Roxanna Pearl Beebe-Center of Woodville recently interviewed famed Chilean writer Isabel Allende, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Here’s their wide ranging conversation:
Roxie: Thank you so much again for letting me interview you. I’m going to start by asking you about your new book. What’s the title of your new book?
Isabel: The new book that’s coming out probably at the beginning of 2020…My new novel is coming out in Spanish in May, but it’s coming out in English probably in the spring of next year, and the title in English is “A Long Petal of the Sea.” And that’s a quote by Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, that described Chile as a long petal of sea, wine and snow. And so we took part of the quote.
Roxie: What’s the theme in your new book, and what’s it about?
Isabel: The book starts at the end of the Civil War in Spain. That’s 1939 in January. When Franco took over Spain, they won the civil war, took over and half a million people escaped from Barcelona, walking, in the worst possible winter, toward the border with France. France wasn’t expecting half a million refugees, you can imagine, so they closed the border. And for three days, people were there, stuck, without food, without water, in the cold. And finally they let them in. They put them in concentration camps, and the concentration camps were just a beach, or several beaches that were closed with barbed wire. There were no latrines, no shelter, no food, nothing, and many people died. Especially the children.
And at that time, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, agreed with the government of Chile to send to Chile 2,000 refugees of those people. 2,000 of those people. And he managed to get a ship, a cargo ship, and refurbish it to transport 2,000 people. Across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and then along the Pacific coast to Chile. And those 2,000 refugees changed the country.
They created, they brought Europe to Chile. They themselves and their descendants are the great artists, intellectuals, publishers, printers that Chile has had. Now, probably, there are 15,000 descendants that are extraordinary people, that really brought to the country, culture, art, intellect, everything.
So, it’s a book about those refugees, about one refugee in particular, a man, and then, years later, in 1953, when these people were established, and they were Chilean citizens, we have the military coups in Chile. And the same situation that had happened in Spain many years before, happened in Chile. And some of them were forced to leave. Again. Escaping again. Like my friend. That was my friends fate. And so he went into exile for the second time. He became a refugee for the second time. But, he lived to be 103, and in his long life, the circle of his long journey closed, and he went back to Chile and died in Chile. That’s the story.
“The experience of being a refugee and being an immigrant is very different. A refugee is forced to get out, doesn’t have a choice, and doesn’t have a choice of where to go, either. Most of the time they don’t. And they are always looking back, because they want to go back to their own land, their friends, everything they left behind. An immigrant is someone that is looking forward, to the future, wants to be established in someplace, become a citizen in that place, and doesn’t look back.”
Roxie: Oh, wow. So, the book is about him?
Isabel: He’s the main character, but the book is about the experience of being a stranger in a land that is not yours.
Roxie: And, so, how does your background, being from Chile, and now living in America, how does you being an immigrant impact your story?
I have been writing about the experience of refugees and immigrants, I would say, for my last three books. I touch, in different ways, with the same theme. Which is being uprooted. Because I have been…. First I was the daughter of diplomats, so I spent my childhood and youth travelling, always saying goodbye to places, and people, and pets, which is the worst. That’s really hard. And then I ended up in Chile, and I thought, I am never going to leave again. But then we had the military coups, in 1973, and I was forced to leave also. So I became a political refugee, and after many years, I fell in love with an American and I became an immigrant in the United States.
And the experience of being a refugee and being an immigrant is very different. A refugee is forced to get out, doesn’t have a choice, and doesn’t have a choice of where to go, either. Most of the time they don’t. And they are always looking back, because they want to go back to their own land, their friends, everything they left behind. An immigrant is someone that is looking forward, to the future, wants to be established in someplace, become a citizen in that place, and doesn’t look back. Looks to the future. And usually, an immigrant wants his or her children to really belong in the other place. A refugee doesn’t. A refugee is always trying to preserve what they have brought. Their culture, their language, whatever, so they can go back. If possible, with their children. But it doesn’t happen. Because the average time that the refugee spends away from home is 25 years. By the time they can go back, they are old. They have no place back home, and their children and grandchildren will not go with them.
Roxie: Do you think that being an immigrant here in America is a different experience for you, because you’re famous, you’re a well known author?
