Elena Poniatowska

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Elena Poniatowska

Elena Poniatowska (born 1933) was a feminist Mexican journalist, novelist, essayist, and short-story writer.

Elena Poniatowska was born on May 19, 1933, in Paris, France. Her father was French of Polish ancestry and her mother a Mexican who was raised in France. When she was nine Poniatowska's family moved to Mexico City. She grew up speaking French and learned English in a private British school. However, her knowledge of Spanish came from talking with the maids, so her written Spanish was largely colloquial. Poniatowska developed ties with the Mexican lower class in her youth and thus gained a sense of belonging to and an understanding of the Mexican culture. She felt and thought of herself as completely Mexican and of Spanish as her native language. Her works include characters who belong to the underprivileged classes, and she often gave voice to the powerless of her country.

She started writing as a journalist in 1954 and interviewed many famous Mexican and international writers. Many of these interviews can be found in her Palabras Cruzadas (1961; Crossed Words) and later in her Todo México (1990; All of Mexico). Besides her famous interviews, she also wrote several novels, short stories, chronicles, plays, and poems.

Among her novels are Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (1969; Until I see You, My Jesus), which earned her the Mazatlan Prize; Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela (1978; Dear Diego, love Quiela); La "Flor de Lis" (1988; The "Flower of the Lily"); and Tinísima (1992; Tinisima). Other narratives include Lilus Kikus (1954; Lilus Kikus; later an expanded edition appeared as Los cuentos [The Accounts] de Lilus Kikus in 1967); De noche vienes (1979; You Come at Night); Ay vida no me mereces (1985; Life, You Don't Deserve Me); Domingo 7 (1982; Seventh Sunday); Gaby Brimmer (1979; Gaby Brimmer); Todo empezó el domingo (1963; Everything Started on Sunday); and El último guajolote (1982; The Last Turkey).

Her chronicle La noche de Tlatelolco (1971; Massacre in Mexico) earned her the Javier Villarrutia Prize. She refused to accept it because she did not want to identify herself with then-President Echeverría's political establishment. Other chronicles include Fuerte es el silencio (1980; Silence Is Strong), and Nada, nadie: las voces del temblor (1988; Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake).

In theater, her play Melés y Teleo (1956; Melés and Teleo) uses a word game in the title, meaning "you read to me and I read to you." Finally, her poetry can be found in the Spanish publications Rojo de vida y negro de muerte, Estaciones, and Abside.

Ponistowska's skill as a novelist was her ability to combine fact with fiction. She lent her voice to the voiceless, but at the same time she took a step back and let the victims come forward to express their needs and pain, letting the Mexican people speak through her. Her settings were mostly in Mexico, and her characters were either Mexicans or people such as Angelina Beloff (Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela) or Tina Modotti (Tinísima) who lived important passages of their lives in Mexico. Many of her female characters are at the mercy of men. Their lives are ruled by a world made up of double standards. They try to do the right thing, but in the end they lose the men they loved and for whom they sacrificed. It is clear then that these women are never really appreciated.

Poniatowska had a great affinity with women and liked to write about them. But she also was interested in the poor, the weak, the street children, and the powerless. Interviewing the common people of Mexico became her trademark. After her first publication (Lilus Kikus, 1954), her writings became more and more political. For example, in Querido Diego (1978) Quiela's story is completely personal. It focuses upon her and her lover, the famous painter Diego Rivera. By comparison, in Tinísima (1992) Poniatowska reveals not just Modotti's emotional life but also her professional and political life as a communist.

However, Poniatowska's style often made it difficult for readers outside Mexico to appreciate her. Critics often attacked her docudrama plot twists where famous events and people coincided in remarkable meetings. For instance, Tinísima, published in the U.S. in 1996, received lukewarm reviews. "When history is offered in the form of fiction, caveat emptor, " warned a reviewer for the New York Times. Explaining Poniatowska's embrace of the unique Latin-American testimonio form, feminist Doris Sommer wrote somewhat critically, "Testimonio is precisely not fiction. It is a first-person narrative in Latin America that, like other oral histories, can be elicited by sympathetic intellectuals who interview illiterate or semiliterate working people."

It has been said that Poniatowska does not offer solutions to the problems raised in her texts. This may be true, but many feel that without her chronicles, people (including many Mexicans) would still be unaware of the issues addressed. Her writings, especially her chronicles, are an excellent cultural, political, sociological, economic, and historical source of information about Mexico and its people.

Further Reading

Writings about Poniatowska have appeared mostly in Spanish. The sources listed here in chronological order are the best available in English.

Elizabeth Starcevic's chapter on Poniatowska in Literatures in Transition: The Many Voices of the Caribbean Area: A Symposium (1982) primarily emphasizes Poniatowska's role as the voice for the oppressed in Mexico who otherwise would not be heard. Bell Gale Chevigny discusses Poniatowska's presentation of female characters and her attention to political and social issues in an article in Latin American Literary Review (1985). In Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book (1990), Beth Jörgenson provides an excellent overview of Poniatowska's major themes in her works, plus a helpful survey of the critical commentary about Poniatowska. Doris Sommer provides a feminist look at Poniatowska's work in the Signs: The Journal of Women in Culture and Society (Summer 1995.) An even more thorough discussion of the author's work can be found in Jörgenson's book, The Writing of Elena Poniatowska: Engaging Dialogues (1994). □