A morning with Elena Poniatowska

My friend Britta surprised me with a call on Wednesday. “Elena Poniatowska told me she would like to meet with your writers group tomorrow. It‘s short notice but do you think that would be alright?

“Alright? We will be honored!” I quickly assured her.

The Merida Writers Group meets every Thursday morning. Our purpose is to encourage and support one another’s writing projects but really, no two occasions have ever been the same. Sometimes everyone gets a chance to read their week’s literary effort and sometimes, one of us is at a crucial place in their story and we dedicate the entire two hour session to helping resolve it. What characterizes us is our positive approach.  The members of our circle are definitely NOT a hard-nosed, hard-hitting bunch.

Once in a while we attend writers’ events and from time to time, guests join us. Today we felt extremely gratified by Elena Poniatowska’s interest in coming to our meeting. What an auspicious start to 2011!

I will not give Ms. Poniatowska’s full bio here (for that I’ve provided links at the end of the post) But I will point out that she is one of Mexico’s premier journalists and novelists.  She has won numerous awards for her reports on such polemic topics as the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco and Mexico’s City’s 8.1 earthquake in 1985. There are many excellent writers in Mexico but what sets her apart is her unpretentiousness and the close contact she has with all Mexicans. Everyday people feel like she is “their voice.” Peasants and the President are equals in her eyes.

As I waited near the front gate of the residence where our meeting would be held today, the groundskeeper noticed my anticipation. “Can I help you?” he asked. “I’m waiting for our guest,” I said. When she arrived, his eyes shone and I could see he recognized “Elenita”. He stood to one side, gave her a big smile and sang out, “I’m Carlos, welcome!” She took his hand in hers and said, “Hello Carlos, it’s beautiful here!” She made his day and she made mine!

Inside Mary and Joe’s winter home, everyone sat in a circle waiting for me to come in with Elena. When I finally did so, I felt like a young girl bringing “someone special” to meet the family. All eyes were glued on Elena in her gauzy, white cotton skirt and blouse. And her bright eyes scanned the group with interest that equaled ours… One by one we introduced ourselves and told her what projects we’re working on. During this portion of our time together, I saw how curious she is about people and what makes them tick.

Then our barrage of questions began… we queried her on a host of topics and she gracefully addressed every one of them.

Cherie wondered, “What has given you the most joy in your life?” Well, Elena surprised us by saying, “My books don’t give me joy until they are past the eighth revision and I’m done! The birth of my three children has been my greatest joy.”  At heart her values are simple and solid.

We went on to speak about politics; women’s roles in Mexico; the immigration issue; unemployment and violence. She has well thought out points of view that she does not hesitate to make known.  For sure she is forthright.

I asked her about her interviewing techniques and how she perfected the process. “I began my career as a journalist and questioning people is what that involves. “ The interviews I’ve read are like her – meticulous.

Next she was asked if she learned more about herself by interviewing others. “No,” she said, “A person learns more about themselves through pain and loss.” Deep thoughtfulness passed over her elfin face.

When Elena Poniatowska was asked about what she sees in Mexico’s future, she expressed her criticism of the political machine. She laments the polarization in the country and yet we felt she has not lost all hopefulness . She sees a long, hard road ahead for the country. The elections in 2012 will be of utmost importance. Will the country have the nerve to take a new path? Will a leader who really leads come into the limelight? “We’ll see,” says she.  I don’t believe Elena learned patience without pain. She’s a woman of action and to see the wheels turning so slowly is not easy… to see them not move at all is torture. 

Our final question to Ms. Poniatowska involved writing. What advice did she have for new writers? Her answer was direct. “Write!” she said.  She added that she does her best writing in the mornings. Her newest book about the British / Mexican artist Leonora Carrington will be released in March. (remember, this artist’s bronze sculptures are currently being shown in town,  along Paseo de Montejo)

She said she was surprised that we had “interviewed” her, “I thought you were going to read for me.” Well, we didn’t need too much encouragement. If there’s one thing all writers love, it’s an audience to listen to their works in progress.

Marianne read her latest poem – an insightful look at the airport arrival area…

I read the first couple of pages of my “still in progress” novel.

Maryetta read from her “finished but not perfected” novel…

And as she had begun with a question to Elena… Cherie ended with a special short story about loss ( illustrated by her amazing photographs)

Although no one wanted to leave, two hours had passed by and we all needed to get home to hungry husbands and kitty-cats. We prevailed upon Elena to allow us to take a few photographs and Jen, a visiting daughter from Belgium did the honors.

Driving her home, Elena talked at length about how she enjoyed meeting everyone and I repeated how grateful we were for the time she spent with our Merida Writers’ Group. Her generousness truly seems remarkable!

And there you have my impressions of Elena Poniatowska, the journalist who has been described as Mexico’s conscience. Her unpretentiousness; curiosity; solid and simple values; her forthrightness; her meticulousness and her thoughtfulness; her hopefulness, and patience; her activism and her boundless generosity are certainly a hard act to follow. But the members of the Merida Writers’ Group will work at it bit by bit.

If you’d like to read more about Elena Poniatowska, here are a few links for you to look at:







Filed under Writing

10 responses to “A morning with Elena Poniatowska

  1. Just want to add that the Diario De Yucatan, (Marzo 8 de Febrero de 2011) had an interesting article about Elena Poniatowska, and (for you Carrington fans out there) her book LEONORA. Poniatowska just won the “premio Biblioteca Breva” for this novel. The link is here: http://www.yucatan.com.mx/fullBanner.php?ixsx=7&ur=http%3A//www.yucatan.com.mx/20110208/nota-7/74035-leonora-carrington-un-ser-muy-solitario.htm

    Mi español will be challenged by this read, but I sure want to try. (Dante is to receive more copies soon.)

  2. Nancy Walters

    Wow! I am so thrilled for you that she came to writers and that you all had such a close encounter with a wonderful woman. Good things come to good people.

  3. What an incredible honor! I’m so impressed that she came to your group and gave you so much of her time. She is an incredible woman, one of the real heroes of Mexico. What a great story!

    • Yes, we were very, very honored. She has great stature but her spirit is even more amazing. Her generosity and her concern for people of every walk of life is quite unique. I am still savoring the experience. I have long admired her and feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with her and hear her opinions and insights. I will never forget our morning with Elena Poniatowska.

  4. Thanks Joanna for introducing us to this writer – I didn’t know about her and her amazing body of work. I immediately went and bought two of her books online, and can’t wait to start reading.

    • Which books did you buy? I know you’ll enjoy Elena’s books very much!

      • I bought Nothing, Nobody: The Voices Of the Mexico City Earthquake, and (guilty pleasure) Mexican Color/Color en Mexico. Must also read the book about Tlatelolco…and others. Her publication list is like a literary candy store!

      • It absolutely is. And the list in Spanish is even more so. I have a couple of her books in English to lend you next time you are in Merida.

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