In the introduction to the 2009 edition of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, made up of 44 vignettes of varying lengths, Cisneros describes the woman she was when she wrote the first three stories of the classic decades before. A photograph of that version of herself is appended to the introduction. Back then, she had been attending the University of Iowa for an MFA in poetry. The stories wouldn’t count for credit in the program, her professor told her, but she shared them with friends, like poet Joy Harjo and fiction writer Dennis Mathis.
Describing her younger self, Cisneros explains: “She wants to write stories that ignore borders between genres, between written and spoken, between highbrow literature and children’s nursery rhymes.… It’s true, she wants the writers she admires to respect her work, but she also wants people who don’t usually read books to enjoy these stories too.” She believed that people who were busy working for a living deserved beautiful stories.
First published in 1984, The House on Mango Street was a triumph of interconnected “little-little stories” that were poetic in their images but accessibly beautiful. While the book was playfully experimental in form, in the fashion of the time, it was also plainspoken and conversational and emotionally honest. In hindsight, it feels inevitable that it became a cornerstone of American-literature classes.
Consider, for example, the last image of “Marin,” rendered in musical language: “Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.” The consonance of the s sound intimates the softness of her movements and also her wistful longing to be changed, though, like many young people, she is not quite sure what should be different. The graceful rhythm of the verbs in the latter sentence—“stop” “fall,” and “change”—are made universal when her name, along with the name of the someone who changes her life, is removed from the phrases. Marin is herself, a particular character, but the construction of the sentence makes us, as readers, Marin, too.
Cisneros’s 1991 collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, includes 22 stories and employs different perspectives to delve into impassioned questions of female identity. The celebrated author went on to write many other books, including, this year, the moving poetry collection Woman Without Shame.
The critical and popular reception to her form, style, and storytelling blew open the door for numerous other writers who wanted to reach wide audiences while still playing with style and addressing questions of social justice. The December California Book Club selection, Jaime Cortez’s Gordo, feels of a piece with The House on Mango Street. Like Cisneros, Cortez writes compressed and disarming literature that in the friendliness and humor of its voice allows us to come close to the complicated social dynamics of young people and their perceptions.
We’re thrilled to welcome Cisneros to the California Book Club as the special guest to discuss Gordo with Cortez and host John Freeman. Cisneros has commented that when she was starting out, she and her writer friends would get together to workshop and run arts events: “We do this because the world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning.” Cortez’s collection is imbued with this direct and profound and timeless love, too. We can’t wait to see this conversation about a work of California literature that feels destined to gather its own adoring fans over the years: Gordo.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, December 15, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Cortez will join Freeman and Cisneros to discuss Gordo. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.
Poet, critic, and Alta Journal contributor Rebecca Morgan Frank closely examines “The Jesus Donut,” the first story in Gordo. —Alta
SOCIETY OF CHILDREN
Critic Erik Gleibermann interviews Jaime Cortez about the source material for Gordo. —Alta
TRAIL OF MISSING GIRLS
Alta contributor and critic Paul Wilner sits down with author Jane Smiley to discuss A Dangerous Business, a historical novel that follows the adventures of two young prostitutes. —Alta
Alta contributor and author Tod Goldberg reviews Edward Humes’s The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder. —Alta
Check out the titles that were California independent bookstore bestsellers for the week ending on December 4. —Alta
Author Roxane Gay offers her suggestions on how to have the best Sunday in Los Angeles. —Los Angeles Times
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