Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"What Is Called Heaven": Identity in Sandra Cisneros's 'Woman Hollering Creek.'

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"What Is Called Heaven": Identity in Sandra Cisneros's 'Woman Hollering Creek.'

Article excerpt

The wars begin here, in our hearts and in our beds" (105) says Ines, witch-woman and "sometime wife" to Emiliano Zapata in "Eyes of Zapata," the most ambitious story of Sandra Cisneros's second collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. In Ines, Cisneros presents a narrator who is capable of seeing both at a distance and up close, who is able to encompass both the physically violent world of Zapata's revolution and the emotionally violent world of love. She is able to see both worlds and, more importantly, understands how the pain of both worlds is merely a manifestation of the same disease - a failure of love. Cisneros says in a voice that is Ines speaking to Zapata but also Cisneros speaking to the reader (the two are easily confused - even Cisneros claims to have woken from a dream believing she was Ines [Sagel 74]):

We drag these bodies around with us, these bodies that have nothing at all to do with you, with me, with who we really are, these bodies that give us pleasure and pain. Though I've learned how to abandon mine at will, it seems to me we never free ourselves completely until we love, until we lose ourselves inside each other. Then we see a little of what is called heaven. When we can be that close we no longer are Ines and Emiliano, but something bigger than our lives. And we can forgive, finally. (87)

When a writer claims to identify with a character to the extent that she wakes up unsure who is who, one can assume that that character is going to speak deeply and come as close to the truth as fiction can come to the truth of the human heart. This is true of Ines.

Ines is the fully aware feminine self, a woman who has seen her own reality - her people embroiled in a civil war and led by her deceitful, unfaithful husband - and does not flinch or look away. She takes the deepest pain inside herself and through it claims the power of her own identity. Ingesting the pain o f her world by facing it head-on gives her strength and the will to persevere: "And I took to eating black things - huitlacoche the corn mushroom, coffee, dark chilies, the bruised part of the fruit, the darkest, blackest things to make me hard and strong" (106). This is the power of Cisneros's women, to see and to remember, to master the pain of the past and understand the confluence of all things; women continue in a cycle of birth and blood. they become themselves through the honest acceptance of the world beyond the body. Cisneros believes women must overcome and change their worlds from the inside out. They must become the "authors" of their own fate.

Yet what sets Ines apart from most of the women in the collection is her acceptance of all pain, not just female pain. She sees the small boy inside Zapata, the boy thrust unprepared into leadership and war; she sees the bodies of the federale corpses hanging in the trees, drying like leather, dangling like earrings; she sees her father, who once turned his back on her, placed with his back against the wall, ready for the firing squad. What particularly defines this story is the acceptance of masculine suffering as well as feminine. "We are all widows," Ines says. "the men as well as the women, even the children. All clinging to the tail of the horse of our jefe Zapata. All of us scarred from these nine years of aguantando - enduring" (87; original italics). The image of every widow, male or female, clinging to the horse's tail doesn't absolve men from blame for beginning and continuing this war, but at the same time it doesn't exclude them from suffering.

The union of gender, and gender-based ideologies, is essential to the strong, feminine characters of the later stories of Woman Hollering Creek, because for Cisneros it is necessary to include masculine suffering to achieve a total synthesis. Each of the earlier pieces is independent of the others, yet as whole sections they define specific areas of adversity - specifically feminine adversity. …

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