SEPTEMBER 19, 2021
THROUGHOUT THE 20th century, during the era of the Latin American avant-garde and later during the so-called “Boom,” a number of Latin American writers escaped oppressive dictatorships by fleeing to Europe. Some took up permanent residence, and all wrote of their experiences. Among them were Julio Cortázar and José Donoso, whose novels (Hopscotch  and The Garden Next Door ) feature Latin American expatriates drinking, screwing, and philosophizing in Paris, Sitges, and Madrid. Sandra Cisneros’s latest novella takes on that familiar milieu — Latin American artist expatriates in Paris — but transforms it by describing it from the perspective of a female protagonist of North American descent (Corina, a Mexican American woman who, like Cisneros, grew up in Chicago).
Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo (in English, with an accompanying Spanish-language translation by Liliana Valenzuela) contains many of Cisneros’s classic themes, which will be familiar to readers of her poetry collections like My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987), in which a section called “Other Countries” is made up almost entirely of poems set in Europe with titles such as “December 24th Paris — Notre-Dame” and “Beautiful Man — France.” Cisneros herself traveled around Europe extensively in the 1980s, when a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts allowed her to finish the manuscript of her 1984 best-selling novel The House on Mango Street in Hydra, a sojourn she narrates in her memoir A House of My Own: Stories from my Life (2015). Soon after the fellowship, she spent a year in Sarajevo, where she befriended a woman named Jasna, to whom she dedicated the essay “Loose Woman”: “[A]s though our lives depended on it.” When the Yugoslav Wars broke out, Cisneros spoke out against the rape of Bosnian women in a 1993 speech for the International Women’s Day rally in San Antonio, Texas, entitled “Who Wants Stories Now” (collected in A House of My Own), that interweaves a cry for peace with her personal reflections on the beauty of daily life she experienced while living there.
Many of the themes Cisneros writes about in her memoirs — the fears and risks of the young artist’s life, the dream of “living by her pen,” the skirmishes with men who wanted more or less of her than she was willing to give, the parties and the quiet friendships with people who read and encouraged her writing, and who gave her the courage to travel to Europe in the first place — animate the pages of Martita, I Remember You, giving it the feel of lived experience.
Quiet truths fill the pages of the slender but memorable book. The story of Corina, a once-aspiring writer and now a middle-aged mother of two in Chicago, unfolds through a series of recollections and old letters she unearths between herself and two friends with whom she lived in Paris: the determined Italian expat Paola and the Argentine Marta of the novella’s title. Cisneros often refers to herself as a writer of the working class; when Corina first meets Paola and Marta, they are pretty and suntanned — not from skiing in Geneva, as they initially claim, but from their job where they distribute oil and towels in a tanning parlor for rich women on the Avenue de Wagram. Meanwhile, Corina, like the young Cisneros, is the daughter of a Mexican American upholsterer from Chicago who is “waiting for the letter from an artist’s colony” and hoping to make it as a writer — a dream she sustains by crashing with Marta in a windowless room with a sunken mattress, or on the floor with the Argentine puppeteers José Antonio and Carlos, where, only by fleeing, she is dubiously distinguished as being “the only woman who’s slept here who we haven’t fucked.” As though seeded with landmines, the pages are filled with muted explosions of violence and pain: secret abortions, allusions to domestic violence, affairs with married men, heartbreak, divorce, and assaults that the women avoid by walking “arm-in-arm, the way women walk together in Latin America, to tell men we are good girls, stay away, leave us the hell 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 early on. Later, describing her homesickness, she writes, “There’s a hole in my heart, as if someone had taken a cigarette and pushed it right through, clear to the other side.” After a phone call home to her father, she reports her “heart wheezing like a harmonica.” Both descriptions tap into the relationship between mind, body, and spirit, defying Cartesian dualism by expressing the way emotions are felt through physical sensations in the body. This is writing that bridges the sacred and the profane, as when Marta describes sex as “what religion’s supposed to be. Like when the sun shines through the church window’s prettiest colored glass and you know God isn’t inside the building, he’s inside you. […] My heart lit up inside his and his inside mine like el Sagrado Corazón.” To read this novella is to stumble upon gems: “Tac tac tac sings his hammer. My father hums or mutters my mother’s name over and over, like a man drowning.” Cisneros’s prose hums, filled with personification, metaphor, and allusion, crisscrossing from Paris to Chicago to Mexico. Her writing spans languages, continents, and time.
“If you run your finger across the globe, on the same latitude as Chicago or near — Paris, where I’m staying with Martita and her canoe bed.” To borrow a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges, the negation of time is one of Cisneros’s obsessions, and it is difficult to think of another writer who crosses the porous border between past and present as poetically as she does. The persistence of memory is a current that runs throughout the novella, as does 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 as if we’re talking to each other, still, after all this time.” Even against the impossibility of holding on, the feeling of love remains: “I don’t have a good memory, but I do remember emotions. How many days did we know each other? I don’t even know. But I know I grew to love you very much.” After years of separation, she describes their friendship as “tugging and yanking like the tides,” an invisible yet powerfully persistent bond. In the end, she describes her time in Paris as “those days I lived beside you, Martita.” It is within the context of this youthful friendship that Corina discovers a sense of beauty and a kind of contagious joy that she will later find lacking in her adult life, tapping into it only through sensory impressions and through the act of reading; as the older Corina reports, of her inability to read poetry with her husband, “Wonder how it is that a poem can say so much so beautifully. I used to grow sad to witness all that joy alone, because Richard’s too tired to notice that sort of thing. But I’ve gotten used to enjoying things on my own.”
In Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature (1994), Dorothy Allison muses, “Writers write for three reasons: fame, fortune, and the love of a beautiful woman. […] But all that has ever mattered is the women.” In the end, Corina’s most transcendent relationships, the lifelong conversations, aren’t with the men she once had passionate affairs with, or the accidental miscarriage, or even with the man she eventually marries — they are the ones with women. Martita, I Remember You is a love letter to female friendship, whose brevity does nothing to detract from the importance of its subject matter or the sheer pleasure of devouring it.
Audrey Harris Fernández holds a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and is a lecturer at UCLA and California State University, Los Angeles. She co-translated (with Matthew Gleeson) Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest and Other Stories (New Directions, 2018).