THE PROMISED PARTY. Jennifer Clement is the President Emerita of PEN International and the author of multiple books, including Widow Basquiat and Gun Love. The recipient of many awards, her books have twice been a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Under her leadership at PEN International, and being the only woman elected since the organization was founded in 1921, the groundbreaking PEN International Women’s Manifesto and The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto were created. As President of PEN Mexico (2009-2012), Clement was instrumental in changing the law to make killing a journalist a federal crime. 

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Jennifer Clement, your new book published with Canongate is titled The Promised Party: Kahlo, Basquiat & Me. It is an autobiography about growing up in Mexico and then in New York and Paris. Were your childhood and adolescence happy?  

One of the many reasons I wrote this book was because, even though I didn’t live through what many consider the 1940’s and 50s golden age of Mexico, I’m covered with the gold dust from that time. I knew many of Mexico’s great writers and artists as a child. I had wonderful parents in many ways, but also complex parents. The happy, amazing side of this childhood was that I was raised by a nanny, Chona, who was more than a mother figure. As she was illiterate, I became her alphabet and her reader and this was the beginning of becoming a writer. Mexico was a mix of both a happy and unhappy time, as are many childhoods. It was complicated. 

Is the counterpoint to your illiterate nanny the sophisticated Aline Davidoff Mizrachi, who became your lifelong friend?  

Yes. Aline came from an extraordinary family. Her grandfather Alberto Mizrachi was a Sephardic Jew and the man who was instrumental in discovering and promoting the painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Aline’s grandmother took Frida to the ABC Hospital for all her operations so, in many complex ways they were the caretakers of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. It was amazing to be at the Davidoff’s house in my youth. There were parties all the time and Mexico’s intellectuals and painters were always there. It was a magical place.

The book is fragmentary in the sense that it is written in very short chapters.  It is also the story of how I became a writer and a tale of two cities.

Jennifer Clement

Jennifer Clement, by chance, where you lived in Mexico City was very close to the Kahlo and Rivera house, and you used to go there and even used Frida’s bathtub? 

It was an incredible chance, incredible luck, that of all the streets in Mexico City my parents chose to live on Calle Palmas. Today that street is called Calle Diego Rivera, and the Kahlo and Rivera house is now a museum. My book is also about friendship, and my first important friend was Diego Rivera’s granddaughter Ruth Maria, so Frida and Diego’s house was my second home. One of Frida Kahlo’s most famous paintings is What the Water Gave Me. She’s in the bathtub, where I used to bathe, and everything that floats in the water is a portrait of her life. But when I was growing up, Frida wasn’t famous. She was only Diego Rivera’s wife, and had many lovers including Trotsky. She didn’t have the place that she has now.  

And Grandmother Davidoff was going round Mexico City with Trotsky in a white Jaguar!  

(laughs) Yes. An incredible thought, but that’s how it was. There are quite a few stories in the book that are not actually my stories. One of the many things that’s so complex about writing is that you can tell other people’s stories – that won’t get told unless you write them. For example, there’s a story about Elena Garro, Octavio Paz’s wife, who was one of the great Mexican writers of the 20th century. I was told how she once got in a fight with a couple who were her friends. In order to announce the end of the friendship, she sent them coffins and great crowns of flowers from a funeral home. I have Elena Poniatowska‘s story that she told me of when she met Mercader, the killer of Trotsky, in jail. And she, without thinking, shook his hand: the hand that killed Trotsky. Forever after, she said, her hand feels stained.  

You met William Burroughs, were at school with the children of Garcia Márquez, and writers are in your life since the very beginning. Did you write poems as a small child? 

Yes, I began to write poem as a very young child. When I decided to write this memoir,  I had to think first about the form of this book, how I would write it. Many memoirs today serve a market that asks that a memoir read like a novel. I didn’t want to do that. I ended up taking a line from T.S. Eliot’s essay on the metaphysical poets, who said that life is a fragmentary whole because memory is a fragmentary experience. The book is fragmentary in the sense that it is written in very short chapters.  It is also the story of how I became a writer and a tale of two cities.  

The form of the book in fragments are like the images of lost Polaroids but you still live in Mexico City. Has it changed?  

A lot. One of the many reasons I wanted to write this book was to capture that Mexico before the North American Free Trade Agreement was established in 1992. In the book, I mention the great Argentinian writer, Julio Cortázar, who talks about the general fear of the United States in all of Latin America. He expressed fear about the influence of capitalism on artists, which we shared. I discuss this in the book, because it came true. Today the influence of the United States on Mexico is vast. There’s McDonald’s and all the cliches.  

