Mexico’s observant bird


Nathanial Gardner talks Latamrob 
through Elena Poniatowska’s Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela, about the Russian exile and artist Angelina Beloff (pictured), and considers Poniatowska’s wider contribution to Mexican letters


Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela
Edited by and with an introduction by Nathanial Gardner
2011, Manchester University Press (Hispanic Texts)
120 pages

NATHANIAL GARDNER edited and wrote the introduction for Elena Poniatowska’s Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela, an Hispanic Text recently published by Manchester University Press. One of the threads that runs through Poniatowska’s work is that of foreigners who have fallen in love with Mexico and its people, and this is reflected in Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela in which Russian exile and artist Angelina Beloff writes from Paris to her husband Diego Rivera, the great muralist. Poniatowska recreates these letters which articulate the testimony of an artist and her lover at one of his most fertile periods. Gardner comments on the elements Poniatowska has used to create a modern Mexican classic and mediates on the text and its historical context in a work that will be of value to both students and scholars of Latin American Studies as well as lovers of Mexican culture. Here, we ask him about the book, his work and Poniatowska’s place in Mexican literature.

Please explain the plot of this novel.

Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela is a novella that uses fiction and fact to recreate a series of letters that Quiela (representing Anglina Beloff) sends to Diego (representing Diego Rivera) while she waits in Paris for him to send for her so she can join him in Mexico. One way of considering the book would simply be as a collection of letters without a plot, just as one compilation of letters from one person to another would not necessarily have one. However, if you take a closer look it is possible to discern a plot that follows a theme of Quiela’s self-discovery and personal realisation as she analyses her present situation in the French capital and re-evaluates her relationship with her husband.

What was the genesis of this story?

In a 1986 article in the Texas Observer Elena Poniatowska stated that she was inspired by the chapter on the real letters sent by Angelina Beloff to Rivera that Bertram Wolfe included in Diego Rivera’s biography The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. Poniatowska read Wolfe’s sentimental portrayal of the tragic nature of Beloff’s letters and she identified with Beloff, which inspired her to create the character Quiela.

Angelina Beloff

Who was Angelina Beloff?

She was a Russian painter born in St Petersburg 1879. At the age of 30 (Beloff was almost eight years older than Rivera) she moved to Paris to study art and that same year she was introduced to Rivera via a mutual friend, Maria Blanchard, while the two women were on a trip to Bruges, Belgium. Diego became interested in Beloff romantically and they were married in 1911. She was, unbeknown to many, Diego Rivera’s first wife. Diego separated from Beloff in 1921 when he returned to Mexico and the couple divorced in 1922. Angelina worked principally as a painter and engraver in Paris, she became well known as a portrait-maker and eventually became a French citizen. In 1932 she travelled to Mexico after being strongly encouraged to do so by the Mexican artists Germán and Lola Cueto. A trip that she intended to last only six months ended in almost four decades of residency in Mexico. She died in Mexico City in 1969.

To what extent did Poniatowska identify with Beloff and why?

She identified with her enough to write the novella. There are certain similarities in both of their backgrounds that could lend themselves to allowing Poniatowska to identify with her, though there are important differences as well. I am not really sure why she identified with her, though Poniatowska has confirmed on more than one occasion that she did.

Why has this work been selected for publication by MUP’s Hispanic Texts series as a work of literary importance?

There are various factors (aside, of course, from the fact that it is a good book!). This series has the intention of providing important and attractive material suitable for advanced study in schools, colleges and higher education as well as for the general reader, so one has to strike a delicate balance between what is feasible for students and scholars as well as those who might be interested in it as general reading material. In recent years there has been a greater interest in including more recent Latin American writing and some of the newest titles include El laberinto de la Soledad by Octavio Paz and Biografía de un cimarrón by Miguel Barnet. As Mexico’s most celebrated female writer, the general editor of the series had wanted to include something from Elena Poniatowska and we decided that Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela would be the most suitable.

You have specialised in the work of Poniatowska: what do you believe is her wider contribution to Mexican literature and why?

I know that for many writers, writing is a solitary experience; and in many ways, it is for all who write – including me. What Elena Poniatowska brings to Mexican literature is a writer who has interfaced directly with Mexico and its people, from top to bottom. She has spoken with washerwomen and the president of Mexico, with scientists and with artists. She has seen the country from one side to the other. It is this grounding in Mexican reality that is evident in her work and lends it an air of authenticity and tangibility that helps her work stand out from others. Octavio Paz once compared her to a bird that sat in a tree in a park and observed all that occurred around her. It is this observation of daily life and her ability to exalt the quotidian or the local that forms an important part of her contribution.

Poniatowska’s works

Is Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela Poniatowska’s best work?