Isabel: I am very privileged. First because I’m legal. I came here and I got married, and I became a citizen. I could bring my family. I could bring Nicolas, my son, who you met here. And I have a profession, or a job, that allows me to work on my own terms. I don’t have an employer, I don’t have to clean bathrooms, as many immigrants do. Or pick up oranges. So in that sense, I have been privileged. Now, the fact that I have written so many books here, that I am better known here, and I have received a lot of accolades, if you want to call it that way, that facilitates everything, of course.
But I have a foundation. And my foundation works with immigrants. So I know how hard life is for most other people who come here as immigrants.
Roxie: How does your foundation aid these immigrants?
Isabel: We have several programs. You can get in my website. And the website is Isabel Allende.Org. and you will see which programs we have. We work mostly with women and girls. And not only in the United States. We have programs in Nepal, in Mexico, and in Chile of course. And in other places. But in the United States, we focus mostly on Latino immigrants. Undocumented people who need help. Help to find a job, to find a lawyer to get a legal status, who are victims of exploitation, domestic violence. You will see on the website.
Audio: Isabel Allende interview, Part 1:
Roxie: I visited the website, and it says that your foundation is dedicated to your daughter Paula.
Isabel: It is in honor of her.
Roxie: And how does it honor her memory?
Isabel: Paula was a physcologist, and she worked as a volunteer all her life. She never made any money. She lived very briefly. She died at 28. And she never wanted anything for herself. She just wanted to help. And she worked with women and children. So, after her death, I decided to.. I wrote a book called Paula, which is a memoir. About her and about me and about my family, and about my country also. And I didn’t want to touch any of the income that the book would bring. I wanted to dedicate that to something that she would have loved. And so I created a foundation, and then I have been feeding my foundation with all my other books. The way that it honors her is that it does the work that she would have done if she was alive.
Roxie: You said that your book Paula also talked about Chile a little bit. Now that you’re an American, is Chile still your home?
Isabel: I have a foot in Chile and a foot here. Now, my parents have just died. I had parents until very, very old age, so I’m very privileged. My stepfather was 102, and my mother was 97.
So, I was going to Chile constantly, and in touch with my mother daily. So, I always had a foot there. Now without them there, I think I will be going less. But my roots are Chilean, and all my books, in one way or another, refer to my childhood, or my youth, or Chile. So, you never get rid of the place you come from. It’s very interesting. I’ve lived in Chile very few years. Most of my life I lived abroad, in many different places. But if you asked me where I come from, I would say my origin is Chilean. I’m Chilean. Although I’m an American citizen, I always say I’m Chilean. But I like this country very much. It has been very generous to me. And I’ve been working here, and I have my foundation, my family, everything here.
Roxie: I read that you said you start a book. When you start a book you have no idea where you’re going with it. I’m not sure if that’s true.
Isabel: Yes. That’s true. I have a vague idea that sometimes doesn’t work. But I start all my books on a certain date. And that’s January eighth. Why? Discipline. I need to have a day that I can start, so I can plan my year around writing. If I don’t do that, I spend my life doing interviews, distracted with different things, and I would never be able to get the work done. So having a day to start is important for me. I prepare myself for that day. So, let’s say that I finish a book, as I finished last year, a book in November. So then I start thinking about what I’m going to write on January eighth. If I have more or less an idea, I start researching, to see if in the research I get to know more about this thing that I’m interested in.
And then, by January eighth, when I sit down to write, I have a feeling of what it will be, not a script. Not a clear idea. I don’t have any characters, I don’t have a story, I don’t have anything. I just have the intention of writing. And the first few weeks are difficult, because I go back and forth in a maze, and sometimes I can’t find the tone, or I start with a character and then I don’t like the character, and I have to start all over again. It’s part of the process.
It’s like training to be an athlete. You do the training because you want to play the game. Who sees the training? Who cares about the training? Only you. So it’s the same with writing. I write and write. And it’s training. At some point, I get it. And then I can go easily into the story. But it takes a while.
“It’s like training to be an athlete. You do the training because you want to play the game. Who sees the training? Who cares about the training? Only you. So it’s the same with writing.”
Roxie: When you started this new book, what was it? Was it different from what you have now?
