"There I said, pointing up to the 3rd floor. You live there? There? ... You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing."
In the comments, readers have overwhelmingly recommended Sandra Cisnero's coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street. But I live in a place without English-language bookstores, and the English-language sections of what bookstores there are tend toward dusty, five-pound copies of War and Peace. So I asked the Internet and downloaded an audiobook for the first time in my life.
Turns out, hearing Sandra Cisneros read her story aloud is totally worth all the downloading and setting up. After all, The House on Mango Street is about voice. It's about being heard. It's about inventing new languages when the old ones don't work. "The language of Mango Street is based on speech," introduces Cisneros. "It's very much 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."
Meet Esperenza: a poor female of color, who begins her narration very differently from Cisneros, speaking of herself not as a character, but as an interpretation made by others: "In English my name means hope. In Spanish, it means too many letters." Instead of a single narrative, Esperenza's story is fragmented into miniatures: a constellation of first-impressions, portraits and adolescent adventures. All are dedicated to las mujeres, the women. Esperenza renders with cool, intimate detail Cathy, the "queen of cats"; Mamacita who won't leave the house for fear of speaking English; Sally who wears nylons; and Esperenza's mother, who says, "I could've been someone else, you know?"
But for all her anthropological attention, Esperenza is ashamed of Mango Street. She can't wait to leave it. She cries when asked to point out where she lives, and that's important. Cisneros conceived of the book during a graduate seminar whose syllabus included French philosopher Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Space," an ode to the anatomy of a home. But a poetics of space is hard to get into when your own spaces have been unattractive, dirty, broken-down or disputed, explains Cisneros: "Attic! My family lived in third-floor flats…stairwells reeked of Pinesol; we shared them with the family downstairs…And as for cellars, we had a basement, but everyone was scared to go there! What was Bachelard talking about?"
So the author went in search of "the ugliest subjects I could find. The most unpoetic," and got The House on Mango Street. In real life, it may not have been much to look at, but its story is sublime. In 1985, The House on Mango Street won the American Book Award.
Best line: "Hips are scientific".