Friday, May 02, 2014

Elena Poniatowska

Elena Poniatowska
The Miguel de Cervantes Prize ( Premio de Literatura en Lengua Castellana Miguel de Cervantes), established in 1976, is awarded annually to honor the lifetime achievement of an outstanding writer in the Spanish language. The prize is highly regarded, often referred to as the Noble Prize for Spanish language literature. The candidates are proposed by the Association of Spanish Language Academies, and the prize is awarded by the Ministry of Culture of Spain. The winner receives a monetary award of 125,000 euros, making it one of the richest literary prizes in the world.

Past winners include Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa.  The 2013 winner (announced April, 2014) is the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, only the fourth woman to win the prize.

During the award ceremony (held each year on the traditional commemoration of Cervantes' death, April 23), Spain's King Juan Carlos said Poniatowska has always had a commitment to humanity, especially women, giving "a voice to the disadvantaged."

The Spanish monarch delivered his address at the University of Alcala de Henares. He added that the prize to the 81-year-old writer "is a tribute to all the people who, like the honoree herself, have paved the way for achieving the promise of a better future."

"Humanity is the center of gravity of the works of Elena Poniatowska. The need to give a voice to the disadvantaged, to bring to light the contradictions of progress, to denounce social discrimination and all kinds of injustice, make up the spirit of her literary production," King Juan Carlos said.

"Elena Poniatowska helps women elevate themselves with their own voice and find roles that they are entitled to by rights," the King concluded.

Hector Tobar in the Los Angeles Times reported:

Throughout her life Poniatowska penned works of journalism that focused on the struggles of the poor, and on the activists who resisted the power of the one-party government that dominated Mexican life for much of the 20th century.

Reporters in Mexico today are still living in “difficult and terrible situations, because Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist,” she said.

Poniatowska herself received threats in 1971, when she released her book about the Tlatelolco massacre (the book is available in English as Massacre in Mexico). It was the first account to challenge the official version of events that night, and implicated army troops in the killing. Her Mexico City publisher, an exile from Spain’s right-wing dictatorship, received many threats.

“They told him they were going to burn down his office,” Poniatowska told El Pais. “He answered: ‘Look, I was in the Spanish Civil War. I know what war is, and this book will be published.’ Then they spread the rumor that the army was going to seize his business, but it was just propaganda. The whole world ran out to buy the book. Four editions were printed in one month. It was crazy.”

“This is an opening for many women, because there are many more women who deserved this more than I did,” Poniatowska said in a Mexico City news conference before leaving for Madrid. 

In her acceptance speech, the author referred to Miguel de Cervantes' most famous novel, Don Quixote, and its windmill-fighting main character.

"I'm a writer who can't talk of windmills because they don't exist anymore, so I speak about those humble wanderers who with their pack, their pick and spade make their own luck and trust in an impulsive writer to recall what they have told her."

As further proof of Poniatowska's universal respect, I offer the comments of two of my fellow bloggers who are great admirer's of Poniatowska:

Em Sedano:  [Elena Poniatowska is] one of the greater American writers. I heard her read from La Piel del Cielo at the Long Beach Latino museum. Place was packed with Spanish-speakers for the Spanish language presentation. For English-only readers I recommend Here's to you, Jesusa! as a companion piece to Tinisima

Xánath Caraza:  La literatura de Elena Poniatowska ha causado gran impacto en mi formación como escritora. Su estilo es accesible y, muchas veces, se desplaza entre la ficción e historia, reflexionando constantemente sobre la sociedad mexicana, la evalúa y nos cuenta sobre las rupturas dentro de ésta. La primera vez que la leí fue a través de su libro La noche de Tlatelolco: testimonios de historia oral. El impacto que causó en mí sigue vigente, fue como si a través de sus líneas me hubieran echado un cubetazo de agua fría entre sonido de balas y helicópteros sobrevolando los edificios de la Ciudad de México. El libro trata de la represión del movimiento estudiantil de 1968 en México y específicamente del 2 de octubre de ese año cuando los estudiantes en la Plaza de las Tres Culturas en Tlatelolco fueron emboscados. Muchos de estos estudiantes se consideraron desaparecidos, además de los asesinados en medio de confusión, que hasta ahora, nunca ha sido plenamente clarificada. Uno de los estudiantes desaparecidos era mi tío, que un año más tarde fue encontrado en la prisión de Lecumberri, junto con otros líderes estudiantiles. Mi tío, una vez que salió de Lecumberri, se mudó de la Ciudad de México y nunca más volvió a hablar del asunto. Los que me contaron de esto fueron mis padres, quienes también fueron a la protesta desde la ciudad de Xalapa. Me contaron que tuvieron que caminar muchas cuadras para poder llegar a la Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Todavía faltando cierta distancia para llegar, empezaron a escuchar los helicópteros y disparos. Luego vieron una estampida de gente que corría hacia ellos, tratando de huir, en medio de un caos total, ropa ensangrentada en el piso y zapatos esparcidos por todos lados. Cuando, años más tarde, tuve en mis manos La noche de Tlatelolco, al hojear el libro, recuerdo, haber oído los helicópteros y a la gente gritar en ese 2 de octubre de 1968. He procurado leer a Elena Poniatowska toda mi vida, para mí es un ejemplo a seguir. Como escritora es altamente productiva. Las voces en sus novelas son tridimensionales y se vuelven de carne y hueso en cada una de sus líneas. Pudiera seguir hablando de ella por largo rato pero eso será para otra ocasión. Qué gusto que haya recibido tan importante premio literario, el Premio Cervantes 2013. ¡Enhorabuena, Elena Poniawtoska!

