Elena Poniatowska, influential Mexican author, nonetheless working at 90

Writer Elena Poniatowska surveys the bushes within the plaza in entrance of her residence whereas on her every day stroll within the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)


MEXICO CITY — Elena Poniatowska sorts slowly now. She works in a small, sunlit workplace, subsequent to a portray of a girl pulling on an unlimited tree with a skinny rope. The tree bends away from her, on the breaking point.

“People say that’s me, always trying to save something,” she mentioned.

She is 90, arguably Mexico’s most well-known dwelling author, with an affect that cuts throughout the literary and the political. The Paris Review stopped by her residence for an interview about prose. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador got here when he wished her to marketing campaign for him.

She has chronicled each main social motion in Mexico over the previous seven many years, her greater than 40 books now a one-woman time capsule of a rustic’s trendy historical past. Her groundbreaking work exposing the federal government coverup of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, when troopers killed lots of of unarmed scholar protesters in Mexico City, is taken into account a basic of literary journalism.

Poniatowska nonetheless writes a weekly newspaper column, showcasing her uncanny skill to get her topics — presidents, murderers, victims of unspeakable crimes — to crack open.

“Her interlocutors enter a trance, lower their guard, and confess,” Mexican author Juan Villoro mentioned.

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She’s a tiny lady — “no taller than a seated dog,” she says — who lives in a home with partitions which can be barely seen behind alphabetized rows of books. When a burglar smashed by the entrance door two years in the past, she complained, wryly: “The thief didn’t take a single book. That makes me very sad.”

She has turn out to be — a product of her genius, but in addition her age — the type of individual anticipated to have solutions. Visitors sink into her sofa and ask about Mexico’s political future, concerning the state of Mexican literature, about dwelling a inventive life into one’s 90s.

She presents them tea. Then she stares at them as in the event that they’ve acquired instructions to the fallacious lounge. She didn’t turn out to be a journalist to share her opinions. And she continues to be very a lot a journalist, crisscrossing Mexico City with a digital tape recorder that she typically fumbles to activate.

“It’s that I’m old!” she bellows in Spanish or English or French.

She landed in Mexico 81 years in the past, fleeing the Nazi occupation of France on a refugee boat from Paris. On her father’s facet, she was descended from of the final king of Poland; on her mom’s lay a line of Mexican aristocrats. Her dad and mom despatched her to highschool in a Pennsylvania convent.

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It was not a background that pointed to a profession documenting Mexico’s social unrest.

An American homicide suspect fled to Mexico. The Gringo Hunters had been ready.

She started as a younger reporter within the Nineteen Fifties interviewing towering figures of the nation’s artwork world, nearly all of them middle-aged males. Elenita, her topics referred to as her: Little Elena. When she interviewed the muralist Diego Rivera, she was in her early 20s; her mom drove her to the interview and waited within the automotive. She wore lengthy white gloves.

“What is the height of happiness?” she requested Rivera. It was her first query.

“To have never been born,” he groaned, melodramatically.

Poniatowska wasn’t intimidated by the artist’s cryptic solutions, or his clout.

“He is a huge plush elephant, Dumbo’s father, obedient and sleepy,” she wrote within the newspaper Excélsior.

Within a decade, she had turned her eye to the problems plaguing her adopted nation. As a younger mom, she would make weekly visits to a federal jail, son in tow, to interview violent criminals — together with Ramón Mercader, the Soviet agent who killed the exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City — and political prisoners, such because the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.

“Seen from the sky, the prison is a star fallen on the earth,” she wrote.

It was in prisons that she made a few of her finest sources, together with those that would share testimony for “La noche de Tlatelolco” (“Massacre in Mexico” in English), her ebook on the 1968 bloodbath. She interwove lots of of hours of interviews with poetry, newspaper clippings and different ephemera for an revolutionary work that Octavio Paz referred to as “a historical chronicle and also a work of verbal imagination.” It turned one of many best-selling books in Mexican historical past.

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In the Nineteen Seventies, when the Mexican authorities was accused of disappearing political opponents, Poniatowska wrote concerning the ache of the moms of the lacking.

“Death kills hope, but a disappearance is intolerable because it neither kills nor allows one to live,” she wrote.

In Mexico, the place there at the moment are greater than 100,000 lacking individuals, the sentence continues to be quoted incessantly.

