Doris and Elena: Extraordinary Women


To relate human disasters with talent and courage, giving a voice to those who are always excluded, opposing and denouncing social injustice with journalistic and literary texts, these are tools that a diaspora of women in the world have made available to the revolutionary act of reading. Women who in the twentieth century and these few years of the twenty-first century reveal to us what Elías Caneti calls being writers of our time, keeping track of the system, indispensable chroniclers.

During the past week they have given witness, reminding us of this that I am saying, with a force that gives us hope in a difficult moment in human history. One of these women, alive, noisy in a low key, with her innocent girl's smile, tireless reader of books and of life and today, winner of many awards. The other, unknown in our setting, who bid us adieu at the age of ninety-four without ever having been defeated. She fought tirelessly with her words.

I’m speaking of the two people who appeared in the news last week. Elenita Poniatowska, who won the 2013 Cervantes Prize, qualifying simply for her extraordinary capacity to recall for us, with excellent narrative, stories that cannot be forgotten, such as that of Jesusa Palancares in Hasta No Verte, Jesús Mío, or El Tren que pasa Primero, where centre stage is occupied by railway workers in the context of Mexico and its economic miracle, based on the work and exploitation of its sons and daughters.

The other, no less than Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, author of a fundamental book on human injustice, the discrimination against women and the accents of a vision free of dogmatism: The Golden Notebook (1962), her long narrative that made her, until the end of her life, a confirmed rebel. Lessing surprised us with her literature, with her undeniable intelligence; her novels picture the disgrace of our times. She was the sworn enemy of all dogmatism and fundamentalism.

One is a Polish princess, the other an Englishwoman born in Iran, then Persia. One with journalistic roots who was able to take note of history and break the frontiers of forgetfulness, the other, according to the writer Marta Sanz, cast light on the struggles of class, gender and culture, looking for common ground. Both on page one of El País, recognized and active.

Among the literary commentators in Mexico, there was not a word on Doris Lessing. Doris was born in Persia in 1919, and lived in Rhodesia. She died on November 17.  Her emblematic book, The Golden Notebook, made her a universal figure, the source of an engaged literary production without fear of rejection, tenaciously opposed to apartheid and racial segregation in Rhodesia, a woman who until her last breath, could not be silenced. She has a moving narrative, unknown in Spanish, titled "Why a black child of Zimbabus stole a manual of high level physics". Author of the news report "African Laughter", she was persecuted, prohibited.

The 1970s: Elenita in Mexico with Jesusa Palancares introduces us to these women of the people, their daily tasks and their search, putting together a chronicle of her time, both inclusive and persistent, with those magnificent ears that mark the working journalist, begins to deeply move us. Meanwhile, Doris is widely read by the new feminists, due to her capacity to look at and narrate, with revolutionary language, the differences between men and women, in the midst of the social injustices of the capitalist system with its systematic exclusion.

Doris was able, in her novels, to trace the horizon of solidarity among women. With Simone de Beauvoir she narrated and made clear reflections on the repugnance that we feel in the face of the ravages of age. At the end of her life she left pregnant reflections on the drama of inequality, urgently seeking a society where no one would feel the guilt of the executioner nor the despotic weakness of the victim, as Marta Sanz wrote of her in El País on November 18.

Two enormous narrators, chroniclers, journalists, novelists, writers rooted in their time and who mirror this time with their work, this necessary, urgent, fundamental need for reading, for reflection, for assuming the word that without sexist struggle has been given to millions of persons so that they cannot forget the basic halo that is life, without ceasing to look at the other, at all others, in each stretch of history.

On Elena, writer Rosa Beltrán affirms that her work has become an indispensable reference for culture in Mexico, moving from oral history to the text, with facts rather than words born of her work long before they made their way into the academy. We cannot but say aloud what no one here in Mexico dared to say: Elena documented the horrendous abuse of little girls raped and damned by the earthquake of 1985.

There is more, as Juan Villoro wrote. Elena learned to hear in her journalism. A few weeks ago, as always, I saw her making notes in a small notebook, breathing deeply at what inspired her, sketching what she saw. She was always a tireless reporter. I met her in an act of homage to Laura Bonaparte after her death. And in fact Elenita is a master of empathy with her informants. Facts come before adjectives, what is needed in this kind of journalism, this writing, this narrative, from the notebook to the novel, as reality takes flesh.

As for Doris, she left us, among many texts, one gripping and dignified work that Seis Barral published (in Spanish) in 1962: La Costumbre de Amar (The Habit of Loving, published in 1957 in English), a collection of seventeen stories that recreate common life, with a naked veracity, what we are as men and women; on the passing of time, on the small miseries, as José María Guelbenzu comments on this text.

Two examples of narrative rooted in our time that, in the same way as the work of Elena Garro and Rosario Castellanos, have come to give strength to our souls, in these times when the vulgarity of power struggles, lies and simulations could strangle us if we don’t widen our vision, if we fail to accept our true humanity, something that can save us in these insipid and despairing times.

I stay with them. I will read them.

(Translated for Alai by Jordan Bishop)

- Sara Lovera is a Mexican journalist.
Palabra de Antígona.

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