Elena Poniatowska, influential Mexican writer, still working at 90 –
She is 90, arguably Mexico’s most famous living writer, with an influence that cuts across the literary and the political. The Paris Review stopped by her home for an interview about 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 now a one-woman time capsule of a country’s modern history. Her groundbreaking work exposing the government coverup of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, when soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed student protesters in Mexico City, is considered a classic of literary journalism.
Poniatowska still writes a weekly newspaper column, showcasing her uncanny ability to get her subjects — presidents, murderers, victims of unspeakable crimes — to crack open.
“Her interlocutors enter a trance, lower their guard, and confess,” Mexican writer Juan Villoro said.
She’s a tiny woman — “no taller than a seated dog,” she says — who lives in a house with walls that are barely visible behind alphabetized rows of books. When a burglar smashed through the front door two years ago, she complained, wryly: “The thief didn’t take a single book. That makes me very sad.”
She has become — a product of her genius, but also her age — the kind of person expected to have answers. Visitors sink into her couch and ask about Mexico’s political future, about the state of Mexican literature, about living a creative life into one’s 90s.
She offers them tea. Then she stares at them as if they’ve received directions to the wrong living room. She didn’t become a journalist to share her opinions. And she is still very much a journalist, crisscrossing Mexico City with a digital tape recorder that she sometimes fumbles to turn on.
“It’s that I’m old!” she bellows in Spanish or 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 of the last king of Poland; on her mother’s lay a line of Mexican aristocrats. Her parents sent her to high school in a Pennsylvania convent.
It was not a background that pointed to a career documenting Mexico’s social unrest.
She began as a young reporter in the 1950s interviewing towering figures of 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 20s; 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 her first question.
“To have never been born,” he groaned, melodramatically.
Poniatowska wasn’t intimidated by the artist’s cryptic answers, or his clout.
“He is a huge plush elephant, Dumbo’s father, obedient and sleepy,” she wrote in the newspaper Excélsior.
Within a decade, she had turned her eye to the issues plaguing her adopted country. As a young mother, she would make weekly visits to a federal prison, son in tow, to interview violent criminals — including Ramón Mercader, the Soviet agent who killed the exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City — and political prisoners, such as 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 some of her best sources, including those who would share testimony for “La noche de Tlatelolco” (“Massacre in Mexico” in English), her book on the 1968 massacre. She interwove 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.
In the 1970s, when the Mexican government was accused of disappearing political opponents, Poniatowska wrote about the pain of the mothers of the missing.
“Death kills hope, but a disappearance is intolerable because it neither kills nor allows one to live,” she wrote.
In Mexico, where there are now more than 100,000 missing people, the sentence is still quoted frequently.
For “Nada, nadie: Las voces del temblor” (“Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake”), her book on the 1985 quake, she interviewed seamstresses stuck under the rubble and families sleeping in tents. She showed how incompetence and malice in the government and private sector contributed to the staggering death toll — at least 5,000 but possibly tens of thousands.
She never wanted to be revered, but reverence came nevertheless. American universities began inviting her when they realized she spoke fluent English and charged a fraction of Carlos Fuentes’s honorarium.
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, is she expected to have answers? She reminds her interlocutors that the thing she’s best at is asking questions.
When she attended one of the López Obrador’s news conferences in 2020, other journalists gathered around her, peppering her with their own questions. What did 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 journalist attending the conference.
López Obrador then brought her onstage.
“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 noble in a Cervantes novel.
More wisdom was expected of her. She continued writing her weekly column, along with novels and nonfiction tomes long after many of her closest friends — Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, Fuentes — had retired or died. Other writers wanted to know: how did she do it?
When she spoke at the International Book Festival in Monterrey last year, organizers labeled her talk “Writing at 90.”
The moderator asked if she thought she had left the world a better place than when she started writing. Poniatowska smirked. Not only had she not changed the world, she said; she hadn’t become better or wiser herself.
“Maybe I’m less wise than when I was 21,” she said.
It was a few weeks after the panel that I met Poniatowska for the first time in her living room.
She had forgotten that she had double booked our meeting time. “It’s that I’m old,” she explained, again. Her other guest was a Ph.D. student from the University of Barcelona writing his dissertation on “The Poniatowska Style,” as he described it.
She shrugged at the idea of her literary legacy. There was still too much to write about, including the presidency of the man she had once championed. She still keeps an “AMLO Presidente” pillow in her living room.
Poniatowska and López Obrador had known each other for years. She believed he might finally confront the issues she had spent a career chronicling: worsening inequality, entrenched corruption, violence against women and political opponents.
Four years into his presidency, she’s concerned about the way López Obrador appears to be inserting himself into the next election, even though Mexican law prevents him from running again. She laments the country’s increasing 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 though she’s careful not to talk much about it, she says she’s particularly interested in “the loneliness the comes with aging.”
I asked if she could talk more about that — shifting from journalism to autobiographical fiction — but she deflected.
“Maybe you’re asking me all this because you have it inside of you and you should do it.”
I told her that, like her, I felt more comfortable writing about other people 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.”
Poniatowska reveals little of herself 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 appreciate her columns (“Damn Frenchwoman”).
She hasn’t written about the feeling she sometimes has about her fame — “that it’s because, unlike the others, I didn’t die.”
But sometimes she poses a question that she herself is still reckoning with.
Interviewing the journalist Louise Mireles last year, she asked: “Is shedding light on a tragedy the same as helping to resolve it?”
I asked Poniatowska how she would respond to her question. The issues she cares most about are among the country’s most intractable. The man she thought might improve the country’s welfare, she now notes, has many of the same flaws as his predecessors.
“I never had the pretension to change anything,” she said. “That’s not what drives the work. It’s almost a religious feeling. You have to do what you have inside you.”