Finding Voices and Representing the Voiceless
Sandra Cisneros seems to have a way of creeping up on me… of finding me over and over again. Her short stories popped up when I attended Bryn Mawr’s Writing for College program, and when I tutored students in English over the summer. The week before we looked at selections from A House on Mango Street in this class, I went to my education field placement and observed a seventh grade class who was reading the same book. She always finds her way into my life, and she always inspires me to keep writing when she does. For years, I have struggled to find my voice both as a writer, and as a woman in today’s society. I admire Cisneros because she writes about what she knows – her family, living in poverty, being a woman in Mexican culture – and she does it with such clear, powerful language. Although I am not from the exact same background as Cisneros, and do not have the same experiences, I still look to her as a role model as I try to find my own place in the literary world. I look to her because she is doing what I am striving to do: expressing herself in a way that gives her a sense of personal satisfaction, while affecting the lives of others as well.
I knew I liked Sandra Cisneros before my senior year of high school, but it was only then that I decided to read The House on Mango Street outside of class. That same year, I read The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. At first, I did not directly link the two books. Naturally, I enjoyed both of them – but I did not make the connection as to why I related with the characters. Now, however, I realize that Kingston, through her autobiographical novel, does the same thing that Cisneros does in her writings: she finds her voice as a writer, and transcends the cultural boundaries that have kept her silent.
Interestingly enough, I discovered that these two writers are connected in a way that exists outside of my mind as well. On a whim, I picked up a book titled Writing Women’s Lives, which contains snippets of various women’s autobiographies, in their many different forms. The one given for Cisneros is an interview with Feroza Jussawala and Reed Way Dasenbrock. In this interview, Cisneros states that “[The Woman Warrior] gave [her] permission to keep going with what [she’d] started with House on Mango Street” (Cahill 466). As soon as I read these lines, I knew this was the question I wanted to explore for my final project: how these female writers have influenced one another, and where their inspiration came from, since they did not have exact literary models to follow. I have decided to examine the ways in which these two writers seem to relate to each other and expand on one another’s work. Taking the cue from Virginia Woolf, I am going to examine, with these two women as my model, the ways in which “we think back through our mothers,” both literally and figuratively (Woolf). Do female writers just think back through their literary predecessors, or do they also derive inspiration from other women in their lives? And do female writers reserve the responsibility of writing about those other women, who may or may not be able to speak for themselves? What exactly is the role of a female writer now that we do have a literary tradition behind us? Do we have the luxury to write for personal enjoyment, or should we be writing towards some greater purpose?
In The House on Mango Street, the narrator of the story is a young Latina girl named Esperanza. She lives with her parents, two brothers, and younger sister in a house that is “small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath” (Mango Street 4). Throughout the book, Esperanza describes the longing to get away, to move elsewhere, that is felt by many of the residents on Mango Street… and by Esperanza herself. She sees herself as “a red balloon… tied to an anchor,” and longs for “a house all [her] own” (Mango Street 9,108). Through Esperanza’s eyes, the reader learns about the residents of Mango Street, such as her friends Rachel and Lucy, and an older girl named Marin from Puerto Rico. Through writing, Esperanza finds hope that many of the others on Mango Street have given up. In the last vignette of the book, Esperanza says that she “[makes] a story for [her] life, for each step [her] brown shoe takes”; House on Mango Street is her own story, but it is also the story of those around her, of “the ones who cannot out” (Mango Street 109-10).
Although the characters in The House on Mango Street are largely fictional, there seems to be a great deal of correlation between the environment in the book and the environment in which Cisneros grew up. As a child, Cisneros lived in Chicago with her Mexican father, Mexican-American mother, and six brothers. In an interview, she states that “[her] house was a prison for [her],” and that she “used to be ashamed to take anyone into that room, to [her] house, because if they saw that house they would equate the house with [her] and [her] value” (Cahill 464). Cisneros felt the same shame that Esperanza felt when others found out where she lived.
And just like Esperanza, Cisneros “began hearing a voice in [her] head, a narrator… chronicling the ordinary events that made up [her] life” (Writer’s Notebook 70). Upon attending a writers’ workshop in Iowa, Cisneros realized that her voice as a writer was “the voice [she] used at home, the one [she] acquired as a result of one English-speaking mother and one Spanish-speaking father” (Writer’s Notebook 72). She realized that she knew something of a life that her classmates could never write about – “about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible” – and so she began writing the poems and vignettes that make up House on Mango Street (Writer’s Notebook 73).