Acapulco was the Saint-Tropez of the time and you write that you often went there with your parents who were dancing the twist?  

Acapulco was fantastic. Perhaps one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Sadly, today it’s been overtaken by drug traffickers. We’ve just had this devastating category 5 hurricane that hit it straight on. It’s ruined now, but back then it was an absolutely magical place.

I felt it was very important that PEN International, the largest and oldest writers’ organisation, defend the right for writers to use their imaginations and be who you are not.

Jennifer Clement, are you pleased that Claudia Sheinbaum recently became the first woman President of Mexico?  

As an initial feeling, yes, but I am also concerned, because Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been a populist president who thinks the policies of countries like Venezuela or Cuba are good. We don’t know if she will be her own woman and work against these populist ideas because she’s been his right-hand woman for some 12 years. We hope so, but it remains to be seen. Her first declarations since winning the election are not promising. 

When you were the first woman president of PEN International the preservation of freedom of the press and freedom in general must have been a big subject for you?  

Yes, definitely. The Promised Party just goes up to age 27, but it has a few moments of flash forward.  In regards to my PEN work, one of the things that I did toward the end of my six-year presidency was to create The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto. I felt it was very important that PEN International, the largest and oldest writers’ organisation, defend the right for writers to use their imaginations and be who you are not. One good example of this imaginary freedom is James Baldwin’s description of a woman giving birth. It is the most beautiful passage I’ve ever read on that subject, and he was gay so perhaps he never even had an amorous relationship with a woman. I worry about young writers feeling that they must only write from their group and from their experience.  

What was the biggest change that you lived through in those six years of presidency of PEN?  

The greatest change that happened during my presidency was the rise of social media. We, as PEN, had to address issues of freedom of expression with this boom that was unbelievable of the internet, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. It was a really big challenge because things would go viral in one second and there was and is a lot of fake news and propaganda.  

In your book The Promised Party, at age 18 you moved to New York and ultimately go to NYU university. You met Suzanne, a Canadian girl, and shared an apartment with her and later you wrote Widow Basquiat about her love affair with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Did you also know Rene Ricard who endorsed Basquiat before he was well known?  

Yes. He wrote in Art Forum the article called The Radiant Child, where he discussed the art at the time, and gave Jean-Michel a very important place in the article, which was what really set Jean-Michel off. I spent a lot of time with Rene Ricard, and was at his funeral when he died. He was such a very strong presence. Without him that world would have had a huge hole as he was such an extraordinary person. He read at the Poetry Project and I read at the Poetry Project. My first poems were published there and his first poems were published there. We were on the same roads in a way.  

How was New York at that time for you? 

In Mexico I lived a time that’s gone because of the 1991 North American Free Trade Agreement as well as other factors, and I also lived a moment in New York City that was exceptional. I met Keith Haring very soon after I got to New York, and my first readings of poetry were at his readings on Wednesday nights at Club 57. That was 1978/1979. 1980, I went to Paris for almost eight months, then I come back and met Suzanne, because we’re both waitresses, and through her I then met Basquiat and Burroughs. That time in New York has also had its end, and for me the end came with AIDS. There was this great moment of freedom and acceptance of everyone. Anybody who was different was embraced – and suddenly we had AIDS. The city was also a very dangerous city – people forget how dangerous New York was then – I had several friends who were stabbed and things like this, but all that time ended in a dramatic way with AIDS and was never the same again. In the book I even quote that first article in the New York Times published in 1981, when nobody understood what was happening.

Jennifer Clement

Jennifer Clement when a child

Jennifer Clement

Palmas house 1962. Now Diego Rivera Street

Jennifer Clement

Frida Kahlo´s bathtub in the Studio House

Jennifer Clement

Jennifer Clement in Père Lachaise Cemetery, 1980

Jennifer Clement

Jennifer Clement and Dr. Suzanne Mallouk in New York, 1984

Jennifer Clement

Colette Lumiere reads Jennifer Clement’s book Widow Basquiat

Jennifer Clement

In Memory of Joan (Joan Burroughs) by Dr. Suzanne Mallouk, 1983

Jennifer Clement

Jennifer Clement with the painter Pedro Diego Alvarado, Diego Rivera’s grandson, 2023

“The gun shot low.”

Jennifer Celement, how were you able to write poetry, see all these people, have endless nights and be a good student? 

