‘You Like Sandra Cisneros, Don’t You?’ On Reading Outside Your Culture

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When people ask me about my hometown, I think about the sweet taste of mangos and running in bare feet. But mostly I remember pressing my nose against the windowpane just before a hurricane. Once the power went out, I would read book after book until the sun went down. Though we spoke Spanish in my household, I would read only in English.

I grew up in Little Havana, an ethnically Hispanic neighborhood in Miami, Florida. Most of its residents are recent or semi-recent immigrants to the United States from the Caribbean or Central America. As a whole, we are not big readers. Young families worry about making ends meet. Children struggle with language barriers. Most teenagers prefer to watch television or spend time with their friends. Few people can afford to pick up an addiction to literature.

But I did. As a child, I flew through the selection in our local library. It was an effortless and good way to travel. I read about poor British children rising up the ranks of society and falling back down again, wealthy American women moving to Europe to seek out their destiny, colonizers traveling through the Congo in search of their soul. I thought a lot about money, and privilege, and ambition. I wondered if anyone in books ever ate rice and beans and tortillas in the morning. Maybe heavy breakfasts got in the way of affronting destiny. So I asked my mom to make us pancakes. This was good for my morale.

My dad didn’t understand my fascination my literature, but he was willing to indulge it. He gave me his textbook after taking a required English class for his college degree. I devoured it, reading Lorrie Moore and Tillie Olsen and Shirley Jackson. They were indecently good writers; they told good stories, with good language, about some things I recognized. Their characters were not society women. They were often poor or middle class and remained such. It was an honest approach I appreciated.

But it wasn’t until I read “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club that I felt like my experiences could belong in the page of a book.

“America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters – twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better.” (Tan, The Joy Luck Club)
I’m not Chinese. Until high school, I had never even met anyone Chinese. But I took “Two Kinds” to heart. This was a girl who faced more than her socioeconomic circumstances, and more than her femininity. She struggled with her sense of place. Born in the United States to an immigrant mother, she was the link between the old and the new.

Within the text, Jing-Mei mentions cutting her hair to obtain Shirley Temple’s “big fat curls” only to end up “an uneven mass of crinkly black fuzz.” Someone who understood hair! I thought as a child. Or more specifically, a writer who dealt, in an implicit and off-hand manner, with the frustration of fitting into a country your parents don’t understand.

When her mother is disappointed with her piano performance, Jing-Mei lashes out. “I wasn’t her slave. This wasn’t China,” she thinks, right before refusing to resume practicing the piano.  I felt something for Jing-Mei’s plight, perhaps just the idea of meeting different, often confusing expectations at all.

“This isn’t Nicaragua,” I wanted to say sometimes, but I couldn’t say it so I underlined this sentence and gave the story back to my dad in a fit of eleven-year-old fury. He laughed, and asked me to get him a glass of water.

In response, I stalked out of the kitchen and kept reading.

I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” with the fascination of a recent convert to feminism. I read Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anjana Appachana. I read Judith Ortiz Cofer.  And I appreciated it all, taking from writers of other backgrounds moments of insight that I couldn’t find in other works of literature.

Yes, Langston Hughes was a black poet from the Harlem Renaissance, far from me in distance and time. But “Theme for English B” touched a nerve. The speaker’s relationship to society could have been my relationship to society. I saw only our similarities, and none of our differences, in my desperation to relate to poetry and literature.

When I met a girl from Hong Kong in high school, I had to revise these thoughts, or at least look them over. “You don’t understand,” she said, seemingly about everything.

I didn’t understand the Cultural Revolution (and she was right, I didn’t). I didn’t understand Chinese cooking. I didn’t understand the One Child Policy, the importance of pleasing your parents, the frustration of having slanted eyes (“your eyes are American,” she said, as she touched her face in front of the mirror while I stood beside her). I didn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, and my attempts at mimicking her intonation failed. I didn’t even really understand The Joy Luck Club.

“It’s not your fault,” she said. “This just isn’t your experience. It’s not your culture. If I were you, I would read more Hispanic literature. You like Sandra Cisneros, don’t you?”

I didn’t feel as if I could cut myself off from an entire body of literature based on ethnic and cultural differences, and I told her so. She responded with a shrug.

“I guess it’s nice that you’re interested,” she said. She meant that it was flattering; she couldn’t fathom reading about someone else’s culture. Everything outside of China, and by extension, Asia, was irrelevant to her. But it remained very relevant to me.

I kept reading, and writing, and didn’t say anything when she refused to read Garcia Marquez or Borges.

My best friend from college, a short Indian-American girl with strong opinions on everything from politics to literature to religion, wanted to know what I thought about Jhumpa Lahiri.

“She’s a strong writer,” I said, starting slowly and gauging her body language. It was often easier to agree than to disagree with her, and in this case, I didn’t have much of an opinion of my own. I thought her work was solid, but in some cases, not particularly memorable. Still, I respected her writing. “I liked her collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth.”

“I don’t like her writing at all,” my friend said, shaking her head. “She’s overrated. I think–”

Sometimes when she discussed books, I would wonder why some people insist on attacking art, as if the existence of a writer at her desk, producing her best work was something offensive. But I tried not to say anything, because this was a sore subject between us. At least she didn’t question my right to read Jhumpa Lahiri in the first place.

However, she did question the wisdom of many of my actions. We argued about my major–I wanted to switch from international relations to English literature–for months, until she realized that I wasn’t going to change my mind.

“Just wait and see,” she said, as we ate samosas outside of my dorm. “Right now, you’re an English major set on law school. A few months from now, you won’t be. You’ll get caught up in this writing thing.”

My mother doesn’t understand why I want to be a writer or what that entails.

“What is fiction, exactly?” she asked me, as she stood over the stove, stirring some soup. My mother, an immigrant from Nicaragua, doesn’t read for pleasure in either English or Spanish. She understands writing in terms of reports and newspapers – utilitarian texts, meant to convey information with a direct impact on daily life, such as whether your child passes the 2nd grade or why Congress is passing a certain bill.

“It’s writing that tells a story,” I tried to explain. “Usually a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Like a television show, but written down.”

“So you want to write books like Jorge Ramos?” she asked, referencing a Spanish news anchor on Univision. She respects journalists; their good looks, and clear voices add to her respect.

“No,” I said. “He writes non-fiction. He writes about current events, and things that are real. Things that are happening or have happened.”

My mother turned around to face me more fully. “You mean you want to write about things that are not real?”

“Yes,” I said slowly, drawing the word out. I consider her dubious expression before continuing. “Like Isabel Allende.”

It was a poor defense; my mother had heard about Allende, but wasn’t familiar with her work. Still, she had heard her name, which was good enough for my purposes. If our interests could be graphed as a Venn diagram, we would have to struggle to come up with something to place in the overlapping space. That my mom had heard of Allende would have to do.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” my mother asked me again.

I was sure. I am sure.