In a Spanish-language lecture on Latin America's women writers, the versatile and prolific Poniatowska explains that her vocation means something distinctive for Latin American women, and that passing centuries have brought little relief and appreciation for those who dare to make art.
We are our own landscapes. We write as we do because we're Latin American women.
Elena Poniatowska, the prolific Mexican woman of letters who writes fiction, journalism, essays, and poetry with social and psychological awareness, delighted an audience of about 250 people in Rolfe Hall on Monday with a discussion of Latin American women writers. It was her 77th birthday. Or rather, by the time of the evening event on May 18, 2009—as Teofilo Ruiz, chair of the UCLA Department of Spanish & Portuguese, pointed out while introducing her—the next day had arrived in Paris, the city where Poniatowska was born to her Mexican mother and Polish father one May 19. The UCLA audience sang her the Mexican birthday song "Las Mañanitas."
The lecture concluded a spring seminar on contemporary Latin American narrative conducted in Spanish and organized jointly by the Los Angeles branch of the Universidad de Guadalajara, Ruiz's department, and the UCLA Latin American Institute. The Institute maintains ties of educational collaboration and exchange with the southwestern Mexican university.
Poniatowska said that women writers, ignored and undervalued everywhere, in Latin America particularly have allied themselves with the poor and oppressed. A cosmopolitan who was educated in Mexico City and Pennsylvania, she is best known in the United States for her journalistic treatment of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre.
"All of us Latin American women writers come from poor countries, helpless," Poniatowska said. "Our poverty is not that of the indigent, the clochard beneath the bridges of Paris, the homeless of Los Angeles and now New York. No, the poverty in Latin American is that of indifference."
Hunger, insignificant to many because so common, "spreads itself over the things of the earth" and "infects" writing by Latin Americans of all social strata, she said.
Discussing the 1978 novel Las posibilidades del odio ("The Possibilities of Hate"), she asked, "How could María Luisa Puga put herself inside the skin of a beggar? … How did she learn what it meant for a person dying of hunger to eat? Simply and plainly, because María Luisa is a Latin American writer and as such belongs to the continent of hunger."
In the lecture, Poniatowska considered women writers' responses to the indifference of critics and to a pervasive insinuation that the roles of writer and woman are mutually incompatible. She recounted the suicides of accomplished writers and quoted their expressions of self-loathing as well as defiant self-affirmation.
Poniatowska developed some of these points using the examples of the great 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Iñez de la Cruz and her own late Mexican contemporary Rosario Castellanos, who like Poniatowska wrote poetry, fiction, essays, and journalism.
"For Rosario Castellanos, the most complete of our writers, the conditions of life were not very different from those of Sor Juana—Sor Juana Iñez de la Cruz—who 300 years earlier had chosen the cloister in order to be able to practice her vocation," she said.
Sor Juana famously protested a world that took offense at her displays of talent and learning. She affirmed in one playful passage that "secrets of nature" were also to be found in the kitchen. Who could explain why eggs congeal in oil and break apart in syrup? "If Aristotle had cooked, so much more he would have written," Sor Juana concluded.
Among other trials, Castellanos had to contend with her parents' exclusive devotion to her brother, who died young. She was indignant at the treatment of indigenous Mayans on her family's own property in Chiapas.
"The theme of spinsterhood and of the shame of not catching a man recur over the course of all her work, as does that of a very hierarchical, stratified society in which Indians are always at the service of whites," Poniatowska said.
Place and gender equally make demands on the writing of Latin American women. On Monday, Poniatowska sometimes spoke of place and gender as one and the same.
"We are our own landscapes," she said. "We write as we do because we're Latin American women. Gioconda Belli cannot write but about love and Nicaragua and about freedom and Nicaragua."
In varying degrees these women have abandoned "confessional" literature, she said.
"For the Mexican woman writer, writing is a byproduct of her social situation. For the Chicana, to write means to overcome her social situation. For the Latin American woman, to write is to invent herself, to create a world for herself, to find meaning in life through characters, situations, ideas, fantasies that redeem it, because the basis of fiction is in many cases part daily reality."