I did two degrees, anthropology and English literature. When you’re young, you can do everything. I don’t know how I did it. And I worked as an intern with Doctor Robert Carneiro, who was an eminence in cultural anthropology. That was an extremely special relationship, and I learned a lot from him because he was a very rigorous scientist.  

In the book you talk about Basquiat’s decorated fridge that Andy Warhol buys for $5,000. Did you understand how important these artists would become?  

No. Everybody was nobody. Except Andy Warhol was the famous person. When Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1985 was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine we all had this feeling of, oh my goodness, he has left us in some way. The same with Madonna. I remember hearing Like a Virgin playing at the supermarket and we were like, oh my goodness, what’s happened to Madonna? There was this feeling that things were starting to happen to some people, but basically, as I say in the book, Suzanne and I threw away Basquiats into the garbage. Imagine! That’s how much we didn’t think he was important.  

When Suzanne told you that Jean-Michel had died didn’t you want to go to his funeral or to his tomb?  

No. We’ve never visited his tomb, but we did that little thing of seeing the tomb on the internet. There’s a site where you can visit gravestones on the internet. It’s a delirious, crazy thing that we did one day. 

Burroughs and Basquiat were both heroin addicts. Do you think Jean-Michel was aware of the fact that he couldn’t stop?  

Andy Warhol couldn’t stand his drug use and was always saying, “Jean-Michel you have to stop. This is crazy.” A lot of his friends would agree with me that he contained himself for Andy, because it was this thing that they talked about and Andy was very disappointed in. But then Andy unexpectedly died and this was a shock to everybody, and then Jean-Michel died a year later. After the death of Andy Warhol it was as if he’d taken the brakes off.  

Burroughs killed his wife inadvertently when he was drunk in Mexico City, and was also in New York. Why were you and Suzanne obsessed by Burroughs, reading everything? 

We were obsessed with him because Jean-Michel Basquiat was obsessed with him. I also knew a lot about him because of his time in Mexico City. What Suzanne and I really liked in his writing were those ideas he had about wishes. We were 20 years old, so we were full of wishes. The Burroughs story is a big story in my life. In my house in Mexico City I have the portrait of Joan Burroughs that Suzanne painted in 1984. I got permission to quote Burroughs in the book because of what he wrote about killing Joan and how he goes out to sharpen the knife with the knife sharpener in Mexico City, which is so powerful. Suddenly, after he leaves the knife sharpener, he’s in floods and floods of tears and he knows later that it’s was a death foretold. He doesn’t know until after he kills her that he was already mourning her that morning, that he knew it was coming. He said this tremendous line that was recorded at the police station, “The gun shot low.” In Mexico, the photographs of Joan in the morgue are famous. They were all published, and you can see them to this day. There she is, like a beautiful marble figure, with her lipstick intact and a hole in her forehead. Somehow or other Burroughs got out of jail in a very short time and she was buried in Mexico City and Burroughs quickly went back to the USA. That was the Mexico of that time. A bit like the Wild West.  

Is Mexico still a dangerous country in which to live?  

Mexico City is pretty safe, but right now Mexico is a very dangerous country because it’s basically taken by the drug cartels so there are parts that you can’t visit. I wouldn’t go or drive through some of the states that border the United States. They are very dangerous because that’s where all the fentanyl and guns are crossing. It’s important to note that when you see so many people at the US border fleeing from their countries, they are feeling from violence sustained by U.S. guns. If those guns were not crossing the border, 50% or more of all gun dealers in the United States would be out of business. I have a novel called Gun Love about the trafficking of guns to Mexico and Central America. Nobody really talks about this. It’s a drug war, but it’s a gun war too.  

Why do you end The Promised Party when you are 27?  

Because I wanted to describe these two moments of these two cities, not to get into my children, my marriages, my books, my advocacy. 27 is symbolic, that famous age when many people die, but there are a few moments in the book where I go into the future. One, for example, is with Mario Vargas Llosa, which I definitely wanted to have there because growing up he was such a huge figure and how would I have ever known that many decades later we’d have this public fight when I was President of PEN International?  

I don’t know that I have a perfect answer to your question on why the book ends at age 27, but maybe it’s more a poetic feeling because the book is not written like a novel. It’s in this fragmented form, but it also is a kind of odyssey. It’s about leaving home and then returning to Mexico. Mexico where we’re closer to the dead than to the living. This very extraordinary anarchy that is acceptance that everything is lost is very Mexican. In many ways life is like the party that never happens, that you’re always promised is coming, and the book is full of parties.

Thank you.

All images courtesy of Jennifer Clement