World Literature

Elena Poniatowska

 

BORN: 1932, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: French, Mexican

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Lilus Kikus (1954)

Until We Meet Again (1969)

Massacre in Mexico (1975)

The Night Visitor (1979)

Tinisima (1992)

 

 

Elena Poniatowska. Poniatowska, Elena, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Elena Poniatowska has devoted much of her fiction and journalism to giving a voice to the anonymous masses that do not have access to the printed word or to other modes of communication. Poniatowska includes women in the category of those without a voice, because the female experience has been traditionally ignored or silenced, especially in societies such as Mexico’s, which are overwhelmingly patriarchal. A compassionate humor and subtle irony characterize Poniatowska’s style, as does a great adeptness in the use of colloquial language. Early on in her writing career Poniatowska became known primarily as a journalist and interviewer, and she has continued her work as a journalist while developing her fiction. Because of this, and because some of her fictional characters have been inspired by real people, her narratives are usually associated with the genre of the testimonial or the documentary novel.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Mix of Cultures. Elena Poniatowska was born in Paris on May 19, 1932. Her mother, the former Paula Amor Iturbide, was Mexican, though also born in France; her father, Yvan E. Poniatowski, was of Polish origin. As a result of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 her family on her mother’s side lost part of its landholdings and fortune. Upon the outbreak of World War II she and her mother and sister moved to the south of France, where they lived with Yvan Poniatowski’s parents. There Elena and her younger sister attended public school. When Elena was eight years old, they moved to Mexico to live with her mother’s family, while her father remained in France fighting the Nazis. As a child she spoke French; only after moving to Mexico did she learn Spanish. In Mexico City she began her studies at a British high school, then attended the Liceo Frances de Mexico for a year, and finished her last two years of secondary school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart’s Eden Hall, in Torresdale, Pennsylvania.

After studying at Manhattanville College on a scholarship, Poniatowska began her literary career in 1953 in Mexico City, interviewing important Mexican literary and political personalities. She has worked as a journalist for more than thirty-five years, writing first for Excelsior in 1954 and, since 1955, for Novedades. She recounts that in her years as a reporter she did an interview a day, and that, when she went to work for Novedades, she was supposed to produce three articles every week. She has referred in interviews to the difficulties of combining the responsibilities of a mother, a wife, and a professional. She is still a regular contributor to such reviews as Vuelta and Plural, and is a member of the editorial board of fem., a feminist journal directed by university women.

Delving into Fiction. While pursuing a career in journalism, Poniatowska also delved into fiction. Her earliest fictional work, Lilus Kikus (1954), is a collection of short stories on the theme of childhood. The main character throughout the collection is a young girl, Lilus Kikus, bothered by feelings of estrangement from her peers because of her aristocratic European background—much like the author’s own. The stories are at least in part autobiographical, in particular in their rendition of a young girl’s conception of Catholicism. In the late 1960s Poniatowska began to experiment with more unconventional and inventive literary forms, melding fictional and documentary modes and using methods of investigation derived from her work as a journalist, in particular the interviews. Her first work in this form, Until We Meet Again (1969), was a critical success. It defies traditional classifications and has been called an autobiographical novel or a fictionalized biography. Its subject matter is also considered revolutionary because it portrays a wholly unconventional, defiant, yet believable woman. Until We Meet Again is based on a real person, Jesusa Palancares, and her struggles through an impoverished life filled with both hardship and adventure. The most remarkable characteristic brought forth by Poniatowska’s fictionalized autobiography is the physical and emotional strength of this peasant woman and her complete independence—traits that defy traditional notions of Latin American womanhood. Poniatowska based her book on extended interviews with her subject, modifying certain characters, language, and events to produce a story that fictionalizes the documentary report in certain respects. Her work as a journalist clearly informed her methodology in this novel.

Success as a Journalist. During the 1960s and 1970s Poniatowska continued to develop as a journalist. Crossword Puzzle (1961) is a collection of her interviews, including conversations with Luis Bunuel, Lazaro Cardenas, and Fidel Castro, while It All Began on Sunday (1963) documents what poor people do on Sundays and was illustrated by Alberto Beltran. Her journalistic pieces are important documents of oral history; they recount the people’s history of Mexico. Among them Massacre in Mexico (1971) stands out, as does Silence So Strong (1980) and Nothing, Nobody (1988), which contains testimonies about the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985.

