Review: A Sparrow in a Dirt Bath, Martita, I Remember You, by Sandra Cisneros

Note: Sandra Cisneros will appear Tuesday, September 7, at 7 p.m., in a virtual event sponsored by Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago and the suburbs. For information, visit this site.   Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo By Sandra Cisneros Translated by Liliana Valenzuela Penguin Random House Corina is eating her sandwich in the sculpture garden of the Art Institute across the street from the gas company office where she works. A sparrow flits down near her shoe, hops under a bush and begins a bath, a “little fluff of feathers skittering in a great cloud of dirt.” And the moment calls to mind what her Paris friend Marta told her about sex when Corina was still a virgin—about how the body no longer felt weighed down, about how you were “only your spirit wide as a sky, as if a thousand sparrows opened their wings inside your heart, and oh, it’s lovely, lovely, Puffina. As if you’ll never feel alone again.” And, from inside Corina heaves “a series of yelps like an animal hit by a car.” A security guard runs over, and she tells him that she is having female troubles. “And that wasn’t a lie.” Sandra Cisneros’s exquisite jewel of a novella Martita, I Remember You is about aloneness and togetherness, about hopes and separations, about choices, bad and good and indifferent. It’s about youth and memory, about looking into the unknown future and back into the unfathomable past. Cisneros, the author of The House on Mango Street (1984), is a major Chicago writer, even though she hasn’t lived in the city for decades. Mango Street, a mainstay of high school literature classes and a book that has sold in the millions, uses poetic vignettes to tell the story of a 12-year-old Mexican-American girl in a rough, low-income Chicago neighborhood, not unlike the one where Cisneros grew up just east of Humboldt Park. After that book’s publication, Cisneros traveled widely and settled in San Antonio where she wrote her 439-page novel Caramelo (2002), an account of a family, not unlike her own, with a foot in Chicago and another in Mexico City. A decade later, she published a 100-page novella, illustrated by Ester Hernandez, set in San Antonio, Have You Seen Marie?, about a lost cat and about a woman who herself feels lost. Now, after nearly another full decade—and a move to Mexico—Cisneros returns to bookstores with the 128-page Martita, I Remember You, told in English and, with a translation by Liliana Valenzuela, in Spanish. In between, there have been books of poetry and A House of My Own, her 2015 collection of nonfiction writings across the arc of her life that, together, formed a creative and dynamic memoir. Chicago, either directly or indirectly, has been a major presence in these works. It is the place where her family made a home and prospered, but also, more importantly, a place that long oppressed Cisneros and her poetic spirit. Back in 2002, in an interview, she told me, “I feel sad about Chicago and defeated. It makes me despair." That may be changing now with Cisneros in her mid-60s. Earlier this year when she received the Fuller Award from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame as one of the city’s greatest living writers, she indicated that she was starting to see Chicago in a better light. Martita, I Remember You seems to reflect that as well. Three Women The focus of the book is on three women in their twenties who meet in Paris long ago at a party when they are foreigners, alone and nearly penniless. Marta from Buenos Aires is wearing a plaid coat—“A scribble of auburn curls hiding a face flecked with freckles. Eyes transparent as pearl onions. A laugh you cover with your hands as if your teeth were crooked when you were little.” Paola is, in Corina’s memory, “The bossy filly in tweed and fedora,…ready to break into a run. Bottle blonde with a mane she keeps flicking over her shoulder so people will think she’s classy. A northern Italian with the river Po in her eyes, woolen greens and muddy browns flecked with amber.” And Corina, who cut her hair as short as a boy’s when she arrived from Chicago. “I wear a rooster-feather earring and a long scarf wrapped twice around my neck like the locals, but it’s no use. I still look like what I am. A bird who forgot how to fly.” The book is told in three parts. The first is Corina’s recollection of the time the three spent together in the foreign city so celebrated, yet so miserable in many ways for them. “How many days did we know each other?” asks Marta in a letter to Corina. The length of time is unimportant. They were, the three of them, a kind of family. Corina recalls often how, in scraping each day to get by, the three “were waiting for something to happen,” waiting for something bigger, waiting for real life. And she remembers the “hole in my heart,” an emptiness of aloneness. Still, the young Corina doesn’t want to return yet to Chicago because “home is bus stops and drug store windows, elastic bandages and hairpins, plastic ballpoints, felt bunion pads, tweezers, rat poison, cold sore ointment, moth balls, drain cleaners, deodorant.” The second part of the story is told in a series of letters to Corina from Marta and Paola that update changes in jobs, locations and lovers—that update their travels through real life. Corina’s Chicago Life And the final part is Corina telling Marta—as if she were present, although she isn’t—about the changes that have come in her own life. A second marriage, to a good man named Richard. Two little girls who have the magic to delight her: “Sometimes just watching them doing something silly, dancing in front of the television and singing off-key, or breaking fistfuls of saltines into their soup, I’m completely sideswiped. How did you get so wonderful? Corina and Richard have bought a three-flat near the expressway and are renovating it. She and he—they and the girls—are happy. Nonetheless, the hole in the heart that Corina felt back in Paris, even with Marta and Paola as her family of friends, is still with her, she realizes. No longer hoping to be a writer, she still loves to read and loves the beauty that it brings into her life. But Richard is tired, and she is left to “witness all that joy alone.” And, although Corina finds beauty and happiness in books and in her family, at the lakefront and in the Art Institute garden, it doesn’t take much—just a little sparrow—to remind her of the lifelong yearning “never to feel alone again.” Martita, I Remember You is as much a story about Chicago as it is about Paris; as much a story about disappointment as it is about hope. It’s about living with happiness and loss. Living with two silly girls and a solid husband, with a sparrow in a dirt bath, and a friend you can talk to even though you haven’t seen each other for decades and will probably never talk together again.
Picture of the author
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).