Isabel: Yes. In this case, in the latest book, the one that will be published soon, the story is so clear because they’re historical facts. So, when I started the research, I got a lot of material, and with that, I can elaborate that material. It’s like a cook. If you have good ingredients, you can cook. If you have poor ingredients, you can be a great cook and you can’t do anything with it. So it’s the same with writing. Here is a story that stands by itself. A story that really happened to a group of people. That is very timely, also, because we are in the century of refugees right now. So it’s not something that happened in the past that is not happening today. It’s happening today to 68.5 million people. More refugees in the world today than ever before. After the second world war, when Europe was devastated, after the holocaust, after the destruction of Europe, there were 11 million refugees, or displaced people. Now, look at the number.
Roxie: Just for clarification, are those refugees, or internally displaced people?
Isabel: You call them refugees, because, for example, in Syria, you have 6 million people who have been displaced from their homes. So they can live within the country, but they live in camps, in refugee camps, because they don’t have a place to be. They are displaced. So you can be a refugee also in your own country.
Which happens a lot, for example, in Africa, That people get…after Rhowanda,you had the Tootsies leaving the country, as many as could. It was the worst massacre, the worst genocide, and the world did not intervene. And they killed hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of months. Those who escaped ended up in concentration camps in northern Congo, or here or there, or left. And many had to stay. They couldn’t go anywhere. But they were refugees in their land. Protected, sometimes, by the United Nations. But many times, not.
Audio: Isabel Allende interview, Part 2:
Roxie: If I understand correctly, not only is immigration and refugees, and helping these people, not only is that something you’re passionate about, but you’re also passionate about feminism?
Isabel: I’m a feminist. I’ve been a feminist all my life. I’m very proud of that fact.
Roxie: So, what does feminism mean to you?
Isabel: A struggle to change the situation of women in the world. I was born in the 40s in Chile. Very conservative, socially conservative country, Catholic, in a patriarchal family. And very early on in my life, I knew that everything needed to be changed. That it was terribly unfair. So I became a feminist without even knowing what feminism was, because I was very isolated. I never read anything about it. And then, in my teens, late teens, I discovered that there was a movement. Somewhere. And that there were people writing about it, women mobilized all over the world for this.
And then I started reading, and I became much more engaged. And I belonged to the first generation of feminist women in Chile. There were a few isolated women that were suffragettes in Chile before, but my generation brought feminism to Chile and created the women’s lib. Movement in Chile.
And that’s how I began, very young, as a journalist. And all my life has been about helping women and ending the patriarchy. To create a more balanced world in which men and women will manage the world in equal terms.
Roxie: As you mentioned, you were one of the first waves of women in Chile. You’ve lived through many waves of feminism, not only in Chile, but in the whole world. So, which one do you feel you were most involved in, and which one do you feel has had the biggest impact on society.
Isabel: This is like…. you cannot separate, because each one builds on what the previous one did. This is a continuous struggle, it’s not little episodes that add up, it’s one struggle. It takes many forms, because it’s very fluid like all revolutions are. And, for example what’s happening today with Me Too of with LGBTQ or any of these movements. They would not exist without the previous struggle of the wave that came before. So I don’t identify with any particular time of feminism, I identify with the movement that is to me like a river. And I feel that you cannot separate in the river the water. You can seperate the places where the river passes through, but the river is still the river.
Roxie: Do you consider your writing a form of activisim? Are you an activist?
Isabel: No. No. When I write, I want to tell a story. That is all I want. I want to reach a reader and say “Hey, look, listen, I know this, let’s share this story.” That’s all I want. I don’t try to preach, I don’t… People say that my books are very political, that they are feminist. But that’s because I am that way. So, the person I am is reflected between the lines in everything that I write.
I would not, probably, write the story of a suburban housewife, white, privileged, wealthy, because I am not interested. Not because I have anything against that person, it’s because that story’s not interesting to me. The story of an Indian woman in Guatemala who has to leave her country on foot and cross Mexico in horrible conditions, and cross the border, and be exploited in the United States, that story I am interested in. It’s a story of survival. It’s a story of a marginal person that needs to struggle. It’s the story of a person who needs to bring from inside, strength she didn’t even know she had. But when she’s challenged, she lives up to the challenge. That’s the story that I’m passionate about. And it could be a man, it could be a woman, it could be a child. So that’s what I write about. Constantly. And there are many forms for that.
It doesn’t have to be refugees or immigrants, it can be a person who’s marginalized for any reason. Let’s say that they have a physical defect of some kind that sets them apart. Or a racial, or religious situation in which they feel that they are outsiders. Those people are interesting to me.