At first, Cisneros “was just writing stories more or less about people [she] remembered,” and her “intent was simply to chronicle, to write about something [her] classmates couldn’t” (Writer’s Notebook 78). However, her purpose in writing soon became more well-defined. As Cisneros grew into her own style, she began writing not just for herself, but for the women who could not express their own voices. Writing from her own experiences, she has come to believe that “instead of writing by inspiration, it seems we write by obsession, of that which is most violently tugging at our psyche” (Writer’s Notebook 73). To Cisneros, she does not have the time or luxury to write about “landscapes and sunsets and tulips in a vase” in a voice that is not her own (Writer’s Notebook 73). She believes that she has been charged with the responsibility of representing where she comes form, and feels a “need to do something for [her] people” (Notebook 75).
In a way, all of this makes perfect sense to me. Cisneros writes “about the ghosts that haunt [her], that does not let [her] sleep, of that which even memory does not like to mention” (Writer’s Notebook 73). In exploring my own writing habits, I find that I tend to do the same thing. Even when I set out to write something fictional, I find myself constantly writing about my mother, about the same few interactions that have happened between us in the past. Whenever I find myself blocked and unable to find anything to write about, I always come back to my own experiences, to my quirky, sometimes troubled family. I write in order to process those experiences, to figure people out, to understand why they acted the way they did. I write in order to understand myself, and to pull apart my own role in a given situation. Writing has become a sort of release for me – a calming, cathartic activity more than one of purpose.
At first, I was a little confused at Cisneros’ insistence that she is writing for other women and Latinos in putting her own stories into words… in writing out of obsession. I cannot help but think back to Linda Kauffman’s statement, that “[she] never thought feminism was about happiness… [but that] it was about justice” (Kauffman 274). In Cisneros’ case, it seems that she writes for personal happiness as well as a more widespread and noble sense of justice. Her writing, so close to her own life, could be considered personal testimony in its purest form. At the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she “realized something that [she] knew that [she] was the authority on” (Cahill 464). This authority is exactly what Kauffman warns against in “The Long Goodbye” – authority that has the ability to stop discussion. Perhaps, however, stopping the discussion is exactly what Cisneros is looking to do. In writing Mango Street, Cisneros made a space for a new kind of book – one about women who have been previously underrepresented.
So I find, once again, that I disagree with the binary Kauffman is trying to set up between justice and personal testimony. Cisneros is writing for herself, but she is also writing for those around her who cannot express their own voices, and for her, these two purposes are inextricable from one another. The distinction between obsession and inspiration, for Cisneros, seems to be the difference between writing out of necessity and writing out of luxury. Cisneros needs to write about her past in order to “give up the ghost, to put it to sleep once and for all”; she also, however, realizes that she has a responsibility, as “a woman who has the power to speak and is privileged enough to be heard,” to “[write] about the powerless, and that world, the world of thousands of silent women… so that their stories can finally be heard” (Writer’s Notebook 73, 76). While Cisneros certainly derives authority from her personal testimony, she is not using it to stop the conversation -- she is making space for those who otherwise would be shut out of the conversation altogether. In that way, Cisneros is working towards a greater sense of justice through the expression of her own unique voice.
Looking back at The Woman Warrior, I can certainly see the connections between the two authors and their purposes in writing. Just as Cisneros speaks of ghosts that haunt her and compel her to write, Kingston writes as a way of working through her “girlhood among ghosts.” In The Woman Warrior, Kingston narrates the story of a shy, timid girl who eventually discovers that she can express herself through writing and storytelling. As a child, Kingston’s voice is “too soft or nonexistent,” and hinders her like “a crippled animal running on broken legs” (Kingston 167-9). A daughter of Chinese immigrants, she must learn to find her place both in American society and within her own family and culture. The five stories that Kingston tells are largely based on her mother’s “talk-story,” but she alters them to represent the process through which she finds her voice and frees herself from her mother’s influence and expectations. Through the very act of re-telling stories from her childhood, Kingston learns to speak up in a way she had not been able to as a child and adolescent.
Kingston, however, does not just tell stories about herself. She tells stories about her mother and aunt, and incorporates elements from mythical stories such as that of the swordswoman Fa Mu Lan. In the chapter titled “White Tigers,” Kingston re-tells the story of Fa Mu Lan in the first person, drawing on the parallels between her and the mythical character. Although Kingston’s mother “says [she will] grow up a wife and a slave… [she teaches her] the song of the warrior woman” (Kingston 20). And just as the warrior woman “[gets] even with anybody who hurt her family,” Kingston uses her words as a way of representing people like her mother, who cannot or will not speak for themselves. Kingston is charged with becoming more than her mother was able to become, even though her mother does not expect her to actually do so. Cisneros is “the first woman in [her] family to pick up a pen and record what [she] sees around [her],” but while Kingston may be the first woman in her family to physically write down the stories she has been told, she is not the first woman in her family to tell stories at all (Writer’s Notebook 76).
