Writer Tracey Slaughter on one of her favourite ever novels.
The House on Mango Street – a classic American novel taught in almost every school in the USA and which has sold over six million copies – is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and its author, Sandra Cisneros, is on her way to the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts as a headline guest in the festival’s writers programme. Mega fan, author and creative writing teacher Tracey Slaughter lays out why we should be clamouring to get our hands on a copy of The House on Mango Street – and why the opportunity to see Sandra Cisneros live and in person is such a thrill.
I’m calling this piece Why you should read The House on Mango Street – but the word “read” seems far too inert for what happens when you open the pages of this book, take in its wonders. You’re spilled instantly into the title street, pressed breath-close among its inhabitants, hunting with neighbourhood kids through its secrets and litter-glints, its parched backrooms and brokedown stretches.
There’s an early encounter where the child narrator learns to see her home, with a jolt, through the scrutiny of an observer who spots her playing out front of its boarded-up bulk. “Where do you live?” this passer-by interrogates, and when the child simply points out “There,” every harsh thing she needs to know about her place in the world is delivered back in one stressed syllable: “‘You live there?’ There… The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there.” It’s a lesson in division, in distance, though, that this novella overturns, collapses instantly – if you, as reader, take up the invitation to follow this child into her world, her street, you’re not going to get the chance to stand at this onlooker’s remove, make squeamish judgements from its vantage (if you have ever been privileged enough to live on hills and “sleep so close to stars” you can get away with feeling you “have nothing to do with last week’s garbage or fear of rats.”) You’re not going to get the choice. This book’s going to pull you into its lived textures – its raggedy hallways and junkstore dreams, its “couches that spin dust in the air when you punch them,” its “beercans and cats and trees talking to themselves” – and you’ll learn, close-range, that “There” is not nothing, but everything.
It’s hard to think of an author more gifted than Cisneros at setting into oscillation all the atoms of place. Mango Street looms, streams, shines in this writer’s hands, and her people leap from its details. You feel its characters, sole and skin, the alleys they chalk up and skip through, the clattery tenement steps they count, the images that seize their play, deepen their breathing, widen their eyes. You loop the stairs and skulk the corners, you slink the “skinny aisles” of stores, you shimmy the trees “all around, the neighbourhood of roofs, black-tarred and A-framed, and in their gutters, the balls that never came back down to earth…and there at the end of the block, looking smaller still, our house with its feet tucked under like a cat.” The structure and language might seem simple, as the child narrator leads you in a linkage of swift vignettes in and out through the doors on her street, but make no mistake – though you’ll follow Esperanza’s footsteps effortlessly, there’s a masterclass unwinding in her tread.
It is, for one thing, a masterclass in flash fiction, moving in a sequence of irradiated glimpses – long before theorists had pinned down this mode of fiction, Cisneros had instinctively made it her own. One thing she proved is that it’s a form always ready to run off into the bodies of kids, to live in their minds, limbs and eyecorners, a form that can follow all their quivers and clambers, fast enough to mirror their tracks, as they make memory, story and myth from the particles of sense that flicker past them. On Mango Street there’s a luminous scene where the kids play at naming the clouds – “that wide puffy cloud that looks like your face when you wake up after falling asleep with all your clothes on” or “the kind that looks like you combed its hair” – and it’s beautifully sculpted as a metaphor for Cisneros’ book, where people blow through like clouds too, caught indelibly in each flash-chapter as if framed before dissolve in a slice of sky, “no two exactly alike”, vast, streaked, trembling, holding their personal rain, warm-smelling, pieces of god.
It’s hard to name a writer, too, whose lines are more perfectly gauged to catch character energy, whose syntax models more vividly that words have muscle, mood, movement, that voice is a verb. If you can scuff, pedal, creep along Mango Street with the same force you once swooped the asphalt of your own childhood, that’s because Cisneros’ prose is bodily, electric with the lives she pitches you into the midst of. Her sentences move with the rhythms of those who dwell there, the strange neighbours, the instant friends, the shady legends, even the animals, like the dog who “runs the same way its owner does, clumsy and wild and with the limbs flopping all over the place like untied shoes.” They eavesdrop in backyards with mix-and-match sisters, and capture the lightning-speed crisscross of childhood chat, where spats and dreams escalate, taunts sizzle, schemes hatch and crash. When she walks you the 21 out-front steps and slanted floors of Meme Ortiz, the journey is voiced in little-kid lines “all lopsided and jutting like crooked teeth (made that way on purpose).”
If you want to know character, start at their feet, let their feet teach you how their sentences move – it’s a lesson Cisneros planted in me that’s never left: “The mother’s feet, plump and polite, descended like white pigeons from the sea of pillow, across the linoleum roses, down the wooden stairs, over the chalk hopscotch squares. 5, 6, 7, blue sky.” Later in the book, when the group of girls are gifted a cache of blousy grownup shoes, “the truth is it is scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long long leg… spotted with satin scars where scabs were picked,” but they still experiment with giggly tee-tottering “down to the corner so that the shoes talk back to you” – and the lusty but perilous sway in Cisneros’ prose finds them sampling the “yes, no, maybe so” of hips as they go on exploring their pre-pubescent sashay: “You gotta be able to know what to do with hips when you get them… You gotta know how to walk with hips, practice you know – like if half of you wanted to go one way and the other half the other.”
Cisneros’ lines ripple with precarious desire – shoes like this lead to danger zones in the neighbourhood, fates especially electrified for girls. Yet “everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt.” When you scope out the yard of “the bad Vargas” brood, the sentences “bend trees and bounce between cars and dangle upside down from knees and almost break like fancy museum vases you can’t replace,” the same way the uncountable kids do, their bone-tired mother distracted “all the time from buttoning and bottling and babying,” so “nobody looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an ‘Oh’.” Cisneros’ lines thrum with energy then brim with tragedy, swing between restless momentum and frames of stark arrest, halting suddenly up against moments and events that flood the child-gaze like a stain.
All this is of course to say – you must read and re-read The House on Mango Street. Don’t wait: go there. When I think of Cisneros, I think of other unmatched women writers, of Toni Morrison, of Jayne Anne Phillips, of Joy Harjo, of our own Patricia Grace. In another dazzling episode, Esperanza is struck in the junkstore by the eruption of a music box: “Then he starts it up and all sorts of things start happening. It’s like all of a sudden he let go a million moths all over the dusty furniture and swan-neck shadows and in our bones. It’s like drops of water. Or like marimbas only with a funny little plucked sound to it like if you were running your fingers across the teeth of a metal comb.” Each “box” of words in Cisneros’ groundbreaking flash springs to sudden life like this, as she brushes your fingers, to the point of singing, across the surfaces of Mango St.
Sandra Cisneros will appear in several events (House on Fire, Glorious in her skin, First penned) at the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ Writers Programme between Friday 23 and Sunday 25 February. Information and tickets are online. The House on Mango Street can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.