Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Elena Poniatowska - Here’s to You, Jesusa!

Elena Poniatowska’s testimonial novel is based on extensive interviews carried out between 1963 and 1964, with Josefina Bórquez, an elderly Mexican woman. Through the novel, Josefina morphs into the character Jesusa Palancares as Poniatowska pieces together her ethnographic field-notes into a narrative that shifts between Spiritualist visions and surreal recollections of a life lived in bars and on the battlefield. Jesusa works as a domestic servant, in factories making boxes, and as a professional drinker, betting on herself to out-drink the men. At night she makes a space for herself where she can: in a woman’s prison, on the frozen ground of the army camp, along a narrow balcony, or in the corner of a stranger’s courtyard.

In such a precarious life, there are few moments of rest, as Poniatowska discovers when she tries to interview Josefina. There is no time to talk, only time to work (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: viii). She alone ensures her survival (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 101, 132).
Survival means staying afloat, breathing calmly, even if it is only for a moment in the evening when the chickens no longer cackle in their cages and the cat stretches out on the trampled earth. (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xiii)

Jesusa is a fighter, ‘fiercer than a female fighting cock’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 155). She endures life on the battlefield, first with her father and then with her abusive husband, neither of whom survive the Revolution. She relishes the tough life of a soldadera (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 212, xvii), and returns to army life when the opportunity presents. Her father once gave her gunpowder water to make her brave (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 5), and it seemed to work.

Her dignity is essential to her survival. She is fiercely proud, refusing to drink coffee grounds or eat bean soup (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: 241), to be treated as poor. Neither charity nor friendship suit her: ‘Her isolation is striking’ (Franco 1989: 179). At the end of her life, she does not falter: ‘She died as she lived, rebellious, obstinate, fierce. She threw the priest out, she threw the doctor out’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xx).

Nevertheless, Poniatowska, in her account of the interview process and the two women’s cautious friendship, recalls moments of tenderness and tranquility: settling the chickens on the narrow bed; examining the dolls Josefina bought for herself but kept wrapped up; the exchanging of postcards while Poniatowska travels to France. More than anything else, Josefina is revived by the telling of her story:
On Wednesday afternoons, as the sun set and the blue sky changed to orange, in that semidark little room, in the midst of the shrieking of the children, the slamming doors, the shouting, and the radio going full blast, another life emerged – that of Jesusa Palancares, the one that she relived as she retold it. Through a tiny crack, we watched the sky, its colors, blue, then orange, and finally black. A silver of sky. I squinted so my gaze would fit through that crack, and we would enter the other life. (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xiii)

Through the construction of her own version of events, Josefina places herself at the centre of her world. After a life lived in the shadows, dismissed by those a few rungs up the social ladder, she is able to speak her truth, account for her actions. Once the book is published, Josefina asks Poniatowska for twenty copies to give to men in the neighbourhood, ‘so they’d know about her life, the many precipices she had crossed’ (Poniatowska [1969] 2002: xx).

Elena Poniatowska ([1969] 2002) Here’s to You, Jesusa! [First published as Hasta no verte Jesús mío Mexico: Ediciones Era. Translated from the Spanish by Deanna Heikkinen, 2001] New York: Penguin Books

As a testimonial novel, Here’s to You Jesusa is concerned to honour and enable the voices of those absent from the literary canon. Testimonial literature seeks to represent the social and political experience of the illiterate, the prisoner, the slave descendent, the trade-unionist, the member of the pueblos originarios, the slum-dweller, etc.; in short, all those who exist at the margins of Latin American society. Through testimony, such works seek to raise awareness and to promote social and political change.

See also, NY Times review and other.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

tracing out shapes

On the corner of our estate, where there was once a church, stands a bright new health clinic. A giant dandelion clock blows over it. And, if you are lucky, the bus driver will drop you off at the entrance, even though it is between stops.

I never made it to Mass at that church, and I only peeped through the windows of tiny St Thomas' opposite where my grandparents, father, great-grandparents, great aunt and uncle once lived. I wish I had known what it was like to worship, to make peace and to seek justice in those churches. I wish I knew how they fitted into the threads of prayers and song that are woven through this community.

But there are still three churches within a brisk walk from my home. A simple building perched atop the hill is the home of the Anglican church. Years ago, I went to morning prayer there, trying to find a start to my day.

The second church is the Christian meeting house, and, to be truthful, we are all a little scared of it. 'Come and here God's word preached,' it invites us, then, flashing with fire, sends us running, 'if the LORD wills.'

And the third church. It was familiar ground even before today. I knew this church - simple, friendly, reliable. But it didn't know me, so today I decided it was time to introduce myself. I turned off the road sooner than usual - a good mile short of my Methodist home - and popped into the United Reformed Church. Light dazzled us, turning white walls to silver, and trembling voices into song. A man preached simply and honestly, lifting up his fears for us to take comfort from. A woman welcomed me in, and told me how the church keeps welcoming, all week long.

I'm taking things slow, this settling in. I'm tracing out shapes and seeing how this place, in this moment, holds together; and how I might fit into it.