Both Cisneros and Kingston are pushed to find their voices as writers, directly or indirectly, by their mothers. Cisneros’ mother encourages her to read and study, “perhaps because she [doesn’t] want [her] to inherit her sadness and her rolling pin,” and so Cisneros feels a certain sense of duty in pursuing her career as a writer since she has the opportunity to do so (Writer’s Notebook 75). Kingston eventually finds her voice as a writer both because of and in spite of her mother’s influence. While Kingston’s mother encourages her to speak up, her expectations, based on cultural proscriptions of women’s capabilities, simultaneously force her to stay quiet. Both Cisneros and Kingston use their newfound voices as a way to transcend the restrictions placed on them by their cultures. When talking about her grandmother, Cisneros states that “she was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse--which is supposed to be bad luck if you're born female-but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong” (Mango Street 25). In this quote, Cisneros draws a parallel between the treatment of Mexican women and Chinese women – namely, that they are both given arbitrary reasons for their inferiority. Esperanza, however, does not seem to buy into this reasoning, just as Kingston refuses to stay silent as her culture dictates she should.
While Kingston and Cisneros are both influenced by their biological mothers in developing their voices as writers, they do not seem to have as clear relationships to their literary predecessors. Cisneros “went through great trauma in [her] twenties trying to figure out that [her] life had no role model, so [she] had to invent that” – a problem that certainly resonates with Woolf’s sentiment that “when [women] came to set their thoughts on paper...they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help” (Cahill 463, Woolf). Although there was certainly more of a female literary tradition by the 1980’s, there was still no one doing exactly what Cisneros was trying to do, and so she had to create her own path. Although Cisneros found The Woman Warrior to be a “wonderful book” that permitted her to keep doing what she was doing, her primary source of inspiration, of motivation to keep writing, was in her relationships with other women of her own race (Cahill 466). She looks up to her mother, a woman who “could sing a Puccini opera, cook a dinner for nine with only five dollars… and… probably would have enjoyed a college education,” and believes that “[Mexican] women may be victimized but… are still very fierce and very strong” (Writer’s Notebook 75, Cahill 463).
As for Kingston – although there may have been more of a female literary tradition by the time she wrote The Woman Warrior, she did not base her novel’s style or format on any of those books. Rather, she based her stories on those told by her own mother, traditional Chinese talk-stories that had been passed down by her biological predecessors. It was, perhaps, this quality of her work that Cisneros found useful in making her own space in the literary tradition. While Kingston was not an exact model for Cisneros to follow, she was, in some measure, doing what Cisneros was trying to accomplish – basing her writing on her own cultural tradition, on what she understood, and on her own experiences. For both of these women, it was not the existence of a female literary tradition that proved most important for their development – it was the knowledge that they could, and should, create a space for themselves… and in doing so, open up the possibility for other women to do the same.
Sandra Cisneros states that her “solitary childhood proved important,” and that she was able to get where she is because “[she] didn’t marry [her] first boyfriend… who never gave [her] any time alone, something crucial to every writer… [and that] “aloneness” breeds art” (Writer’s Notebook 70, 75). I find these statements to be particularly interesting in considering how Kingston comes to find her voice. For much of her life, Kingston is only able to listen and observe – and it is because of that quietness and solitude that she eventually finds a way to express herself. However, Kingston does not find solace in her reticence at the time. She feels isolated, and is frustrated when her teachers think she is either retarded or socially inept. In an attempt to free herself from this aloneness, she tries to tell her mother all the secret thoughts she had been storing up:
I had grown inside me a list of over two hundred things that I had to tell my mother so that she would know the true things about me and to stop the pain in my throat… If only I could let my mother know the list, she— and the world—would become more like me, and I would never be alone again (Kingston 198).
Her mother, however, does not understand the significance of Kingston’s admissions— that she had teased a quiet girl at school, that she had prayed for a white horse, that she had stolen money—and this only frustrates Kingston more. Although she is “relieved in some ways,” she “feels something alive tearing at her throat, bite by bite, from the inside” (Kingston 200). Kingston, though unable to express herself, longs for her mother’s understanding, and yet is unable to obtain it. Although her aloneness tears her apart at the time, it is what eventually leads to her finding her voice as a writer.