One of the turning points of her career, Massacre in Mexico documents through a multitude of voices the massacre that occurred on October 2, 1968, when the Mexican police and soldiers fired on a peaceful protest crowd in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas after months of conflict between university students and the authorities. Poniatowska’s chronicle brings together testimony from many witnesses of different political orientations, including parents and students; statements that appeared in the newspapers; headlines and news items; documents of student organizations; transcripts of tape recordings; army dispatches; and Poniatowska’s own comments. In 1970 Poniatowska was awarded Mexico’s most prestigious literary award, the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, for Massacre in Mexico, but she refused to accept it. She accompanied her rejection with an open letter to the new president, Luis Echevarria Alvarez, who had been minister of the interior and responsible for security forces during the 1968 events. The sincerity of Poniatowska’s political and humanitarian sympathies, as commentators have noted, are manifest in this letter, in which she refuses to allow the incident of the student massacre to achieve a kind of closure by the bestowing of an award on her book.

Continuing Interest in Politics. Poniatowska continued to write fiction and newspaper and magazine articles throughout the 1990s and early part of the twenty-first century. In 2005, she became an outspoken supporter of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the losing candidate in the highly controversial Mexican presidential election of 2006.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Poniatowska's famous contemporaries include:

Diego Rivera (1886-1957): A famous Mexican muralist whom Poniatowska fictionalizes in Dear Diego.

Octavio Paz (1914-1998): Mexican poet and activist whose family was exiled for their support of the rebel Emiliano Zapata.

Luis Echeverria /Alvarez (1922-): Mexican president from 1970 to 1976 who honored the victims of the Tlatelolco massacre but also incurred a great deal of national debt.

Jimmy Carter (1924-): United States president from 1977 to 1981 and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Francois Truffaut (1932-1984): French NewWave filmmaker famous for such movies as The 400 Blows (1959).

Laura Esquivel (1950-): Mexican novelist most famous for her book full of love and recipes, Like Water for Chocolate.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Poniatowska gives words to those whom she feels have no voice, whether they be females or the poor or the elderly. Here are a few other works that attempt to give voices to marginalized and traditionally ''silent'' peoples or characters.

The Screwtape Letters (1942), a fictional work by C. S. Lewis. A fictionalized series of sensitive and affectionate letters written by a demon in hell to his young apprenticing nephew.

The Tin Drum (1959), a novel by GUnter Grass. Due to his twisted childhood spent in Nazi-occupied Poland, Oskar, the protagonist of Grass's famous novel, must tell his story with the help of his favorite toy: his drum.

Grendel (1971), a novel by John Gardner. The Beowulf tale turned on its ear and retold—sympathetically—from the monster Grendel's point of view.

Beloved (1987), a novel by Toni Morrison. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, structured much like a traditional slave narrative and based in part on a real person, tells the story of an escaped slave whose past returns to haunt her, literally.

 

Works in Literary Context

Blending Fiction and Nonfiction. A brief look at some of Poniatowska’s work reveals the originality with which she creates new literary genres. Dear Diego (1978) is a novel in which the real-life affair between the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his Russian mistress, the painter Angelina Beloff, is told through a sequence of heartfelt letters from Beloff to Rivera after he has left her in Paris. Poniatowska uses Beloff’s predicament as an implied critique of the social situation of women both within the family structure and in the socially unrecognized position of mistress. In The Night Visitor (1979), a collection of Poniatowska’s short stories, she uses a variety of modes of communication to convey the experiences of women from many social backgrounds, returning to issues treated in Until We Meet Again.

Poniatowska has stated that she sees herself first as a journalist, and a persistent theme when discussing her work has been the ways in which her journalistic outlook and methods have shaped her more personal and fictionalized writings. She is especially highly regarded in Mexico as an interviewer, and commentators have observed that she has given the interview a new dimension by turning it into a literary genre.

Speaking for the Voiceless Poniatowska’s avowed objective is to give a voice to those in modern Mexico whom she perceives as having no voice—the poor, the socially oppressed, the politically persecuted, students, women (particularly those of the most impoverished classes), and all others who have been marginalized. This is shown in Until We Meet Again, in which the main character Jesusa suffers the double stigma of being both poor and a woman. Poniatowska’s 1979 book Gaby Brimmer tells the story of a real-life contemporary who suffered from cerebral palsy and faced physical and social barriers at every turn in her life.

