Wednesday, February 9, 2011
This story titles itself a collection of “snapshots” and in doing so emphasizes moments frozen in time. The reader is less drawn into plot, character development, and other long-term structural devices of the novel and is more captivated by imagery and more aware of nuanced details.
One genre of such detail, especially as it relates to the visual imagery built into the structure of the stories, is the clothing worn by the characters in the pictures. Indeed, dresses or lack thereof, the type of fabric and the utility of the clothes are all of extreme importance to Cantu. This is a theme much less emphasized in the other books we have read and perhaps it speaks of a certain feminine quality inherent to this story.
The clothing of women is often a reflection of personality or character. Mamagrande, always working even during a life of hardship, has her, “… handkerchief a la mano in her apron pocket ever ready for the tears of joy or pain” (17). Nena’s proud mother “…holds her skirt and points her foot as instructed; on the wide-brimmed charro hat the embroidery screams, Viva Mexico!” (42) Even the men’s clothing seems important, denoting their status, as Cantu here describes her father’s young adulthood as a wild rancher, “He wears a hat that cast a shadow over his face, but I can tell he’s smiling his ‘I’m so proud smile’” (15).
Nena’s clothing is of particular importance; the white dresses she wears as a baby highlight her innocence, in Polka Dots, her and her sister’s similar, but not identical, dresses seem to have meaning. One of my favorite pictures, a “sexy photo” of Elisa, Nena, and her father, shows off a sleeveless blouse. Though it is not expressly mentioned this is one of the less traditional outfits Nena wears in the story, it seems to imitate the rebellious and glamorous feeling Nena gets from Elisa at a young age. The blouse, however, was still made by Nena’s mom.
While describing herself as a child on a rocking horse, the narrator vividly describes the colors in the scene; the horse is "the color of the red coyoles," her feet are in "brown huarache...with tiny green nopales," a "white ribbon" is in her "black curls," her dress is "blue like the sky," and there are "tiny pink rosebuds." All these vivid colored images are particularly interesting because the photo shown is black and white.
What could the use of color be saying about the relationship between image and memory? What about between the person whom the memory belongs to and the person they are telling? One might assume that the narrator is actually looking at a color photograph but knows that the reader will see a black and white one. The colors are such a strong part of the memory for her that she feels the reader must know them to understand the story. Maybe it is a commentary on the vibrancy of youth, reflected in the "seriousness" of her rocking horse riding.
Many of the moments described from the snapshots in Canicula hold the tone of pictures that one reviews after the passing of a loved one. They are incredibly intimate encounters that allow the reader to almost shuffle through this box of photographs along with the narrator. As the title implies, these scenes inflict a sense of “dog days” both within the scenes and the imagined scenario where the narrator views these images. Unlike the other books in this course, Canicula does not operate under the pretense of action in the present moment. These moments are all in the past, and in a way the author seems to morn their passing.
The use of images to compliment, or aid in the recall, of distant memories lends weight to her recollections. In Pocho, the reader gets the sense that many of the thoughts and positions held by the narrator are reflections made later in life. The concepts, such as doubt in religion and uncertainty of cultural heritage, may have begun in that stage of the narrator’s life, but are far too complex for the reader to trust in a youthful narrator. Cantu, on the other hand, does not claim complete accuracy, and indeed uses many mental “snapshots” when tangible ones have been lost. When she thinks about her Mami the narrator says, “There is no photo to remind me, but in my mind’s eye I see her in the early morning darkness” (Cantu 43). In many ways these images without pictures tell more about the narrator than the descriptions of the photos because they lack the technical precision and rely more heavily on internal workings. The physical photographs set the stage by creating a backdrop based in the irrefutable past, while the pictures that exist only in her memory demonstrate the process of change over time.
|Sandra Cisneros, Macondo Writing Workshop 2007. San Antonio, Texas.|
As a quick context for the story, check out the newspaper story below.
October 25, 2002|By Heidi Benson, Chronicle Staff Writer
By then, Sandra Cisneros knew that her tale of a rollicking family road trip from Chicago to Acapulco was more than a raconteur's yarn.
