In the years leading up to the publication of Sandra Cisneros's The
House on Mango Street, a whole generation of experimental writers
were embrace the disjunctive possibilities of fragmented, episodic
novels.  After a half-century in which stream-of-consciousness had
ruled the roost of avant-garde writing, a new metaphor had emerged.  
Instead of the stream, the stone was now the ideal
blueprint—or rather, many stones.  Novels were
broken up into bits and pieces, discontinuous and
abrasive, fragments of prose that resisted the
reader's best efforts to put them together into neat,
symmetrical structures.

Italo Calvino, Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard, Julio
Cortázar, Gilbert Sorrentino, William Burroughs,
Roland Barthes and many others participated in
this redefinition of progressive fiction.  Their works
took little for granted, and raised questions about
even the most basic constituent elements of the
novel:  continuity of plot, the identity of characters,
the nature of realism, even the structure of a sentence.  
Call it what you will—postmodernism, deconstruction,
or simply the un-Joycing of the written word—the overall impact on
the literary world was profound.  Cutting edge writers were dissecting
the novel, and leaving the entrails out for our inspection.

What I find most amazing about Sandra Cisneros is her ability, in the
midst of this, to write a fragmented, episodic novel that resisted all
of these fashionable tendencies of the day.  She comprehended that
the disjunctive novel could be accessible and inviting, even to young
teens who almost never read a book and had no interest in experi-
mental fiction.  Cisnero's role models for her bite-sized chapters, were
not Burroughs or Barthes, but the poem, the short story, and especially
the diary and personal journal.   

Cisneros was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop when she
started sketching out the first sections of
The House on Mango Street,
and she embarked on the project with a self-conscious sense of
resisting the impulses and influences around her. "I decided I would
write about something my classmates couldn't write about," she later
explained.  Because she was in the poetry program, she couldn't get
credit towards her MFA for this work of fiction—although many
sections read like prose poems—but she pushed ahead nonetheless
with her unusual novel.  

And with extraordinary success.
The House on Mango Street,
published in 1984, has sold more than two million copies, and been
translated into at least a dozen different languages.  Few works of
fiction are assigned more often in classrooms, with Cisnero's book
showing up everywhere, according to her website, from "inner-city
grade schools to universities."  According to one source,
The House
on Mango Street
is "the most prevalent Latino text not only in the
United States but also in Europe."  

It's easy to understand the appeal.  Esperanza Cordero, the young
narrator of
The House on Mango Street, wears her heart on her
sleeve, and shares with us a series of vignettes that are raw and
lyrical by turns. Some of the chapters consist of just three or four
paragraphs, others are three or four pages, but instead of the
prickly pointilism of the postmodern prose stylists, Cisnero's offers
something softer and more inviting—all the more striking, perhaps,
when contrasted with the often harsh subjects dealt with in
The House
on Mango Street
.

Face it, Cisneros covers all the bases. Before starting this book, I
suggest you make a list of the top ten anxieties associated with
growing from adolescence into adulthood, and then while you read it,
check off each one when Cisneros addresses it.  I suspect that you
will find a check mark against each and every item before you reach
the last page.  Tension with siblings? Check!  Argument with best
friend? Check!  Peer pressure at school?  Check!  Friction with
the opposite sex? Check!  Problems with the parents? Check!
Neighborhood rowdies? Check! Thwarted ambitions and unrealized
reams.  Check and check!  

I have nothing but praise for the skill with which Cisneros navigates
through these hot issues in her episodic treatment.  Yet I must admit
that I am uneasy about the intentions of educators who have latched
on to this book as an entry-level novel for teen students—a book in
which almost every incident has been crafted for relevancy to this
demographic.

I grew up in an ethnically-mixed household (Mexican and Italian) in
the midst of a similarly mixed working class neighborhood.  Neither
of my parents had gone to college, and few of our neighbors had
more than a high school diploma, if that.  But we realized the limitations
of our environment, and If my teachers had tried to get me to read a
book of this sort—chosen for its extreme fit to my narrow experience
of the world—I would have felt that they were being patronizing and
condescending.  What I wanted from stories, at that age, was an
opportunity to look beyond the closed world of my neighborhood,
and experience (even if only vicariously through the written word) the
rest of the world—or, even better, the imaginary world.  I was like Oscar
Wao in
Junot Díaz’s celebrated novel, who finds transcendence in stories
that present a different plane of existence, not books that read like a
sibling's diary.

So even as I admire Cisneros's book, and laud its poetry and
confessional power, I question the mindset of educational power
brokers who hold this book up as a role model for teaching—and
especially for teaching students who come from the Mango Streets
of our country, facing their own crisis of cultural deprivation and closed
futures.  Why not take these same students and give them a glimpse
of the world beyond their home turf?  Why not widen their purview and
expand their horizons?  Why force them, in their free imaginative lives,
to continue in the same constraints of their day-to-day when, through
the magic of fiction, no such limitations are necessary. Cisneros
succeeded in this book by rejecting the consensus and breaking the
rules.  Maybe her institutional advocates ought to consider doing the
same thing themselves.  
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
fractious fiction
Escape from Mango Street

by Ted Gioia
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Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His newest book
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Published: June 23, 2013
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