For “Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor” (“Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake”), her ebook on the 1985 quake, she interviewed seamstresses caught beneath the rubble and households sleeping in tents. She confirmed how incompetence and malice within the authorities and personal sector contributed to the staggering dying toll — no less than 5,000 however probably tens of hundreds.

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She by no means wished to be revered, however reverence got here however. American universities started inviting her after they realized she spoke fluent English and charged a fraction of Carlos Fuentes’s honorarium.

They requested her to elucidate Mexico, to speak concerning the intersection of literature and journalism, to touch upon Latin American feminism. At what level in a author’s life, she wonders, is she anticipated to have solutions? She reminds her interlocutors that the factor she’s finest at is asking questions.

When she attended one of many López Obrador’s information conferences in 2020, different journalists gathered round her, peppering her with their very own questions. What did she consider the state of Mexican politics? The state of the press?

“An honor! An honor!” some shouted, at the same time as she deflected their makes an attempt, explaining that she was simply one other journalist attending the convention.

López Obrador then introduced her onstage.

“Look who visited us,” he mentioned, holding her left hand. “The best writer in our country.”

At some level, after her hair turned grey, after her grandchildren had been born, individuals began calling her “Doña,” as if she had been an growing old noble in a Cervantes novel.

More knowledge was anticipated of her. She continued writing her weekly column, together with novels and nonfiction tomes lengthy after lots of her closest mates — Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, Fuentes — had retired or died. Other writers wished to know: how did she do it?

When she spoke on the International Book Festival in Monterrey final 12 months, organizers labeled her speak “Writing at 90.”

The moderator requested if she thought she had left the world a greater place than when she began writing. Poniatowska smirked. Not solely had she not modified the world, she mentioned; she hadn’t turn out to be higher or wiser herself.

“Maybe I’m less wise than when I was 21,” she mentioned.

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It was a number of weeks after the panel that I met Poniatowska for the primary time in her lounge.

She had forgotten that she had double booked our assembly time. “It’s that I’m old,” she defined, once more. Her different visitor was a Ph.D. scholar from the University of Barcelona writing his dissertation on “The Poniatowska Style,” as he described it.

She shrugged on the thought of her literary legacy. There was nonetheless an excessive amount of to jot down about, together with the presidency of the person she had as soon as championed. She nonetheless retains an “AMLO Presidente” pillow in her lounge.

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Poniatowska and López Obrador had recognized one another for years. She believed he may lastly confront the problems she had spent a profession chronicling: worsening inequality, entrenched corruption, violence towards girls and political opponents.

Four years into his presidency, she’s involved about the best way López Obrador seems to be inserting himself into the following election, regardless that Mexican legislation prevents him from operating once more. She laments the nation’s growing militarization. And the frequency with which AMLO blasts his critics.

“The result has been division,” she says.

Now, when she tires of politics, she turns to her novel. And although she’s cautious to not speak a lot about it, she says she’s significantly inquisitive about “the loneliness the comes with aging.”

I requested if she may speak extra about that — shifting from journalism to autobiographical fiction — however she deflected.

“Maybe you’re asking me all this because you have it inside of you and you should do it.”

I instructed her that, like her, I felt extra comfy writing about different individuals than writing about myself.

“But maybe you should start. If you don’t, what is going to happen is what happened to me. I always had something else to do. I had to interview this one and that one. And then I never did write about myself.”

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Poniatowska reveals little of herself in her weekly columns or her novels. She hasn’t written about going blind in her left eye, or dropping her cat through the pandemic, or the indignant, nameless telephone calls she nonetheless will get from individuals who don’t recognize her columns (“Damn Frenchwoman”).

She hasn’t written concerning the feeling she typically has about her fame — “that it’s because, unlike the others, I didn’t die.”

But typically she poses a query that she herself continues to be reckoning with.

Interviewing the journalist Louise Mireles final 12 months, she requested: “Is shedding light on a tragedy the same as helping to resolve it?”

I requested Poniatowska how she would reply to her query. The points she cares most about are among the many nation’s most intractable. The man she thought may enhance the nation’s welfare, she now notes, has most of the identical flaws as his predecessors.

“I never had the pretension to change anything,” she mentioned. “That’s not what drives the work. It’s almost a religious feeling. You have to do what you have inside you.”

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