I originally read The Woman Warrior in twelfth grade, two years after I had gone through some difficult times with my own mother. She had been depressed all her life, and reached one of her worst points during my tenth grade year. Even after I was finally able to physically separate from her, I still found myself affected by her presence. She had taught me to hide from the world, to be afraid… to stay quiet and accept things as they were instead of speaking up for myself. As I began to write more often, I started to see a pattern: even if I started out writing about one thing, I always came back to her. She has affected the way I see myself, and undoubtedly the way I express myself. Now that I have lived apart from her for almost three years, there have been numerous occasions during which I have tried to communicate with her about who I am now, and how I have changed, but she will not listen to any of it. When I tried to tell her about how involved I was in high school, for example, she thought I was being self-absorbed. Since she would not listen, I began writing down my thoughts. I found a voice in my anger and frustration. Essentially, I began writing for the same reasons as Kingston: it is a way to express myself when I cannot freely express myself through speech.
My mother, though I wouldn’t exactly describe her as inspirational, is responsible for many of the memoir pieces I have written over the last few years. At first, I was angry at her for putting me in such a difficult position. For months, I had lived with her while she was unemployed, listening to her ranting and yelling, comforting her when she was crying. She had alienated most of our family, people with whom I wanted to have a relationship. I had bottled up so much emotion that it was hard to stop once I had started. In the same way that Cisneros described, I began writing more out of obsession than inspiration. So far, I have been doing that writing for my own benefit – but now that I have read Cisneros’ work and interviews, I am trying to figure out how I might use it to reach others as well. While I strongly believe in that kind of personal testimony, I want to do what she does – I want my writing to serve as more than just a form of personal release. I want to use it to keep discovering my voice in the way that Kingston did, but I also want to find the sense of purpose that Cisneros has in writing her stories and poems.
Cisneros wrote Mango Street after she had discovered her own unique voice in the very essence of her life experiences. Writing this book of vignettes gave Cisneros an outlet to express the voice that had been suppressed for so long. However, writing Mango Street was anything but a selfish endeavor. In writing The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros did what her fictional character, Esperanza, was setting out to do: she went away from her home, but only so that she could come back for “the ones [she] left behind… for the ones who cannot out” (Mango Street 110). In addition to including autobiographical and memoir elements, she incorporates stories told by students she met as a college admissions counselor, as she felt “moved to do something to change their lives, ours, [hers]” when listening to their stories (Writer’s Notebook 78). The Woman Warrior, published nine years earlier, served many of the same purposes for Maxine Hong Kingston. Kingston, too, had struggled to reconcile her culture and status as a woman, and eventually came to find her voice through the expression of those experiences. Just as Cisneros feels a responsibility to represent those who cannot speak for themselves, Kingston sees the necessity of attaining some measure of vengeance for those who cannot fight:
The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are “report a crime” and “report to five families.” The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words—“chink” words and “gook” words too—that they do not fit on my skin. (Kingston 53)
Kingston has so many memories and expectations behind her – so many conflicting ideals – that she must either defeat or learn to live with if she wants to transcend her culture’s expectations and become more than her mother was.
In examining the processes through which these two writers came to find their voices, I have begun to think more about the origins of my own impulse to write, as well as where I would like to go with it. Cisneros calls other women to action in saying that “perhaps later there will be time to write by inspiration. In the meantime, in [her] writing as well as in that of other Chicanas and other women, here is the necessary phase of dealing with those ghosts and voices most urgently haunting us, day by day” (Writer’s Notebook 73). While I feel that I should keep writing if it fulfills my need to express my thoughts, I also feel like I should be doing so in the context of some greater purpose. I have also realized that, while I may admire what Cisneros is doing, I cannot really count on her as a model for my own writing. I can, however, take her cue and try to find my own path. She and writers like Kingston and Woolf have opened up the possibility for women to develop their own style and purpose, and now it is my turn to find my place in the literary world. The question of whether I have the luxury to write out of inspiration is one that I have yet to answer. I am still trying to figure out exactly where that privilege comes from – whether it has already been afforded to me by my status as a white woman, or whether it is something that all women are working towards. I am still trying to figure out exactly what my role in the female literary tradition should be – whether I should be writing to represent my mother and other women whose issues prevent them from expressing their voices, or whether I should concentrate on developing my own voice. I suppose I still have a hard time breaking away from the binary of happiness and justice. If there is anything I am taking away from writing this paper, it is the knowledge that I do not have to choose one or the other – that I can pave my own pathway rather than following that of my mother, or of any writers that have come before me.
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Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. United States: Harcourt, 1929.
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Cahill, Susan. "From Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World." Writing Women’s Lives: An
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Cisneros, Sandra. “From a Writer’s Notebook.” The American Review. 15.1 (1987): 69-79.