Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and How Gayatri Spivak Taught Me to Read at 23

Last week I had the immense privilege of attending a lecture by the great post-colonial thinker Gayatri Spivak at LSE. Spivak’s work has literally been life changing for me, so I was really excited to see her in action. Apart from her obviously beautiful mind I was struck by her spark and sense of humour and positivity. She had pneumonia but still travelled all the way to make this lecture simply because she committed to it.

While I can go on about how much I love Spivak, she said something specific about the way in which we as readers – or listeners and consumers of everyday media – have forgotten how to read, which really got me thinking. She pointed out that all texts “express a certain desire” which should not be confused with the “fulfilment of that desire”. In other words, we have become lazy in the way we receive media. We take what we read, hear or watch as a fact rather than somebodies perspective. So I tried to keep her advice in mind when reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.

For some reason I am drawn to Latino/a writers, Isabella Allende’s Of Love and Shadows is my all time favourite book. I naturally gravitate to these authors’ quaint writing style; a mixture of biography, fable and magic realism (Junot Diaz, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabella Allende to name a big few). Which is why when I came across The House on Mango Street I knew I would love it.

Written in 1989 Cisneros laid the foundation for writers like Junot Diaz who use this style of using ‘vignettes’ to reveal multiple characters of an interlinked story. It is a very short book (110 pages only) that I read and re-read in a space of a week. Mango Street is a compilation of short stories interwoven to create a bigger picture of 11-year-old Esperanza (meaning Hope) Cordero’s life in urban Chicago. I was seduced by this alternative ‘coming of age’ story about how Esperanza deals with her Otherness both, as a woman and as a Latina. We see Chicago through her adolescent mind. In this sense it reminded be a lot of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Like Scout, Esperanza’s observation of daily life is simple yet poignant. There is a cool distance at which the story is narrated but yet it feels very personal.

For obvious reasons, many describe this book as a ‘timeless classic’. Esperanza’s search for normality and her desire to carve out a space for herself struck a chord with me. It will always speak to anyone who has ever had to move out of their comfort zone and re-learn to be themselves with a slight difference. It articulates perfectly what Avtar Brah refers to as a ‘homing desire’ [1].

While all these things are valid and beautiful, I tried not to be lazy and asked my self, as per Spivak, what this glimpse into the Other is saying and what is it leaving out? Yes, Mango Street is a vivid story about immigrant/early diasporic life. Yes, it is a ‘multicultural’ retelling of a ‘coming of age’ story with a female protagonist. YET it is only one image among a multitude of images. It doesn’t and cannot give us the entire picture. Spivak, reminded me that when we are confronted by images of Others, through a book, on our TVs or online we see is only one part of the story and we should strive to seek the other parts.

 


[1] Avtar Brah I Cartographies of diaspora points out the difference between the nostalgia for a physical ‘homeland’ and a ‘homing desire’ which creates a place of belonging through cultural and social practices.

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