In what may come to be known as the first nice column we have ever written, the Nightstand will now express fondness for Sandra Cisneros, whose The House on Mango Street we read in high school, back when we pronounced "mango" the way everyone pronounces "mango"—everyone except for Cisneros herself, that is, whose pronunciation rhymes with "Congo."
Not that she is African. Nor is she, to our chagrin, Mexican, as we so recklessly wrote two weeks ago in the calendar. On the back inside flap of Cisneros' new book, Caramelo—you'd think we could locate a back inside flap—it plainly says she was born in Chicago in 1954.
She is Mexican American; the American daughter of Mexican parents. "Mexico is more sexy than the U.S.," writer Richard Rodriguez told a crowd of journalists in Portland six months ago. ("Mexico knows what the U.S. does not want to talk about," he went on to say. "That history begins with eroticism. History begins with two bodies touching each other.") And so it was with Sandra Cisneros, whose reading two Sundays ago in the preternaturally bland Seattle Art Museum auditorium had serious Port Townsend potential; who was introduced by Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company (his job, granted, is to be deferential) as "a great and necessary and wonderful writer" (are you asleep yet?); who is, let the record show, as old as the Nightstand's father, but who can still pull off severely shined black boots with high heels, gold earrings the size of small fists, and an inky oblong tattoo covering her entire left triceps.
Who knew she was such a fashionista? A young woman asked, after the reading, why Cisneros focused on foot imagery so much in The House on Mango Street. "It's an economic way to do character description. Plus I like shoes," Cisneros said.
However you feel about her writing—one could argue that it's dogged by sentimentalism, sensory detail, and pathos; the counter argument is that at least she's passionate—the lady knows how to read. She read dialogue and acted the parts, slipping seamlessly between English and Spanish (as does the book). She bellowed when the Mexican street vendors in her book bellowed ("A very good ice cream at two pesos!") and whispered when she read her characters' thoughts ("Every year when I cross the border, it is the same. My mind forgets, but my body remembers"), and when the characters in her book heard a song on the radio, Cisneros, in a wailing Spanish, sang aloud. Some of the women in the audience sang with her.
She is, in a word, generous. Each sentence reads like it took her all morning ("The big kitchen knife, the one Aunty dips in a glass of water to cut the boys' birthday cakes, pointed toward her own sad heart"), and the book itself is a product of nine years of self-prescribed house arrest. Though the characters in Caramelo travel back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, Cisneros says, "Once I started getting deeper and deeper into the book, I didn't go to Mexico anymore. It was like a pregnancy. It was hard for me to move. I had to stay home."
Later the Nightstand wondered out loud whether each sentence had taken her all morning. She smiled and admitted they had.