Elena Poniatowska’s house (Paris, 1932) in Mexico City is close to La Bombilla Park, in the San Ángel neighborhood, where “many years ago,” as she herself recalls, “they killed General Álvaro Obregón.” The writer had a habit, before the reality we lived in fell apart, to go for a walk in that park. And it continued to do so when the coronavirus began to haunt us. Until his daughter Paula found out. “She was very angry,” explains the Mexican woman on the other end of the phone, “and she told me not to go, because there are other people who are walking there too, and we stop to talk and we don’t keep a healthy distance.” Since then, Poniatowska has walked virtually, embraces virtually and does everything, in short, virtually. Of course, the 88 candles that will blow on Tuesday will be as real as life itself.
How are you, how are you carrying these strange weeks?
Well, like me, finally, I spend my life in front of the computer screen, because my life does not change as much. What does change is concern for others. Also, I have friends who are more or less my age and I know that her life may be in danger.
And health is well?
No, because I’m fine, I’m a chubby half that is rolling around the world happy. It is a way of being well, it could be a ball (laughs).
How different is that virtual reality that we are experiencing now?
Well, it is a reality that now encompasses many aspects. There is the political aspect, with the criticism of the Government, the criticism of the doctors, too … We have a doctor who gives us the news every night, whose name is López-Gatell, and that some have started to attack saying that the figures they are not exact. But many people have enormous sympathy, including myself, for López-Gatell and for the President of the Republic.
How do you think the Government of Mexico is managing this crisis?
Well, a crisis of this magnitude is always unknown to know what to do with it. And, of course, it is much easier to criticize than to applaud. But, until now, we have a president who I believe has followed his motto of “First the poor”, and who has always cared for the less fortunate in Mexico, who are thousands. Since I have been with him ever since, I think his greatest concern is the life and well-being of Mexicans who have nothing.
Unfortunately, this pandemic is also highlighting the great economic and social differences that exist.
Of course, because Latin America is a very abandoned continent, it is finally a continent of the poor, despite oil, and it is a continent of exploited, and it is very difficult. The same can be said of Africa or of the countries that have been colonized, they are countries in which it is very difficult to raise your head soon after so much killing or so much discredit. We have been considered savages.
Today it is not that there are politicians who consider you savages, but they do show little appreciation for you. I am thinking of your neighbor, Donald Trump.
Well, of course, Trump represents the “blonde american,” the victorious American who came from Europe. But we must also think that in the United States they had the founding fathers, who founded the country, but dedicated themselves to killing the Indians, but there was not a population as large as ours or as creative as ours. Because we must remember that the greatest politician is Benito Juárez, who is one of the greatest in Mexico, and that the indigenous people have made notable contributions. The United States has no past culture … they come to Mexico to see the pyramids and to learn about pre-Hispanic art.
I do not know whether to say fortunately, but the fact is that the pandemic has made us forget other issues, such as the famous wall that Trump wanted to build between the United States and Mexico.
How good, how good, because it is a wall that all Mexicans oppose, and I believe that many Americans also. We must remember that the people in general of the United States, the mass, the people, because it is a liberal mass and is a mass made up of all cultures. There are French, Germans, Irish, English, Chinese, Japanese … It is a country made with all the races of the world and all the currents of the world.
What is clear is that this virus is quite democratic, it affects us all equally, regardless of our social class, origin or provenance.
Yes, but you have to think that few have died in Mexico, but those who have died are ultimately those from below, not those from above.
Because they are the ones with the least access to healthcare, of course.
Yes or because obedience is also very difficult. As a result of the measures that were taken, many continued to walk on the street, they did not keep the healthy distance that Mexico promoted, and also any of us is slow to understand a pandemic of that magnitude.
In Spain we have been confined for almost seventy days. I understand that you, as a writer, are quite used to it, but surely your soul as a journalist asks you to take to the streets.
Yes, of course, but you also get used to it. I do exactly what you are doing right now: I call on the phone and do interviews and chronicles, I talk to different people, who do me the favor of agreeing to my request and give me their opinion, their experience… I can also write with that.
What journalism should we do these days?
Well I think like the one we always do. All my life I have been inclined to know what those who we never ask questions think, the one who has to travel by subway, the one who has to travel by bus … Now we have a serious problem, which concerns all of us. that we write, which is the closure of bookstores and publishers, and it is very serious that smaller publishers are lost, that they choose and push lesser-known authors, authors who sometimes do not have a place or are not interested in large transnational corporations.
In what readings are you finding refuge these days?
Well, I have gone to the internet, to the networks, some poems by Octavio Paz, by Carlos Pellicer, by Rosario Castellanos, by Renato Leduc… «He knew the virtue of knowing time, loving and unleashing time in time; as the saying goes: give time to time, which alleviates time with love and pain ». All this I have been putting on the networks.