 

Works in Critical Context

It has been observed that humor and irony are frequently used by women writers as subtle means to subvert traditional, patriarchal values. Although Hispanic literature is not especially noted for its humor (indeed the reverse is the case), women writers often make use of this strategy in order to offer a critical perspective on the dominant order. Beneath an appearance of naivete that would seem to exalt certain traditional feminine characteristics, such as the eagerness to serve others while ignoring one’s own needs, Poniatowska allows the reader to laugh and celebrate an event that undermines the basis of society, mocking not only the ridiculousness of the double standard in relationships between the sexes, but also the Mexican Revolution, religion, and the law.

Massacre in Mexico. Poniatowska writes almost exclusively in Spanish—to date only a few of her books have been translated into English. La noche de Tlatelolco: Testimonios de historia oral, later translated as Massacre in Mexico, recounts Poniatowska’s experiences in Mexico City during the 1968 student riots. J. A. Ellis explains in the Library Journal that the work is ‘‘the story of the continuing tragedy of Mexico.... The mood ranges from the early heady optimism of the students ... to shock and despair.’’ In a Commonweal review, Ronald Christ states that Massacre in Mexico is a ‘‘shatteringly beautiful book.... Recording everything she could about the incident and the events that led up to it, Poniatowska has assembled what she calls a ‘collage of voices,’ a brilliantly edited text whose texture is the weaving of anecdote, official history, gossip, placards, graffiti, journalism, eye-witness accounts, agonized interpretation.’’

Tinisima. After ten years of research, Poniatowska published Tinisima in Spanish in 1994. In novel form, it tells the tale of Tina Modetti, an Italian artist and photographer who emigrated from Italy to San Francisco when she was seventeen. She later moved to Mexico and became the photographer Edward Weston’s lover. She also had liaisons with Diego Rivera and other Mexican cultural and political contemporaries and became a Communist militant. Cristina Ferreira-Pinto, in World Literature Today, writes: ‘‘Tinisima is a novel that certainly involves the reader. It stimulates much reflection, and the issues it addresses, through its portrayal of a woman, a country, and a time, are disturbingly contemporary.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Explain, with examples, how Poniatowska’s writing style gives voice to the poor and oppressed.

2. Contrast the protagonist of Dear Diego with Laura Esquivel’s in Like Water for Chocolate. Which female character is the more independent? How and why is this character so independent?

3. Whom does Poniatowska seem to blame for the events in Massacre in Mexico? Does she imply that it is solely the government’s fault?

4. Poniatowska often fictionalizes real-life artists; what does she gain from taking people out of real life and recasting them as characters?

5. If Poniatowska were an American writer, what events or people do you think she would find interesting enough to write about and fictionalize? Why?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Davis, Lisa. ‘‘An Invitation to Understanding among Poor Women of the Americas: The Color Purple and Hasta no verte Jesus mio.’’ In Re-inventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of the Literature of the United States and Spanish America. Edited by Chevigny and Gari Laguardia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Gonzalez, Alfonso, and Beth Miller. ‘‘Elena Poniatowska.’’ In 26 autoras del Mexico actual. Mexico City: Costa-Amic, 1978.

Starcevic, Elizabeth. ‘‘Breaking the Silence: Elena Poniatowska, a Writer in Transition.” In Literatures in Transition: The Many Voices of the Caribbean Area: A Symposium. Edited by Rose S. Minc. Gaithersburg, Md.: Hispamerica, 1982.

Tatum, Charles. ‘‘Elena Poniatowska’s Until I See You, Dear Jesus' In Latin American Women Writers: Yesterday and Today. Edited by Charles Tatum and Yvette Miller. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1977.

Periodicals

Chevigny, Bell Gale. ‘‘The Transformation of Privilege in the Work of Elena Poniatowska.’’ Latin American Literary Review 13, no. 26 (1985): 49-62.

Echeverria, Miriam Balboa. ‘‘Notas a una escritura testimonial: Fuerte es elsilencio de Elena Poniatowska.’’ Discurso Literario 5 (Spring 1988): 365-73.

Hancock, Joel. ‘‘Elena Poniatowska’s Hasta no verte Jesus mio: The Remaking of the Image of Woman.’’ Hispania 66, no. 3 (1983): 353-59.

Lemaitre, Monique J. ‘‘Jesusa Palancares y la dialectica de la emancipacioi n feminina.’’ Revista Iberoamericana 132/133 (1985): 751-63.

Miller, Beth. ‘‘Interview with Elena Poniatowska.’’ Latin American Literary Review 4, no. 7 (1975): 73-78.

Olmos, Margarite Fernandez. ‘‘El genero testimonial: aproximaciones feministas.’’ Revistal Review Interamericana 2, no. 1 (1981): 69-75.