Note: Sandra Cisneros will appear on Tuesday, September 7, at 7 p.m., in a virtual event sponsored by Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago and the suburbs. For information, visit their site.
As Sandra Cisneros’s new gem-like novella Martita, I Remember You opens, Corina is using a scraper and a blowtorch to strip generations of varnish off a dining room hutch in the three-flat that she and her husband own near a Chicago expressway. “The varnish peels off in stubborn ribbons, a practice in patience.”
Cisneros was in her early 20s and teaching dropouts at the Latino Youth High School, 2001 S. California Ave., when she learned the techniques that Corina is using.
“My boyfriend Richard was a carpenter and had a six-flat that was like World War II had just ended. He lived with that squalor,” the author says from her home in San Miguel de Allende, a 16th century town, four hours northwest of Mexico City.
“He would give me a torch and a scraper and taught me how to do that work with that varnish like maple syrup, layers of people’s lives.”
This was in the late 1970s, some six years before the publication of The House on Mango Street, her novel in vignettes about a teenage girl growing up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, a book that has sold millions and established Cisneros as a major Chicago writer.
Martita, I Remember You had a long gestation, she says. The first part of the novella—when Corina is in her 20s and finding her way in Paris with two girlfriends—was initially a standalone story that Cisneros had hoped to include in her 1991 collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. “It was mainly stories about the Southwest, and they felt this story of Paris didn’t belong. They said it has no ending. So, I dutifully put the story aside.”
But her mentor, editor and friend Dennis Mathis never let Cisneros forget about it, “even when it was parked in the driveway, sitting on cement blocks,” as Cisneros records in the book’s acknowledgements.
Then, a few years ago she picked it up again. “It was almost like I had to grow into an ending.”
That ending involved Corina’s life after Paris, first told through letters she received from her friends Marta and Paola, and then recounted by Corina, as if to Marta, detailing her marriage to Richard and their joy together and with their two young daughters.
Corina, a woman who wanted to be a writer but whose life led her on a different path, is not Cisneros although the author gave to this character some of her own experiences, such as stripping varnish from a hutch.
Indeed, she used as raw material not only her own life story but also stories told to her by many other women to create the characters. “There was a real Martita and a real Paola, and I mashed them with other people I knew.”
In her acknowledgements, she writes: “My Martita is based on all the women who rescued me during my years as a cloud and ever after, just as Corina is all the women whose lives have touched my own.”
And, to honor her old boyfriend, Cisneros gave Corina’s husband the name Richard.
Cisneros describes Martita as “a Chicagoan-in-Paris story,” something akin to Gene Kelly’s American in Paris.
It’s also, she says, a story to honor the many artistically inclined people in her life who weren’t able to follow their dreams but had to keep body and soul together with jobs, such as with the Chicago Transit Authority or as a social worker. “It’s all the women who I have lived alongside who think they made a mess of their lives—but they made a life.”
One striking aspect of the novella is the presence of sparrows at the beginning and end. In Paris, Marta tells Corina, a virgin, that sex and the connection with another person feels as if you are “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.”
Then, in Chicago, many years later, Corina, sitting in the garden at the Art Institute, sees a sparrow taking a dirt bath—a “little fluff of feathers skittering in a great cloud of dirt”—and breaks into anguished cries.
“It was very subconscious,” she says when I mention the two appearances of sparrows. She says she didn’t even notice the connection until she was reading for the audio book. But she finds the question delightful.
“I love it. It’s like I’m doing therapy, and you’re my analyst, my Jungian.”
One way to read the dust bath scene is that Corina, despite the happiness in her life, still feels alone because Richard is a partner who isn’t able to enjoy the reading that remains a key part of her life and a major source of her joy.
“But she’s not lonely. She has a life with Richard and their kids, and she has learned how to enjoy [the pleasures of reading] alone.”
As a young woman and writer, Cisneros was oppressed by much in Chicago. So is the young Corina who doesn’t want to return yet to Chicago from Paris 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.”
In the novella, Corina does come back and eventually finds happiness, and Cisneros, too, is feeling better now about her home city. “I might move back temporarily for a season. I do like Chicago hot dogs, and lemonade on Taylor Street. But not winter.”
Next year, she will publish a book of some 60 poems written over the past 30 years, very few of which have previously seen the light of day.
“People want you to produce all the time. But I write so I can survive, and I write to stay sane.”
Writing helped Cisneros get through the severe isolation of the pandemic—and helped her finish Martita. “I’d started it a couple years ago, but the pandemic gave me a clear calendar for the first time in 25 years. It kept me sane and happy.”
Like many a writer, Cisneros found the seclusion of the pandemic very familiar: “I kept telling people, welcome to my world, like being in a convent or a monastery. It was very spiritual. It was very monastic for me. I’m sorrowful and sad at the loss and the pain people are suffering. I feel a little guilty. I savored my alone time.”
As for Martita, Cisneros couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out three decades after it was started.
“This story is very dense and complex like a novel. I don’t want to sound immodest, but this is a great book! It’s my favorite!”
And, at 66, Cisneros seems to be feeling stronger than ever as a writer, and, just before ending the phone call from Mexico to head off to water aerobics, she says:
“I think I’m just getting better. I feel I’m just getting started.”