And why has he remembered them?
Sometimes it is a material reason, because I have the book at hand. But of course I remember them because I love and admire them. Sometimes they are very simple reasons, not elaborate. I have always liked to spread everything about Mexico. I could disclose about France, where I was born, or perhaps the United States, where I was in a nunnery for four years, but what I like is to make my country known.
You are also with the second part of “The Polish Lover”, right?
Yes, and that helps me. I didn’t want that title, but they liked it at the publisher. He did not want it because he looked like Antonio Muñoz Molina, but of forty titles they said that this was the most effective.
Can you focus, write every day?
Yeah right. There is a discipline that one acquires, which is a bit almost like gymnastics, that you get used to doing certain movements, just as in bed you fall asleep on your left side or on your right side or on your belly or on your back … There are customs that Furthermore, they are not lost if one cultivates them every day. Think that I already have more than sixty years of doing the same.
But, now, with the uncertainty and unease that surrounds us …
Yes, I believe that sadness underlies, the spirit is sad, the spirit is also fear, fear, it will not happen to someone close, someone you love. The coronavirus is seen as a monster, and living with a kind of monster is not normal. That lack of normality I think is what affects us the most.
The good thing is that I have the feeling that the ties between people have tightened.
Of course, that is important. For example, I send a friend a cake or half a cake or a jelly or a compote or a jam … Well, these are all demonstrations of affection and demonstrations of support. Also, what you and I are doing right now, the phone, because it is a great communicator.
Taking into account that every time we turn years we take stock of our lives, you, who are now turning 88, what do you think when you look back?
Well, I think, personally, that maybe I spent too much time on journalism, and that it hurts because I had a lot of stories and novels left in my pockets, but I always gave priority to documenting my country. I arrived in Mexico at the age of ten and saw on a map that there were many spaces that said: “Zones to be discovered.” Once we talked about it Carlos Monsiváis and I and José Emilio Pacheco -my two great friends, with whom I worked all my life and who died before me, being much older than them-, that we had to document our country, that there were areas to discover, people to discover, people to talk to … I devoted myself a lot to interviews and I didn’t do my thing anymore. Maybe sometimes that because I’m sorry I didn’t, but well, it was. Also journalism, what you do, we are both talking across the ocean, because maybe that makes sense and is valuable. Perhaps not as much as creativity, inventing a world of our own, but we also have to think that little is being invented, everything was said years ago.
Yes, I believe that many things have been said, unless we discover other things. I do think that literature is finally a universal plagiarism.
And what is she most proud of, perhaps Cervantes?
Ah well, I am very grateful for that, and I think that all the journalists in Mexico and those who have chronicled are grateful. I never understood anything until the journalists arrived, I didn’t understand that I was being rewarded. Well, here too many have reviled, they have said that how the award was given to me, that this was not possible … Spain took me in her arms, lifted me up, and, in addition, in front of my children, in front of my family. As a mother, I always thought, “Oh, maybe I don’t spend enough time with them, how do I do it?” I wrote at night, when they had already fallen asleep and they were small … But, one lives it anyway, and I lived it in guilt. So, this award was like the reason for being of a whole past, of a lifetime, and that’s why I was very moved.
Although he is in good health, I understand that a certain moment in life comes when it is almost impossible not to think about death. Do you think of it?
Yes, of course, of course I think about death. Above all, I think of people my age who do not want me to leave before me. I think a lot about the death of my mother, who died in addition to a very strong type of flu, pneumonia, and left quickly, being a very healthy woman. So, of course I think about death, I think about my own death, I always think that I have everything in disorder, and that worries me a lot, that the books are in disorder, the papers in disorder, and I would like to order everything. I always think, oh, I’m going to tell a brigade of students to come here and fix as God implied, but I don’t even have any booksellers, so all of this is … Like my disorder and that it does affect me.
And are you afraid that the end will come or are you not afraid?
Well, I don’t know if it’s a blessing or idiocy, but I have an enormous capacity for unconsciousness, so I’m not so dedicated to thinking about what’s going to happen to me. I have always been told that I cross the street very badly, that I do not obey the signs, the green, the red, the orange and that I throw myself … I am not very self-protected.
And do you regret something you did or did not do?
Well, I regret having done so much journalism. Here you always think that it is a minor genre, that it is subaltern, that it is not a novel, it is not a poem… But that was my condition and my situation, perhaps because I was not born in Mexico.
The thing is that when he blows out the 88 candles, he still has a lot to do and write, I’m sure.
Oh, I really appreciate it, it is a very good wish. .