"I knew it was my father's story," she says. "But it kept getting bigger and bigger. I realized it wasn't a short story, and I saved it for a novel."
That novel, "Caramelo" -- an energetic, multigenerational epic-- took her nine years to write and has just been published by Knopf. During those nine years, Cisneros' life took extreme turns: She lost her father to cancer and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
The book starts with that road trip and branches out once the family pulls up to the green iron gates of the ancestral home in Mexico City, the house itself teeming with stories. Written from the point of view of a young Chicana named Lala whose father resembles Cisneros' own (" 'I was the favorite child of a favorite child,' " says Lala), its episodic chapters jump through time, with historical asides and whimsical footnotes.
Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros is the only daughter of a Mexican father and Mexican American mother. Her father came from a middle-class family in Mexico City. His old-country elegance served him well in the States, though his business wasn't always stable. The family moved from one fixer-upper flat in Chicago's "Pilsner barrio" to another, and spent summers in Mexico City with relatives.
Privacy was hard to come by for a young girl with six brothers, so reading and writing became Cisneros' escape. But it wasn't until she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop that she found her subject -- and her voice.
Her career took off with the 1984 publication of her first book of stories, "The House on Mango Street." Cisneros called it "anti-academic." Critics called it "a literary masterpiece" and dubbed Cisneros "the representative Chicana in the reconstruction of the canon." When her second collection came out, the New York Times called her "an educator, unerring and relentless . . . not only a gifted writer but an absolutely essential one."
It's a mantle she carries with grace. Committed to community work, she continues to give readings and workshops in her hometown of San Antonio and beyond.
In her teaching, as well as in her poetry and essays, she engages the question of fiction and autobiography -- a prickly topic at best.
In "Caramelo," Cisneros was driven to connect the dots. "The people are based on real people, but I invent things because I don't know what really happened." Family stories are lovingly gathered -- she calls them "bits of string" -- and pieced into a new puzzle, one she can resolve. A disclaimer at the front of the book announces: "If, in the course of my inventing, I have inadvertently stumbled on the truth, perdonenme."
Though the book was inspired by a real journey, she says, "I kept getting sidetracked."
Believing that "detours are destiny," she explored every one, plumbing the histories of the people in her father's life -- his brothers, his parents, his grandparents, the aunts, the uncles. In one end-of-chapter aside, she writes: ". . . a life contains a multitude of stories and not a single strand explains precisely the who of who one is."
"My book is very Buddhist in its concept," she says. "I'm a Buddhist now, so I tried to look deeply at how my father became who he is." (Cisneros became a Buddhist while teaching for a semester at UC Berkeley, when a friend gave her a copy of "Being Peace" by Thich Nhat Hanh.)
Winning the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1995 helped her look deeply. "The grant allowed me five extra years to work on the novel to make the book take off."
More important? "I was able to take a year off to vigil my father -- to stop everything for a year -- when he was dying of cancer. That was a great, lasting gift."
Writing the novel "was like painting the Sistine Chapel when you're used to painting miniatures," she says. "What came before were all small projects. This was a big book."
The big book has an additional purpose: It is her response to the xenophobia and violence she sees in American culture. With that in mind, she recently sent a copy to Laura Bush, suggesting that she read it to the president.
"Maybe this is my own peace protest," says Cisneros. "I thought Bush needed to look at borders and immigrants -- to help to mend the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, but also to look at America's relationship with immigrants, since global immigration is our future."
Since I had no clue what Cantu was referring to, I turned to Wikipedia to give me a basic definition. By translating the Spanish page for “declamacion,” it is describe as a form of recitation that “seeks to captivate the viewer... with the sound and meaning of words, accentuated by the gesture and movement [of the performer].” Interestingly enough, all the definitions of the English equivalent, “declamation,” do not included the use of gestures/visual aid from the performer.
In this story, Cantu relates a concept that loses something vital in the meaning during translation from Spanish to English. Declamacion, by engaging another sense besides hearing, is a form of storytelling that engrosses the reader in a more engaging manner so that the emotion of the text can be relayed.