Roxie: In your new book, what do you want people to take away from it?
Isabel: I don’t care what they take away. That’s not my job. My job is to tell the story. And each person will interpret it anyway they want if they read it. Some people will say “Oh. Again. There we are, talking about refugees again.” Another person will say “But I never thought of it this way.” I cannot monitor whatever the reader is going to feel or take out from the book because that’s not my job. And I don’t have an intention about that. I don’t want people to think this way or the other way. I just present the story, and that’s all I can do. Then the book is published, in 42 languages, goes around the world. How will people in Vietnam read the book? WIll they read it the same way than in Finland? I don’t know.
Roxie: Since your books are translated into so many different languages, do you think that changes how people respond to the book? Do you think changing the language changes the story?
Isabel: I think the story is conveyed, but the subtleties are not, most of the time. I cannot control that, and I cannot read the book in another language, only in English and in French. So how does it translate? I don’t know. Because, as I said, I don’t speak any of those languages. I don’t speak German, Italian, Cambodian. I don’t. But I assume that the publisher wants to sell the book. So the publisher will try to get a good translation. Because a bad translation will not sell, probably. And the fact that my books sell well in different places, in different languages, means that probably the story is conveyed. Now, the irony, the humor, the subtleties, maybe not, but how can I know that? I don’t.
Roxie: I’m a huge Pablo Neruda fan, I love all of his poems. Since your new book is based off of a line from one of his poems, or something that he wrote… I recently read somewhere that in his memoir he wrote about raping a young woman…
Isabel: There’s a whole controversy in Chile right now because twice. He writes about that twice. So the young feminists in Chile are very angry at him for this. But, um, you have to see, to judge things in context. If you go back and analyze Shakespeare’s life or Dickens’ life, or whoever’s life, in the context of the time that they lived, you cannot apply to norms that we have today. And so I think that Neruda’s work stands alone. And the person that he was, he was very flawed, like most of us are. But that doesn’t take away from the work. It takes away from the idea we have of the person, but not the work.
Let’s say that you’re homophobic. You’re totally against Gays. And you read Oscar Wilde. Will you judge the work by the fact that he was gay, or the work in itself. And also see the time it happened. Why did he have to be a closeted gay? Well, he was living in England at the time when it was not accepted. So we have to be very careful passing judgement. Especially over a creator. Are you going to judge fashion, for example, by who creates the fashion, or by how fashion looks?
Roxie: How do you feel that your upbringing and your background have influenced your work?
Isabel: I think that my background determines the person I am . The way I was brought up, the family that I come from, the time I was born, the place where I was born. All that is the cards I was given when I was born. And I have to play that game the best I can. And I think that happens to everybody. There is self-determination to a certain extent. But you are given a lot of things that may be good or bad, but they will help you or not in your life. And my background, the fact that I had a difficult and unhappy childhood made me a good listener, very aware of things.
I observe carefully. Because that’s the way that a child manages the situation when they feel unsafe, when they feel that they…children have no control over anything. So they have very loving, as we say, helicopter parents, probably you don’t have to worry about anything, because you feel that life is easy. I never felt that life was easy for me. So, that determined my character.
Also, I was brought up in the first ten years of my life, which are really important, by a very special grandfather. And I say special because he was very severe and strict. And if I tell you that, you may have the wrong idea about him. Because he was also a generous, decent, honest, extraordinary man that gave me certain value, or certain principles that have been really important in my character and my work. Discipline, for example. Hardworking. The message was “Nobody’s going to do anything for you. You have to do it alone. Don’t ask for help because you’re not going to get it. Don’t complain, because nobody cares what’s going on with you.” That was the message.
So all that, which is very hard on a child, is wonderful, it’s wonderful tools in a way, for your mature years and for your adult life in general, because you become very self-reliant in a way. And that is reflected in my life, in the way I carry all my life, and in my work, I think the background, Chile, the craziness of my childhood. I had this strict grandfather on one side, and a crazy, magical grandmother who was doing seances to call the spirits and she believed in magic. So there was this contrast, you know, and it’s in my books.
Roxie: You’ve mentioned that you’re spiritual, that you’re a very spiritual person..
