Elena Poniatowska is one of the few survivors of her generation of Mexican writers, which includes Carlos Fuentes, José Emilio Pacheco, and Carlos Monsiváis. In Mexico, she is most often called “Elenita”—perhaps dismissively years ago, but now with all the affection and respect a diminutive can imply.
Her name is a byword throughout the Spanish-speaking world, though English-language readers know her only from the small percentage of her work that has been translated. Her more than forty books encompass a great many genres (“though not science fiction,” she quips); she is best known for fiction and nonfiction based on interviews “collaged,” as she puts it, into a seamless whole with a skill that reminds one of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.
Poniatowska’s focus is almost exclusively on the most marginalized of Mexicans: women and the poor, who, together, make up more than half the population. She has chronicled oppression and military brutality (La noche de Tlatelolco [Massacre in Mexico, 1971]) and natural disaster coupled with government corruption (Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor [Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake, 1988]), as well as the daily lives of the working class in novels such as Hasta no verte Jesús mío (Here’s to You, Jesusa!, 1969). For her outspokenness, she has been placed under police surveillance (“certainly not for my protection”) and jailed twice, though briefly.
She is now eighty-five and, having been diagnosed with cardiac illness, has agreed to take things easier to avoid hospitalization. But it is impossible to imagine this famously energetic woman putting her feet up. In fact, she has not. She maintains a demanding schedule of lecturing and remains a working journalist, while at the same time completing a biography of Stanisław Poniatowski, the last king of Poland, from whose brother she is descended. In 2013, Poniatowska was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world.
In a country in which most people of means engage domestic help, Poniatowska shops, cooks, pays her own bills, and employs no secretary. She has lived in the Chimalistac neighborhood of Mexico City for more than twenty-five years, in a modest, book-filled house. It is there that we met for our two principal interviews in 2013, later supplemented by emails and conversations on the phone; we spoke in English. She arrived to our first session straight from an event at the British embassy, yet immediately ready to begin.
So many of your books, fiction and nonfiction, are explorations of the lives of very poor people. What makes it possible for you to cross the boundaries of social class so gracefully?
I think of the Surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington. She was my great friend and I wrote a novel about her, called Leonora (2011). She was born into an upper-class English family and was even presented to the queen, though she took along Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza to pass the time waiting in the line of debutantes. Typically, young women of her class were expected to marry someone rich and titled, but she rebelled almost from childhood, was expelled from two schools, and finally found her way to a good art school. Then she encountered Surrealism, especially in the work of Max Ernst. She was drawn to him even before she met him. Then they did meet, and they lived and worked together in the South of France. But after the Nazis invaded, Ernst, who was Jewish, was arrested by the Gestapo. Carrington was devastated and fled to Spain. Her state of mind became critical, and she had a breakdown at the British embassy in Madrid. Perhaps her “madness” was really a sort of sanity, because she was horrified by the developing war, by the cruelty she was seeing all around her, by the treatment of the Jews—all of which she either foresaw or was evident to her before it became obvious to “sane” people. And so she was confined to an asylum, in Santander, for the upper classes—because, she reminds me, upper-class people can be crazy, too—although it was hardly a holiday. It was a terrible but also transforming experience. Out of it, she wrote Down Below and painted works that expressed her experience.
Carrington escaped confinement in Lisbon with the help of a Mexican diplomat there. She went first to New York and then to Mexico, where she continued to live, marrying Imre Weisz, with whom she had two children. She was a wonderful mother to those children and a treasure for Mexico and for me.
Is Carrington, then, the very sort of person you admire for having crossed class boundaries?
She made a decision to live her own life and not the life that was expected of her. Or perhaps she followed a vocation more than she made a decision. I am filled with admiration for her integrity—defending it against the rules of a social class that prevented gifted people from becoming all that they had in them to become. Carrington never gave in.
Well, there are some obvious affinities but also significant differences between us. She is something of a hero to me, but who is a hero to himself, after all? She defended her integrity from the beginning of her life in a very blunt way, which was not true of me. I tended to be obedient and unsure of myself. She always spoke out against injustice, which took me more time to understand and to find my own way of expressing. And while she was relatively self-confident, I am very aware of my weaknesses, as a person—especially in reviewing my life at this age—and as a writer. Spanish, after all, is not my first language. I was born in France and came to Mexico at nine years old. We spoke French at home, and I went first to the Colegio Windsor, where we were taught in the English manner, then to the French lycée, and afterward, for a few years, to Eden Hall, a convent boarding school of the Sacred Heart near Philadelphia—an order itself established in France. So I grew up as a French speaker, then learned English formally, but learned Spanish only from the household staff, which had an effect on my writing. Later on, though, I had help in improving it. To my regret, I never went to university. If I had been able to, I might have had a classical education, and I feel the lack of that. I had made a good beginning in Latin and would have studied and studied, and even completed a doctorate. As it is, I have had to work much harder than someone who has had a university education to write the sorts of things that might otherwise have come easily.
Yet you have the ability to draw people out so that they tell you what really matters to them, something a university education cannot teach. And the gift of putting all those interviews together so that the book reads like an unbroken narrative, a page-turner, while at the same time preserving the unique qualities of each voice. Did you ever take writing workshops the way young writers do now?
I did win a scholarship for about a year to the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, founded by the wonderful American writer Margaret Shedd and originally supported by Rockefeller funds. There were only about seven of us meeting once a week, although the way it was structured,