On a more subtle note, Norma Cantu fleshes this concept out throughout the entire book of Canicula with her choice of structure. Not only does she limit herself mere words on a page, but she brings in pictures from her and her family’s past to more fully engage the reader. Cantu brings the concept of declamacion to life through the written word and not just the spoken word. The reader is engaged visually, and as Cantu unfolds a story around each visual, I was reminded of a person sitting next to me, showing me pictures, and orally describing each one and the accompanying story. This effect ultimately makes the book so powerful. The characters become three-dimensional, their struggles and lives become real, and no matter who you are as a reader, you feel like an old friend sitting with the narrator looking at her photographers.
Photographs and Memories in Canicula
Throughout Canicula, Norma Cantu inserts photographs to serve as visual representations of the memories she wishes to convey. At times, the stories behind the photographs are straightforward. On page 21 of the text is a copy of the author’s United States immigration papers, with a photograph of her at one year old stapled to the documents. She writes, “In the photo stapled to my official U.S. immigration papers, I am a one year old baldy...,” an obvious enough assertion (21). However, she quickly jumps from the immigration represented by the picture to another immigration, one when she is twelve years old that “will allow [her] to travel into Mexico without [her] parents” (21). The same eyes stare back at her at ages one and twelve, as she traverses the boundary between the United States and Mexico, and suddenly her story is no longer about immigration, but about shared experiences of puberty and her maturation process. In another instance, Cantu uses photos of her brother, Tino, as a child, pointing his fingers like a gun as a sort of foreshadowing to his eventual death in Vietnam. Other times, Cantu writes as if in reference to some sort of photograph not actually in the text, one the reader must imagine herself.
This leads me to my main question: what purpose do these photographs serve? Cantu does not present them chronologically. Instead, it almost feels as if you (as the reader) are perched on her shoulder as she sorts through a disorganized drawer of old pictures, sometimes pausing to talk about the happier times before death, sometimes to remember the sensory memories a photo evokes, and sometimes just to talk about the specifics of a special garment lost in the wear and tear of time. The photos are interspersed throughout the text like memories appearing in the mind’s eye, often incomplete and wandering, but descriptive of times past and captured forever.
Monday, February 7, 2011
|Norma Cantú (second from left) and Norma Alarcon (third from left) with their 2009 Macondo Writer's Workshop group.|
Norma Elia Cantú (born January 3, 1947) is a Chicana postmodernist writer and a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She was born in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico to Florentino Cantú Vargas and Virginia Ramón Becerra. She was reared in Laredo, Texas, the seat of Webb County, and attended public schools there. Prior to her UTSA professorship, Cantu taught in Laredo at Texas A&M International University.
Cantú received her A.A. degree from Laredo Community College in 1970. She received her bachelor of science degree in English and political science from Texas A&M International University in Laredo, from which she graduated summa cum laude in 1973. She received her master of science degree in English with a minor in political science from Texas A&I University‑Kingsville in 1976 and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1982.
- Forthcoming: Soldiers of the Cross: Los matachines de la Santa Cruz. Texas A&M University Press
- Co-editor with Inés Hernández Ávila, Entre Malinche y Guadalupe: Tejanas in Literature and Art. 2002
- Editor. Flor y Ciencia: Chicanas in Mathematics, Science and Engineering. AAAS Adelante Project. 2006
- Co-editor with Olga Najera Ramírez. Changing Chicana Traditions, University of Illinois Press. 2001
- Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. Co-editor with the Latina Feminst Group. Individual pieces included: "Getting there cuando no hay camino," "A Working Class Brujas Fears," and two poems: "Migraine" and "Reading the Body." Duke University Press.*Santuarios: Program Essay. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Rockefeller Gateways Program Performance. 2000
- Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la frontera. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Winner, 1995 Premio Aztlán Literary Prize
- Canícula: Imágenes de una niñez fronteriza. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1999
- Art at Our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists featuring Norma Elia Cantú. Edited by Nan Cuba and Riley Robinson (Trinity University Press, 2008).
- Reimagining Transnational Identities in Norma Cantú's Canicula and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, by Binod Paudyal, is available through the Utah State U DigitalCommons.