Fiction and Reality by Elena Poniatowska



[00:00:00] I have been essentially a journalist since 1953, when I began with interviews, reportage, and chronicles where I try to respond to all the obligatory journalistic questions such as how, where, when and why? What results is that, when I engage in fiction, I can invent what I wish, and furthermore, in fiction I have a longer time frame in which to work and reflect than when I’m reporting or doing interviews, which I must submit the next day to the editor of a newspaper.

What happens in Mexico and in the rest of Latin America is that reality is very forceful. Reality swallows fiction. I don’t think there has been a novel written in Mexico which has achieved the impact of reality which one sees everyday in the newspapers—as in the cases of the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the then official candidate of the PRI in the past presidential administration, and of the other assassination of José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the then president of the PRI [the ruling party of Mexico]. Out of these two assassinations, and because of the concomitant complete loss of legitimacy of the PRI, came a “novel” more powerful than any fiction. One is a Shakespearean tragedy in which Colosio is assassinated, his wife, Diana Laura, dies [of cancer], and their two small children are orphaned. All this was a tragedy, which, although never fictionalized, nevertheless existed in reality and could be followed serially in the papers by anyone looking for excitement and entertainment.

Fiction and Reality II

[02:16:00] Reality in Latin America rudely forces itself into the home—into the “interior” world. It is very difficult for a writer to produce what the French call “la roman nouvelle”—the new novel [of the fifties] in the style of Nathalie Sarraute or [Alain] Robbe-Grillet—because there isn’t the “discreet space” in which to do it. Writers can’t examine their personalistic sentiments of “alienation” because what happens “outside” is too insistent. One might be at one’s desk writing when, all of a sudden, an earthquake happens, as in 1985, and it’s very difficult to sequester oneself inside, unconcerned with what happens outside—what is happening to thousands of people. In Mexico, one has to remind oneself that twenty thousand people died in that earthquake of the 19th of September, 1985. For this reason, and other, more political ones, I say that reality forces itself inside the home and swallows imagination—sometimes exceeding the creative capacity of writers. For this reason, many writers leave Mexico to be able to write.

Is Mexico Different?

[03:44:00] Mexico is different [from the US] because writers are called upon to perform many functions—they must pronounce on many themes. I’ve never heard that a William Styron or a Susan Sontag is required to respond every five or six days to a political issue. Here, artists including writers and even painters are accustomed to a different tradition. In Latin America, what happens is that writers such as Carlos Fuentes, for example, the same as García Márquez in Colombia, or [the late] Octavio Paz, are called upon to participate—even to the point of, on occasion, offering them the presidency of the Republic. This is to say that sometimes the media doesn’t distinguish much—a man or a woman writer (generally a man)—is called upon to respond, and they sort of cut off your head and, as the saying goes, you become “ajonjoli de todos los moles” [a jack-of-all-trades]. They [the writers] must be enmeshed in everything, they must give opinions on politics, on politicians, on the actions of the police, finally, on all civil complaints. I think there are writers who spend their whole day on the phone with journalists who involve them in political issues of the country, and they weigh-in, we weigh-in, on issues we know nothing about. We can’t be on top of everything that happens, especially in cases as complicated as those that pertain to the Mexican political system.

Nonetheless, in the case of 1968 when the massacre of the 2nd of October took place, the night of Tlatelolco [the attack on student demonstrators in Tlatelolco Plaza], all of my articles were rejected by the newspapers because of the presidential order that forbade mention of even a word of this crime.

History or Propaganda?

[05:56:00] In general, I think that women writers in Latin America have received much less recognition than male writers. No woman emerged from the famous Latin American “boom” in fiction, which included Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Augusto Roa Bastos and others. One never sees the name of a woman. The only woman who has had success (a popular success, if not a critical success) is the Chilean—now American—Isabel Allende. But in general, women—the names of women—have been completely disregarded. I remember that years ago I saw in a French magazine, L’Express, a worldwide list of Nobel prizes, and in particular Latin American Nobel laureates, and the only one who didn’t appear was Gabriela Mistral who received the prize in Chile well before Pablo Neruda. So certainly there has been discrimination against women for years. One can’t obscure or forget that, finally, the greatest Mexican poet (and this was averred by Octavio Paz) was a woman, a nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who has never been surpassed despite the fact that she belongs to the seventeenth century.

An Example

[07:47:00] The character, Jesusa [Palancares, from my book Hasta no verte, Jesús mío is a camp-follower, she’s a woman who is with the soldiers—that is to say, she follows the troops with a soldier. In general, this type of woman was called a “soldadera” because she safeguarded the wage of the soldier, which at that time during the revolution was called the “soldada,” and, from that, the name “soldadera” was derived. The “soldadera” was a woman who was perceived by others almost as a prostitute. She was judged harshly and looked down upon, but in a very unjust way. I think that, without the “soldaderas,” the soldiers would have deserted, and there wouldn’t have been any Mexican Revolution. The same thing occurred during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The soldiers, the Republicans, who weren’t accustomed to fighting, would, in the night, return to Madrid to sleep in their own beds with their wives.

The “soldaderas” did everything for the soldiers. They made the fires, made the meals, even had their children right there on the battlefields—granted, to one side of the battlefield. When their soldiers died, their particular soldier, they picked up the “mauser,” the rifle, and continued shooting. Jesusa was one of these women.

I think that since the publication of my book, the role of the “soldadera” during the Mexican Revolution has been seen in a much better light. There are now festivals dedicated to the “soldaderas” and they are spoken of with enormous sympathy—which didn’t occur before. Before, they were called “galletas de capitan” [“crackers of the captain”], and they were disparaged. They were poor women and really very admirable women. Later, other books came out of testimonies of women telling the story of their lives, written in the university, I think, in Michoacan. There were other life-narratives, as they’re called, of women relating their own experiences, and I, as a result of my book, was asked to do other books. I’ve had many requests from people who ask me, please, to do a book which includes them—“Please write a book about my life because my life is fascinating.” These people, all of a sudden, feel valorized.