On “Martita, I remember you” by Sandra Cisneros
THROUGHOUT THE 20th century, in the days of the Latin American avant-garde and later during the so-called “boom”, a number of Latin American writers escaped oppressive dictatorships by fleeing. in Europe. Some have taken permanent residence, and all have written about their experiences. Among them were Julio Cortázar and José Donoso, whose novels (Hopscotch  and The Garden next door ) feature Latin American expats drinking, fucking and philosophizing in Paris, Sitges and Madrid. Sandra Cisneros’ latest novel tackles this familiar milieu – a Latin American artist living in Paris – but transforms it by describing it from the point of view of a female protagonist of North American origin (Corina, a Mexican American who, like Cisneros , grew up in Chicago).
Martita, I remember you / Martita, you recuerdo (in English, with a Spanish translation by Liliana Valenzuela) contains many of Cisneros’ classic themes, which will be familiar to readers of his collections of poetry like My mean nasty ways (1987), in which a section entitled “Other countries” is composed almost entirely of poems set in Europe with titles such as “December 24 Paris – Notre-Dame” and “Bel homme – France”. Cisneros herself traveled extensively in Europe in the 1980s, when a scholarship from the National Endowment for the Arts enabled her to complete the manuscript of her bestselling 1984 novel. Mango Street House in Hydra, a stay that she recounts in her memories A house of mine: stories of my life (2015). Shortly after the scholarship, she spent a year in Sarajevo, where she befriended a woman named Jasna, to whom she dedicated the essay “Loose Woman”: “[A]s if our lives depended on it. When the Yugoslav wars broke out, Cisneros spoke out against the rape of Bosnian women in a 1993 speech at the International Women’s Day rally in San Antonio, Texas, titled “Who Wants Stories Now “(Collected in A house of mine), who mixes a cry of peace with her personal reflections on the beauty of the daily life she has experienced while living there.
Many of the themes Cisneros tackles in her memoirs – the fears and risks in the young artist’s life, the dream of “living with her pen”, the skirmishes with men who wanted more or less of her than she did. was willing to give, parties and quiet friendships with people who read and encouraged him to write, and who gave him the courage to travel to Europe in the first place – animate the pages of Martita, I remember you, giving it the feeling of a lived experience.
Quiet truths fill the pages of the thin but memorable book. The story of Corina, an aspiring writer and now mother of two middle-aged children in Chicago, unfolds through a series of memories and old letters that she unearths between herself and two friends with whom she lived in Paris: the determined Italian expatriate Paola and the Argentine Marta from the title of the news. Cisneros often portrays herself as a working class writer; when Corina first meets Paola and Marta they are pretty and tanned – not from skiing in Geneva, as they initially claim, but from their job handing out oil and towels in a tanning salon for wealthy women on avenue de Wagram. Meanwhile, Corina, like the young Cisneros, is the daughter of an American-Mexican upholsterer in Chicago who “awaits the letter from an artists’ colony” and hopes to succeed as a writer – a dream she talks while crashing with Marta in a windowless room with a sunken mattress, or on the floor with the Argentinian puppeteers José Antonio and Carlos, where, only by running away, she dubiously stands out as “the only one woman who slept here and who has not been fucked ”. As if sown with landmines, the pages are filled with muted explosions of violence and pain: secret abortions, allusions to domestic violence, adventures with married men, grief, divorce and assaults that women avoid by walking “arm in arm.” arms, the way women walk together in Latin America, to tell men that we are good girls, stay away, leave us alone.
As always, Cisneros is adept at describing the feelings, sensations and pitfalls of young women’s lives: “We were waiting for something to happen. Isn’t that what all women do until they learn not to? Corina asks from the start. Later, describing her homesickness, she wrote, “There’s a hole in my heart, like someone took a cigarette and pushed it through, clearly on the other side. After a phone call to her father, she brings back her “heart whistling like a harmonica”. Both descriptions tap into the relationship between mind, body, and spirit, challenging Cartesian dualism by expressing how emotions are experienced through physical sensations in the body. It is a writing that bridges the sacred and the profane, as when Marta describes sex as “what religion is meant to be.” Like when the sun shines through the prettiest colored glass in the church window and you know God is not inside the building, he is inside you. […] My heart lit up inside his and hers inside mine like el Sagrado Corazón. To read this novel is to fall on nuggets: “Tac tac tac chante son hammer. My father hums or mumbles my mother’s name over and over, like a drowning man. Cisneros’ prose buzzes, full of personifications, metaphors and allusions, crisscrossing from Paris to Chicago in Mexico. His writing crosses languages, continents and time.
“If you run your finger across the world, at the same latitude as Chicago or near Paris, where I’m with Martita and her canoe bed.” To borrow a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges, the negation of time is one of Cisneros’ obsessions, and it’s hard to think of another writer who crosses the porous border between past and present with as much poetry as she does. Persistence of memory is a current that runs through all news, as is the importance of memory in sustaining our sense of self no matter how our plans and circumstances change. Long after the letters between Corina, Paola and Marta have dried up, “It’s like we’re talking, again, after all this time.” Even when faced with the impossibility of holding on, the feeling of love remains: “I don’t have a good memory, but I remember the emotions. How many days have we known each other? I do not even know. But I know that I grew up to love you very much. After years of separation, she describes their friendship as “pulling and pulling like the tides,” an invisible but powerfully enduring bond. Ultimately, she describes her stay in Paris as “those days I lived next to you, Martita”. It is within the framework of this youthful friendship that Corina discovers a sense of beauty and a kind of contagious joy that she will miss later in her adult life, drawing from it only through sensory impressions and the act of reading; as the elder Corina reports of her inability to read poetry with her husband, “I wonder how it is that a poem can say so many things so beautifully. I used to get sad to be the only witness to all this joy, because Richard is too tired to notice that sort of thing. But I got used to enjoying things on my own.
In Skin: Talking about sex, class and literature (1994), Dorothy Allison reflects: “Writers write for three reasons: fame, fortune and the love of a beautiful woman. […] But all that ever mattered was the women. Ultimately, Corina’s most transcendent relationships, the conversations of a lifetime, aren’t with the men she’s once had passionate affairs with, or the accidental miscarriage, or even with the man she’s been having. she ends up marrying – these are the ones with the women. Martita, I remember you is a love letter to female friendship, the brevity of which does not detract from the importance of its subject or the sheer pleasure of devouring it.
Audrey Harris Fernández holds a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and is a lecturer at UCLA and California State University, Los Angeles. She co-translated (with Matthew Gleeson) Amparo Dávila The guest and other stories (New directions, 2018).