Have you ever read a book and thought: this is it, this is the book I was born to write? Not in the sense of, ‘oh let me put my pen away, it’s already been written’ but in the sense of, ‘yes! That’s it, I do need to write, I do have a story to tell.’ Not the story itself but the book, the style of writing, the unique, real voice like nothing you’ve ever heard before that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, a story so well told, so vividly detailed that it fills you with nostalgia for a life—the people, the places, the language, the smells, the tastes—that isn’t yours and could never be yours, but you almost wish it could. Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros, is that book for me.
Why this book? Well because it’s a literary gumbo, and I’m a New Orleans girl, so I love gumbo: it’s a multigenerational family history, a road trip novel, a coming-of-age story, a bilingual, multicultural, transnational stew of stories centered around a Mexican American family as told by Celaya Reyes, the youngest child and only girl in the family who believes telling “healthy lies” is part of being a good storyteller. I read it for the first time in 2006 and just finished it again and am reminded of all the reasons why I love this book.
One of the blurbs on the back cover describes it as “joyful” and “fizzy” and that is exactly what it is. It’s the equivalent of taking your first sip of Coke. I mean your first sip ever. What gives the book that buzz is the voice of the narrator. I love the way she tosses in Spanish words and Mexican Spanglish slang as she tells us her stories and the way that she captures the speech and mannerisms of her family members so precisely I swear I can hear them talking. It’s like when you’re watching a really good foreign language movie and you’re so into the story that you no longer realize they’re speaking a language you don’t understand.
I love all the details of the story, the way Cisneros puts the Reyes family life under the microscope for us to see all the little bits that make them a whole. And I love the magical realism of the novel, how the deceased grandmother resurrects herself to help Celaya tell the story, whether Celaya wants her help or not. While the book is very funny it is also a very tender portrait of a flawed father trying to correct the shame of his past by being a constant presence in his children’s lives. Overall the book leaves me with a reminder that human beings are complex and in that complexity, beautiful. By the time I finished the novel I felt like I was a part of the Reyes family, like Celaya and I were close friends or sisters, like I was Celaya. That’s a good book.
So this is the story I want to write. A book that shines the spotlight on the type of life I have lived: a black Creole Muslim girl from the South, growing up around Afrocentrism, black nationalism, Islam, and Creole culture, because out in the world outside of myself, it seems sometimes as if I don’t exist. There’s no such thing as a black Creole Muslim from the South. Because the thing is, if no one ever gives voice to a certain community, no one will ever know it exists. No one will ever know its vibrancy or its dynamism. So I want to do what Cisneros does for Mexican American culture, peeling back the surface and showing us the many layers of Mexican life, all the way down to its beating heart. I want to do that.