Elena Poniatowska, influential Mexican writer, still working at 90
She’s 90, arguably Mexico’s most famous living writer, with an influence that spans literature and politics. The Paris Review stopped by her house for an interview on prose. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came when he wanted her to campaign for him.
She has chronicled every major social movement in Mexico over the past seven decades, her more than 40 books are now a time capsule for a single woman in a country’s modern history. His groundbreaking work exposing the government cover-up of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, when soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed students protesters in Mexico City, is considered a classic of literary journalism.
Poniatowska still writes a weekly newspaper column, showing her incredible ability to blast her subjects – presidents, murderers, victims of unspeakable crimes.
“His interlocutors go into a trance, let their guard down and confess,” said Mexican writer Juan Villoro.
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She’s a petite woman — “no bigger than a sitting dog,” she says — who lives in a house with barely visible walls behind rows of alphabetized books. When a burglar broke down the front door two years ago, she complained wryly: “The thief didn’t take a single book. It makes me very sad.
She became – a product of her genius, but also of her age – the kind of person who was supposed to have answers. Visitors sink into his couch and ask questions about Mexico’s political future, the state of Mexican literature, living a creative life into the 90s.
She offers them tea. SO she looks at them as if they have been given instructions to the wrong salon. She didn’t become a journalist to share her opinions. And she’s still very much a journalist, criss-crossing Mexico City with a digital tape recorder that she sometimes tries to turn on.
“I’m old! she bellows in Spanish, English or French.
She landed in Mexico 81 years ago, fleeing the Nazi occupation of France on a refugee boat from Paris. On her father’s side, she was descended from the last king of Poland; on his mother’s bed a line of Mexican aristocrats. Her parents sent her to high school at a convent in Pennsylvania.
It was not a background that indicated a career documenting social unrest in Mexico.
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She started out as a young reporter in the 1950s interviewing leading figures in the country’s art world, almost all of them middle-aged men. Elenita, her subjects called her: Little Elena. When she interviewed the muralist Diego Rivera, she was in her early twenties; her mother drove her to the interview and waited in the car. She wore long white gloves.
“What is the height of happiness? she asked Rivera. It was his first question.
“Not being born,” he moaned, melodramatically.
Poniatowska was not intimidated by the artist’s enigmatic answers, nor by her influence.
“He’s a huge stuffed elephant, Dumbo’s father, obedient and sleepy,” she wrote in the newspaper Excelsior.
Within a decade, she had turned to the issues that plagued her adopted country. As a young mother, she traveled weekly to a federal prison, her son, to interrogate violent criminals – including Ramón Mercader, the Soviet agent who killed exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City – and political prisoners, such as the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.
“Seen from above, prison is a star fallen to earth,” she wrote.
It was in prisons that she made some of her best sources, including those who would share the testimony of “La noche de Tlatelolco” (“Massacre in Mexico” in English), her book about the 1968 massacre. interwoven hundreds of hours of interviews with poetry, newspaper clippings and other ephemera for an innovative work that Octavio Paz called “a historical chronicle and also a work of verbal imagination”. It became one of the best-selling books in Mexican history.
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In the 1970s, when the Mexican government was accused of making political opponents disappear, Poniatowska wrote about the pain of the mothers of the disappeared.
“Death kills hope, but a disappearance is intolerable because it neither kills nor allows life,” she writes.
In Mexico, where there are now more than 100,000 missing persons, the sentence is still frequently cited.
For “Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor” (“Nothing, Nobody: Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake”), her book about the 1985 earthquake, she interviewed seamstresses trapped under the rubble and families sleeping in tents. She showed how government and private sector incompetence and malice contributed to the staggering death toll – at least 5,000 but possibly tens of thousands.
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She never wanted to be revered, but reverence came nonetheless. American universities started inviting her when they realized she was fluent in English and charged a fraction of Carlos Fuentes’ fees.
They asked her to explain Mexico, to talk about the intersection of literature and journalism, to comment on Latin American feminism. At what point in a writer’s life, she wonders, do we expect her to have answers? She reminds her interlocutors that what she does best is ask questions.
When she attended one of López Obrador’s press conferences in 2020, other journalists gathered around her, peppering her with their own questions. What does she think of the state of Mexican politics? The state of the press?
“An Honor! An Honor!” some shouted, even as she deflected their attempts, explaining that she was just another reporter attending the conference.
López Obrador then brought her on stage.
“Look who visited us,” he said, holding her left hand. “The best writer in our country.”
At some point, after her hair turned gray after her grandchildren were born, people started calling her “Doña”, as if she were an aging nobleman in a Cervantes novel.
We expected more wisdom from her. She continued to write her weekly column, as well as novels and non-fiction tomes long after many of her closest friends – Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, Fuentes – had retired or passed away. Other writers wanted to know: how did she do it?
When she spoke at the Monterrey International Book Festival last year, organizers called her speech “writing at 90”.
The moderator asked if she thought she left a better world than when she started writing. Poniatowska smiled. Not only had she not changed the world, she said; she herself had not become better or wiser.
“Maybe I’m less wise than when I was 21,” she said.
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It was a few weeks after the panel that I first met Poniatowska in her living room.
She had forgotten that she had double booked our meeting time. “I’m old,” she explained again. His other guest was a Ph.D. student from the University of Barcelona writing his thesis on “The Poniatowska style”, as he described it.
She shrugged at the thought of her literary heritage. There was still too much to write about, including the presidency of the man she had once championed. She always keeps an “AMLO Presidente” pillow in her living room.
Poniatowska and López Obrador had known each other for years. She believed he could finally confront the issues she had spent a career chronicling: widening inequality, entrenched corruption, violence against women and political opponents.
Four years into her presidency, she worries about how López Obrador appears to fit into the upcoming elections, even though Mexican law bars him from running again. She deplores the growing militarization of the country. And the frequency with which AMLO berates its detractors.
“The result was division,” she says.
Now, when she tires of politics, she turns to her novel. And even if she is careful not to talk about it, she says she is particularly interested in “the loneliness that accompanies aging”.
I asked if she could talk more about it — moving from journalism to autobiographical fiction — but she wavered.
“Maybe you’re asking me all this because you have it in you and you should.”
I told her that, like her, I felt more comfortable writing about others than writing about myself.
“But maybe you should start. If you don’t, what will happen is what happened to me. I always had other things to do. I had to interview this one and that one. And then I’ve never written about myself.
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Poniatowska reveals herself little in her weekly columns or her novels. She hasn’t written about going blind in her left eye, or losing her cat during the pandemic, or the angry, anonymous phone calls she still gets from people who don’t like her columns. . (“Cursed Frenchwoman”).
She hasn’t written about how she sometimes feels about her fame – “that it’s because, unlike others, I’m not dead.”
But sometimes she asks a question that she herself still reckons with.
Asked last year by journalist Louise Mireles, she wondered: “Is shedding light on a tragedy helping to resolve it?
I asked Poniatowska how she would react his question. The issues he cares about most are some of the most intractable in the country. The man she thought could improve the well-being of the country, she now notes, has many of the same flaws as his predecessors.
“I never pretended to change anything,” she said. “That’s not what motivates work. It’s almost a religious feeling. You have to do what you have inside of you.
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