Photo by Xánath Caraza

 It has been reported that the author will donate her prize money to a Mexican foundation aimed at promoting culture in her homeland.


Elena Poniatowska has written more than forty books in a variety of formats and genres. Probably her best-known work is the nonfiction investigative book, La noche de Tlatelolco (Massacre in Mexico) (1971), about the 1968 government repression of student protestors in Mexico City. She also wrote about the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Nada nadie. Las voces del temblor (Nothing No one: The Voices of the Earthquake) (1988.) In each of these books she used eyewitness accounts that she obtained herself by interviewing survivors, prisoners, victims and others who were directly impacted by the events.

Her fiction includes her first novel,  Lilus Kikus (1954),  a coming-of-age story about Mexican women before feminism. It centers on a young girl who is molded by society to become an obedient bride. In Hasta no verte Jesús mío (Here's to You, Jesusa!)(1969), a book labelled as "remarkable" by the New York Times, Poniatowska brilliantly tells the story of the "silent world of an illiterate campesina."

Tinisima is historical fiction based on the life of Tina Modotti -- artist's model, actor, world-class photographer, bohemian, revolutionary, and lover of some of the world's most famous men such as Edward Weston and Diego Rivera. She also was framed for the assassination of the charismatic Cuban revolutionary, Julio Antonio Mella, one of her many other lovers, spied throughout Europe for Stalin's Comintern, and suffered immensely during the Spanish Civil War, the conflict that finally broke her.  During the twenties she was admired and loved throughout Mexico (the people affectionately referred to her as Tinísima) because of her sympathetic photographs that graphically and poetically depicted the plight of the poor and working people of her adopted country (she was born in Italy in 1896.) In the thirties she gave up photography but lived an exciting and dangerous life as a Communist operative in the cause of the revolution. She volunteered in Spain as a nurse and in other capacities during that country's tumultuous civil war. When she died in 1942 of heart failure, in Mexico, she was practically unknown, withdrawn and depressed.

Her story encompasses major events of the Twentieth Century and her life is filled with themes that are relevant today -- feminism, leftist sectarianism and male chauvinism, the betrayal of idealism, art vs. political art, etc. -- but, more importantly, her life is a testament to the power of the individual who sees wrong and wants to make it right, and then pursues that goal as her life's work.

Poniatowska researched this book for ten years. She dug into all the sources available to her at the time including several biographies. She also interviewed numerous people who were on the scene with Modotti including her last lover, and fellow spy, Vittorio Vidali. The author traveled to Italy to talk directly with Vidali. The interview lasted a week and resulted in more than 350 pages of questions and answers.

Based on all that research, in lesser hands the book could have ended up as a turgid academic tome. But Poniatowska's talent combined with the inherent richness of Modotti's life produced a marvelous read. The book is written in a straightforward, journalistic style (Poniatowska started as a reporter) that never loses its balance. Through the use of Modotti's letters and official references such as court transcripts, the reader is inserted in the middle of the historical events, but the intimate observations from Tina herself, as interpreted by the author, add texture and subjective flavor. Written in the present tense, for the most part, the book engages the reader at the most personal level. Without speaking directly to Modotti, this is as close as we are going to get to knowing what was on her mind, her motivations, fears, triumphs and disasters.

Poniatowska originally published Tinisima in 1992. I read the excellent trade paperback edition published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2006. One feature I especially liked about the book's layout is that each chapter begins with a photograph taken by Modotti or Weston, or that is relevant to the story such as a news shot of policemen questioning Modotti. The translation is by Katherine Silver.

Fine examples of Modotti's photography can be seen on the Museum of Modern Art's website.



Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

I had a dream a few months ago that I was interviewing Elena Poniatowska for La Bloga. She was very funny. In real life, I teach her regularly in my literature classes. Students love her work, especially Jesusa who comes off the page and gives us an example of a strong, resilient mujer/soldadera

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Felicidades to her on receiving the Cervantes Prize. It is well deserved and inspiring to have a mujer as the recipient. Bravo Poniatowska!

Desiree said...

Thank you for this.
I learned about her as I was writing my essay on Plaza de las Tres Cultures over at TheToast.
This tells me so much morel

Manuel Ramos said...

Desiree - thank you, good to hear from our readers that La Bloga is useful and informative.