Saturday, July 31, 2004

Elenisima -- Tribute to Elena Poniatowska

Guanajuatenses recently thronged the patio of the Meson San Antonio on Calle Alonso eager to hear about the new biography of Elena Poniatowska (1932), considered by many Mexico’s leading woman writer and interviewer.

Michael Schuessler, the American literary historian who wrote Elenisima comes to Guanajuato from time to time. This time he was in town to present the book. He accompanied his lecture with projected photos of the writer and her forebears on both sides.

Elenisima, written in Spanish, has been of intense interest in Mexico, where it recently rose to #3 on the best-seller list. The writer, still early in his academic career, said that he lacks the time to translate the book into English but hopes to find someone who will.

A few years Schuessler, a literary historian, was in Mexico City doing research on Poniatowska’s aunt, the poet Pita Amor. “Sra. Poniatowska gave me access to her personal files. That’s how I came to know her and eventually to write the book which discusses her life and work.”

Schuessler explained that Elena Poniatowska has a Mexican mother. Her mother and father, who was from a Polish noble family that had moved to France, met in France during World War I. Elena’s mother’s family had established itself in France at the time of Maximilian. When Elena was ten years old, she was brought to Mexico where she first became acquainted with her Mexico City grandparents However her strongest ties to Mexico came through her nanny who took her along everywhere she went in the city. As a result, Elena Poniatowska developed a deep love for many sides of her new country.

For nearly five decades, Elena Poniatowska has actively involved herself as a journalist, first at Excelsior and then at La Jornada. When an audience member asked about her politics, Schuessler said, “She is definitely of the left but perhaps her deepest commitment is to hard work.”

Elena Poniatowska first came to public attention through her prompt journalistic account, told through the voices of survivors, of the night in 1968 when 400 students were killed in Tlatelolco Plaza. Although the government went to bookstores to buy up all the copies in an attempt to suppress the book, it is now in its 40th printing. In English translation, Poniatowska’s collage of the event is called Massacre in Mexico.

Poniatowska’s writing is not limited to articles and books on politics. Among her thirty-some books, a prospective reader will find a barely fictionalized account of two French-Mexican sisters growing up in Mexico (Flor de lys). She has also written the essays accompanying a photo book called Mexican Colors, available in English.

Besides her wide variety of writing projects, Elena Poniatowska has been a mentor and friend of younger women who are now well –known writers including Laura Esquivel Water for Chocolate.

Schuessler’s presentation evoked many questions from the enthusiastic audience. He is currently on leave from Barnard College in New York City, In Guanajuato he has a special fondness for Plaza San Fernando.

from The Chopper, July 17, 2004, Guanajuato, Mexico

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