in 1994 and Woman Hollering Creek in 1996. Cisneros' non-academic reception has often been more comprehensive in its treatment of her work than the academic reception; specifically, non-academic reviews have been more likely to embrace her "bad girl" politics than academic critiques. In March 1991, Publishers Weekly ran an interview with Cisneros devoting significant space to discussion of My Wicked, Wicked Ways and her "bad girl" sexual politics. Cisneros "poetically unravels" gender stereotypes, says the author, and quotes Cisneros: "'I'm the mouse who puts a thorn in the lion's paw,' she says, with an arch smile reminiscent of the red-lippedsonrisa on the cover of My Wicked Wicked Ways . . . a collection of poetry celebrating the 'bad girl' with her 'lopsided symmetry of sin and virtue'" (Sagel 74). Also in 1991, Newsweek featured Cisneros in an article on literary heavyweights, saying that herWoman Hollering Creek "should make Cisneros's reputation as a major author," a point they did not subsume to her sexual politics; they foreground her quote, for example, that she "has no intention of getting married" but that she "likes men a lot" (Prescott 60). Cisneros' short fiction has been featured in magazines ranging from Glamour to Ms. to The Progressive. In 1996, Ms. published Cisneros' essay "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess," which also appears in Ana Castillo's edited collection, Goddess of the Americas/la Diosa de las Americas. The essay describes how the figure of la Virgen de Guadalupe has been used to regulate female sexuality, setting up a virgin/whore dichotomy for young Chicana struggling to learn about their bodies. Cisneros then rearticulates la Virgen by recovering the pre-Columbian goddesses upon which the myth of Guadalupe draws. Integrating ethnicity and sexuality, Cisneros declares that la Virgen for her is the "goddess who makes me feel good about my sexual power" (49). Cisneros now does have a house of her own--a bright purple house, no less, in San Antonio. In July of 1998, The New York Times featured an article describing the furor raised by her neighbors--belonging to the the King William neighborhood association--who declared that the color is "historically incorrect." Arguing that purple is indeed historically correct--that it is a pre-Columbian color celebrating pride in Mexican heritage, Cisneros has refused to concede anything to the Victorians (Rimer A8). She lives in the house with five cats, three dogs, and two parrots. True to the biography included in the 1991 edition of House on Mango Street, she is still "nobody's mother and nobody's wife."

Works cited

Barbato, Joseph. "Latino Writers in the American Market." Publishers Weekly. 1 February 1991. 17-21.

Cisneros, Sandra. Bad Boys. San Jose, CA: Mango Publications, 1980.

---. "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess." In Goddess of the Americas/ La Diosa de las Americas. Ed. Ana Castillo. New York: Putnam, 1996.

---. The House on Mango Street. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

---. Loose Woman. New York: Knopf, 1994. ---.

My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1987.

---. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Prescott, Peter S. "Seven for Summer." Newsweek 3 June 1991. 60-61.

Rimer, Sara. "Novelist's Purple Palette Is Not to Everyone's Taste." The New York Times. 13 July 1998.

Sagel, Jim. "Sandra Cisneros." Interview. Publishers Weekly 29 March 1991. 74-75.

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