Isabel: I’ve never mentioned that. People say that about me, but I have never said that. I am not a religious person, and my form of spirituality is service. I think that what you do for others is the only thing that counts. So if I meditate or I don’t meditate, that’s my thing. But what makes, in my opinion, what makes you spiritual is the way you relate to the world and to others.
Roxie: What do you think that the ultimate and perhaps optimal goal of your foundation?
Isabel: You know, it’s a family foundation that is financed by my work, by my books. Thank God my books do well. And it’s run by my daughter in law. Often, when we meet, I say
“Lori, this is like a drop of water in a desert of need. Does it mean anything?”
And the foundation is like 20 years old now. We go case by case. So we see the difference in one person’s life, in one orphanage in Mexico, in one community in Nepal. It’s little things that we do. And we see the results because we check on everything. We are constantly in touch with the grantees. And so I see the difference that you can make in one person’s life. A deaf person that you teach sign language, that you put an implant so that they can hear a little bit, that you, you give education to a child that is disabled and without skill will not be able to survive. That’s how I can measure the impact of the foundation. I’m not changing the world,
I’m not Bill Gates, I will not be able to stop Malaria in the world. No. But I can do whatever I can do, do it now. I’m not , I’m not responsible for all the sorrow in the world, but I am responsible for the sorrow I see, and the sorrow I can touch. That is my responsibility.
Roxie: In some of your books, like in your new book, you speak from the voice of a man. Is that difficult, or hard to do?
Isabel: Most of my stories are about women. Um, because I know them so well, I’ve worked all my life for women and with women, so I know them well. And those characters are really easy. When I write about a man I need a model.I need to find a person that I can say “This person is talking.” And my latest book is a biography of a man, so the world is seen through his eyes, but I had a model, I had a person who lived that life, so I could really, and I had many, many letters from heim, and conversations with him, so I know how he thought, how he lived. It was easier.
When I wrote the only crime novel that I have written, called “Ripper”, my main character, my protagonist is a man, and he’s a soldier. He’s a veteran, an amputee. I know nothing about the military. I cannot put myself in the mind of a soldier. I needed to find someone, so my friend Sarah, who gave us a cup of tea right now, her cousin is a Navy seal that was in the team that brought down Bin Laden. And so he accepted to talk to me, and, although these people are really private and secretive, and he knew that I was writing a book, he accepted.
So, we flew to Washington with Sarah, and spent a few days with him. And I got to listen to his story, see how he speaks, the words he uses, the tone he uses. I went to his apartment, to see how he lives. Of course, I found an excuse to get in his bathroom and open the cabinets to find out what the heck was in there. I researched, and I got the essence of the guy. It’s interesting, because a Navy Seal, in order to get there, they are very physical, very well prepared physically, and emotionally also, psychologically. But I was expecting a buffed up guy, you know, he’s not. He has the hands of a pianist.
He knows wines, he loves classical music. Things I would never have attributed to a Navy Seal that had been in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq. So if I had created the character out of the blue, it would have been caricature. The fact that i could find the person to inspire the character allows me to create a much more complex and contradictory character, as people are. And so it’s not hard to write from a man’s perspective if I can find someone to inspire the character.
Roxie: I did lie, I have one last question. How do you write? Like when you’re writing, is there something you have to do? Do you have to play music…
Isabel: No. I can write in a bathroom, I can write in a closet, and that’s how I wrote in the beginning, when I didn’t have a room of my own. But now I have all the infrastructure so that I can have time and a place to write. I get up very early, usually, I go for a walk with my dog, and then I go home, and I have an attic, a little attic. I don’t need a lot of space. And there I have my computer, my dictionaries, and nothing else. And an altar with the photographs of my parents and my grandparents, and Paula, and whatever. What else do I have in there? Nothing much. I also have some beads, because when I’m really stuck, I turn around and I do some beading, and that sort of clears my mind and I can go back to the writing. But I don’t have music. I just drink tea or eat an apple, I don’t usually eat when I’m writing. I’d much rather be in silence and alone, but when the house is full of people, and a few years ago, I was living in a large house with a swimming pool, and so my writing space was the pool house. So the kids were in the pool, screaming with their friends. I didn’t hear them. I was just totally into my world. So there was a mess in the house and I didn’t know about it, or I didn’t hear it. But right now, that I have the space and the silence, I enjoy it.
Roxie: Thank you very, very much.