- Constant and Daring, The Life of Elena Poniatowska:An Interview
Editor’s Note: As we were reviewing essays submitted for this special issue, Elena Poniatowska visited Chicago to do two presentations: her talk on the release of a new translation of her book of short stories, Tlapalería (The Heart of the Artichoke); and her participation in a session on the 1968 student massacre. Before she returned to Mexico City, on a rainy morning, October 17, 2013, she graciously received Diálogo Editor Elizabeth C. Martínez at her hotel, and agreed to conduct this interview in English. By the end, however, she reverted to Spanish. Questions, and the notes provided here, were prepared to cover some of her other books not discussed in this issue, and in review of her lifelong work.
Mexico’s great contemporary writer, Elena Poniatowska, and her younger sister, were born in Paris during the 1930s. Her father was Polish-French, and her mother’s family from Mexico, having fled during the Mexican Revolution. Her parents were volunteer ambulance drivers during the French Resistance; as conditions worsened in the Second World War, mother and daughters traveled to Mexico in 1940, where Poniatowska has lived since (except for most of 1954, when she returned to France to await the birth of her oldest son). For this interview, we decided to begin by addressing the origins of her last name.
You have stated that in Polish heritage, surnames are differentiated by gender. Thus, your father’s name was Poniatowski and yours, as a female, is spelled Poniatowska. Is that correct?
Yes it is, but this happens in many different Slavic languages. If you read Tolstoy, if you read Tchaikovsky, the sex [gender] is in the second name. For women, it is always an “A” [ending] and in men it’s usually an “I” or “Y.” I had a good friend, a photographer, Mariana Yampolsky, and her name finished with a “Y.” We never spoke about it, and she never changed it.
Are there other women with the last name Poniatowska, who use it in that style?
No, everyone. Everyone. It’s the Polish language. Everyone in Poland, and here in Chicago, I think there are many Polish people in Chicago. I gave a conference here two days ago and many Polish arrived and they told me there were other Poniatowskis here in Chicago. But I don’t know if it’s easy to find a … how do you call it?
A phonebook here and look up the Poniatowskis and find out who they are. That would be fun.
But no Poniatowska? That is unique?
No Poniatowska is for all women. It’s not unique at all. If there is a woman, she will be a Poniatowska. It’s a way of declaring a name.
Thank you. To continue, during your extensive publishing trajectory, do you see different stages, etapas? How do you see your contribution through the years?
I see it … at the beginning, the first little story I wrote was Lilus Kikus, a story of [about] a teenager or younger [child]. Afterwards of course … you change as you mature, as life goes by. And also I started to see what was happening in my country. [Through] interviews with all kinds of people. First many, many famous people, painters like Diego Rivera, actresses like Dolores del Río, and María Félix. And then, I don’t know, seeing people like Luis Bañuel. So I did many, many interviews, but I also saw what was happening in the streets of my country. And of course this had an influence on the things I would choose to write on my own.
So that was your first stage? Is there a second? Third? [End Page 129]
The first stage was really to [explore], because I was, I studied in a convent called The Sacred Heart in a little town [near] Philadelphia. I remember there was only an insane asylum, the convent where we were, and the train station where we arrived. And...