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Sandra Cisneros: Facing Backwards

The 25th anniversary of The House on Mango Street

Sandra Cisneros

— Alberto Cristofari/A3/Contrasto/Redux

En español | It’s difficult to imagine Sandra Cisneros as anything other than the activist, teacher, mentor, and literary icon we know today. As her first novel, the coming-of-age classic The House on Mango Street, celebrates its 25th anniversary, however, the 54-year-old Mexican American writer reflects on a time in her twenties when success was anything but certain.

She need not have worried. The novel, winner of a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1985, proved an authentic vehicle for exploring themes of culture and tradition and the lives and roles of Hispanic women growing up in the States. It is required reading in many U.S. schools and universities, and Cisneros’ first major contribution to a body of work that has garnered her two National Endowment of the Arts [NEA] fellowships, a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Texas Medal of Arts, among other honors.

Many of the stories in House are based on the lives of her own students, the women to whom Cisneros dedicated the book. “I just wanted to acknowledge all the women who gave me their stories, because there were so many I wanted to dedicate this book to,” says Cisneros. “I felt the list was getting too long, so I scratched all the names and wrote:  ‘A las Mujeres, To the Women.’”

In this exclusive interview, Cisneros discusses the pivotal role her novel played in the acceptance of Latino culture, her years as an academic migrant, and how her views have evolved in the 25 years since its publication.

Q. What do you think when you hear House described as a coming-of-age classic?

A. Well, I don’t know if it’s a coming-of-age classic because it’s kind of early to say. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was important in its time, and there are lots of writers that become valuable in their time and then later become a bit archaic. So I don’t know. These are claims for readers and critics to make—I don’t make these claims.

Q. How would you describe The House on Mango Street?

A. It’s like a collection of little stories. You could read one or you could read the whole thing. You don’t have to read the whole thing, but if you do it’s like a necklace of stories. I was very much influenced by experimental fiction, specifically Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges.

I wrote it so that it would be approachable for all people, whether they were educated or not, and whether they were children or adults. My idea was to write it in a way that it would not make anyone feel intimidated, but welcome. I had in mind a book that would be understood and appreciated by all readers, whether a working-class person, a child, poet, literature student, writer, or bus driver. So I came from that angle of being inclusive. I kept a child in mind as I was writing it, but it wasn’t just for children. I kept fellow poets in mind, but it wasn’t just for poets.

Q. What kind of impact did the novel have when it was first published 25 years ago?

A. It got picked up early on by teachers and librarians who were advocates for it. Since then the audience has expanded to include many kinds of readers, not just women and Latinos. It’s been used in a lot of textbooks and classrooms and especially for One City, One Read projects because they like to pick books that don’t have any bad words and can be read by children and adults—House fits that.

Q.   Did its publication play a role in the acceptance of Latino culture in the United States?

A. I think it did. Many people have said it was how they came to know about Latino life. Some people don’t have any contact with Latino life except maybe this book. The most intimate relationship they have with the Latino community is reading this book.

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