Friday, June 7, 2013

Writers I Can't Stop Reading, Part 7: Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros zoomed onto the literary scene in 1984 with the novel The House on Mango Street. Since then, her work has become part of the canon, assigned to schoolchildren, displayed in multiple anthologies.

Somehow that enshrining of Cisneros’s work in a smooth marble niche has blurred some of the most important qualities in her writing. She is a daring author who constantly presents her readers with new vistas, writing books that deserve to be considered classics because they speak to core human experiences in language that shoots electric currents right to the reader’s imagination. Cisneros’s writing is wise, funny, sexy, and thought-provoking, often on the same page.

Nowhere is that truer than in her epic novel, Caramelo, or Puro Cuento, first released in 2002. The reviews were primarily chatty and upbeat, but most of them seemed to miss that this is a great American novel, a book that speaks eloquently to fundamental experiences, both in North America and in human life. Caramelo is the saga of one family on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border, stretching over two huge countries and three generations. The depth of the passions, aspirations, disappointments, frustrations, and exhaltations in the book is breathtaking. Each chapter is almost self-contained, a polished turquoise set in silver, but each gem adds to the long necklace of the story.

Cisneros’s use of metaphor in the book is sensational. There are precious few writers who come up with such stellar figurative language on a consistent basis. Here’s a passage from Caramelo where Soledad, the grandmother of the main character, falls in love as a young woman, and the narration follows her thoughts:

In that kiss, they swallowed one another, swallowed the room, the sky, darkness, fear, and it was beautiful to feel so much a part of everything and bigger than everything. Soledad was no longer Soledad Reyes, Soledad on this earth with her two dresses, her one pair of shoes, her unfinished caramelo rebozo, she was not a girl anymore with sad eyes, not herself, just herself, only herself. But all things little and large, great and small, important and unassuming. A puddle of rain and the feather that fell shattering the sky inside it, the lit votive candles flickering through blue cobalt glass at the cathedral, the opening notes of a waltz without a name, a clay bowl of rice in bean broth, a steaming clod of horse dung. Everything, oh, my God, everything. A great flood, an overwhelming joy, and it was good and joyous and blessed.

So much for the doctrine of Original Sin!

To understand Cisneros’s gifts as a writer it’s worth remembering that she started out as a poet when she enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her poetry is undervalued to this day—her book Loose Woman has some terrific poems. That poetic sensibility is the foundation of her prose—she’s a storyteller, but the telling is as important as the outcome.

There are so many achievement in Caramelo it’s difficult to parse them all. Cisneros threads real and surprising historical characters into this chronicle that I imagine includes a lot of her own family history, historical characters such as the ventriloquist Señor Wences; and the siren of Mexican film, Tongolele. Cisneros presents a complex portrayal of Mexico itself, a country with a glorious and tragic history. I enjoyed her command of the look and feel of different decades and their clothing, so all the layers of time seem authentic. Some characters in the book, living and dead, engagingly talk back to the author, asking her to exclude certain episodes or change her account of some events. In the end, the author tells all, more or less.

Yes, Caramelo has some mushy passages, particularly at the very end, but what great book doesn’t have warts? Ulysses has many more. Caramelo is not a page-turner. Neither is Ulysses.

Caramelo contains a lot of Spanish, and it’s impressive that Cisneros draws on the linguistic traditions of English and Spanish fluently. She places the Spanish in contexts that makes it understandable. Well, for the most part.

It’s time to take Sandra Cisneros out of the marble niche she’s been confined to and recognize her as one of the great living authors of the U.S.A.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

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