I suppose that defines how you define best. If you mean by literary prize winning, no, that would probably be La piel del cielo that won the Alfaguara Novel Prize in 2001. If you mean best by most editions or longest-seller, I would also have to say no because that prize would go to La noche de Tlateloco (I myself was surprised to learn that). In my opinion, Querido Diego is definitely her most sentimental of all of them, though I have yet to read her most recent novel Leonora which was published on February 22. That novel just won the Biblioteca Breve prize for this year so it must have a lot of merit.

Which other of Poniatowska’s works would you recommend to readers and why?

I think I would recommend three, according to the reader’s taste. If you are looking for non-fiction, I would recommend Nada, nadie: las voces del temblor. I find it to be an absolutely fascinating chronicle of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. It is also her most openly collaborative work in which students from Poniatowska’s writers’ workshop participated in its genesis. For those that like historical fiction I would strongly recommend Tínisima (published in English under the same title). It recreates the life of Tina Modotti, the Italian photographer and student/lover of Edward Weston. Tina’s life is fascinating and this fictional recreation of it was carefully executed – Poniatowska even won a Guggheimen fellowship in order to carry out some of her research for this novel.

If you enjoy Latin American testimonio literature, then Hasta no verte Jesús mío is a must. Poniatowska’s use of anthropology and oral history (some of which was gleaned from the famous Culture of Poverty anthropologist Oscar Lewis) in the transformation of Josefina Bórquez into Jesusa Palancares is fascinating. It allows the reader to observe another side of Mexico that fomented a huge amount of interest in her work and launched her international literary career. Curiously, in my case, though I had read Querido Diego as a young student, it was the picture of El Santo niño de Atocha on the cover of Hasta no verte Jesús mío that caught my attention and convinced me to read the book. It was that experience that started me studying her writing more seriously.

To what extent was Poniatowska’s work shaped by her own experiences?

If one is to consider Poniatowska’s work globally, then it becomes quite clear that her work in journalism – where she began as a writer – has been an influence. There is a theme of immediacy and direct contact with Mexico and its people that appears again and again. Also, there are certain similarities between Elena Poniatowska herself and some of the characters that appear in her fiction: the well-educated foreigner who falls in love with Mexico and/or its people is an element that can often be found in her writings.

Does our general lack of knowledge about the work of Beloff as an artist reflect a more fundamental bias in Mexican historiography on the creative work of men?

As, until quite recently, men have been those who have exercised the greatest level of control with regard to the production of art and the writing of history, it should come as no surprise that in the writing of Art History, men have been at the forefront. John Mraz recently noted this trend in the writing of history through photographs in his book Looking for Mexico. What is also true is that Beloff was known for being a reserved individual who was not interested in becoming a star. This fact became evident during the creation of my book when I spoke with Mireya Cueto, who knew Beloff via her parents: Germán and Lola Cueto. Even so, Beloff’s talent was recognised. She was given a solo exhibition at Bellas Artes before her death. This is a clear indication that Mexico recognised her talent as an artist.

Is the great historical emphasis that has been placed on Rivera fair, or has it overshadowed the talents and contributions of those around him?

Everything I have come to learn about Diego Rivera points to his great talent for self-promotion and, of course, his talent as a painter. He became a figure that was larger-than-life in Mexico. Though he was recognised internationally I think his particular form of self-promotion was the most effective in his native country, which is where I believe he had the most fame and prospered the most as an artist. I think his influence did overshadow those who worked around him, but that – at least to a certain extent – is the nature of fame. I am not sure that was his intention. What is curious is the fact that Frida Kahlo, who was greatly overshadowed by her husband during her life (notwithstanding the great lengths he went to in order to promote her) is starting to overshadow her husband – at least in Europe and the US.

Your specialism is Mexican literature and culture: what is it about Mexico that fascinates you so much?

Everything really, Mexico was always around me while I was growing up, but I became fascinated by it as an adolescent. It was somewhat of a serendipitous discovery. I had the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the culture and language and I did. I enjoyed it and have never looked back. There are a million things that captivate me with regard to Mexico: its people, Mexican Spanish, its food, daily life, and the list goes on and on.

Tell us about the current state of writing in Mexico: who would name as its top five living authors?

I would say writing is thriving in Mexico and Latin America in general. There is an enormous amount of interest and a huge amount of raw (and refined) talent that, unfortunately, is sometimes underexploited but is also manifested in many ways. I don’t really feel qualified to say who Mexico’s top five authors are but I think some we will see more from in the future are Daniel Sada, Cristina Rivera Garza, Guadalupe Nettel, and Gonzalo Lizardo though there are many, many others.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a book that analyses photography and discourse in Latin America.

Nathanial Gardner is a lecturer of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow

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