Isabel Allende has been inspiring readers to fall in love with the world for nearly 40 years. Widely considered to be the world’s most-read Spanish-language author, the Chilean writer’s deft blend of social commentary and magical realism is a reflection of her peripatetic upbringing and the many people, places and cultures that have fuelled her curiosity.
50 Reasons to Love the World – 2021
Why do you love the world?
“Because in spite of the pandemic, the wildfires and the smoke in my hometown, the awful political climate in the US and the economic crisis that creates so much despair, I wake up every morning in my small house in California squeezed between my husband and two dogs and realise that love is all that truly matters,” – Isabel Allende, author
Though Allende is perhaps best known for her iconic first novel, The House of the Spirits, her latest book, A Long Petal of the Sea, has been heralded as one of the most captivating works of her long career. The novel follows a young couple as they travel from Europe to South America in search of a place to call home.
We recently caught up with Allende to discuss her native Chile, how a chance meeting with Pablo Neruda changed her life and her dreams of dismantling the patriarchy.
Q: Your books have been translated into 42 languages, selling more than 74 million copies worldwide. Why do you think your work resonates so broadly across different cultures?
My grandchildren say that I have a village in my head, and I live in it. When I write, alone and in silence in my attic, I inhabit that village in the company of my characters. It’s a very intimate and deep experience, so it is astonishing to me that people in faraway places, in different cultures and languages, can relate to that experience. I write about emotions and relationships and I suppose that’s common to all humanity.
Q: You’ve written about places as diverse as Haiti, Brooklyn, India and Spain. Does travel ever inspire the ideas for your novels and essays, and how do you evoke a sense of place in your writing?
Time and place are the foundations of most of my novels, so history and location are very important in my work.
I have travelled extensively but not exactly looking for inspiration. Usually, it takes years for me to recreate a place in a book. For example, when I went to the Amazon, Nepal or Africa, I thought that they were fascinating, but so alien to me that I could never write about them. Many years later I wrote a trilogy for young adults. City of the Beasts happens in the Amazon; Kingdom of the Golden Dragon in a mysterious country similar to Nepal; and Forest of the Pygmies in Northern Congo.
Q: Of course, you’ve also written extensively about your native country, Chile. While you haven’t lived there for many decades, I understand you still return most years to reconnect with the land and people that inspired you. In your view, how has Chile changed since you left?
I think that [Chile’s] still one of the most beautiful places on Earth
I left Chile in 1975, and since then, the country and the world have changed very much. I think that it’s still one of the most beautiful places on Earth, in spite of some changes that I don’t like.
Seventeen years of repressive dictatorship and extreme neoliberal economy, which privatised almost everything, including health, education, pensions and even water, created prosperity and modernised the country at a very high social cost. The statistics don’t reflect [the] distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities. Poverty is supposed to be 9%, like in the United States, but in reality, wealth is accumulated in few hands while the middle-class lives on credit and there’s hidden unemployment and poverty. There’s great discontent and anger, which in turn generates violence, as we saw in October , when one million people manifested in the streets against the status quo.
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Of course, there are also many positive changes. The country is more informed, communicated and integrated; before, everything happened in the capital and the provinces lagged behind. It’s modern and efficient, there’s a work ethic and upper mobility. Women participate strongly in every aspect of society.
Q: What are some things most people don’t know about Chile and Chileans that you wish they did?
The country has all the landscapes and climates on the planet, from the dry desert in the north (which is like the Moon), to the lakes and volcanoes of the south and the eternal ice in Antarctica. Visiting and travelling is safe, good weather, no poisonous reptiles or aggressive bandits.
A note of caution: we are hospitable and friendly but if you are a visiting foreigner, please never say anything bad about Chile. It would not be well received. We are the only ones allowed to criticise our country… and we do it all the time.
Q: In your memoir about growing up in Santiago, My Invented Country, you go to great lengths to dispel the view of Latin America as one monolithic culture. Having also lived in Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela and having travelled extensively throughout Latin America, what is it that you’d say makes Chileans distinctly Chilean?
Chile is separated from the rest of the continent by the Atacama Desert in the north (the driest desert in the world), the Andes range mountain on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other and Antarctica in the south. That gives us an insular mentality; we are always contemplating our own navel, so to speak.
In spite of our long and narrow territory, we are a very homogeneous society – we speak with the same accent and have the same customs all along our “long petal of sea, wine and snow”, as Pablo Neruda described Chile. We are serious, formal and rather sombre compared to other Latin Americans.
Q: Two unexpected events happened in 1973 that changed your life. The first was when you were working as a journalist and got to meet Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. What did he famously say to you, and is there any advice you would give other aspiring writers?
He answered that he would never be interviewed by me because I was a lousy journalist
In 1973 Pablo Neruda invited me to his house in Isla Negra, a beach resort where he lived and where he is now buried. I was a young journalist at the time and bragged that the Nobel Prize wanted me to interview him.
I drove a couple of hours on a rainy winter day to see him. We had lunch, a nice bottle of white wine and then I said, “Well, don Pablo, let’s start the interview because I need to go back before it gets dark.” He answered that he would never be interviewed by me because I was a lousy journalist, I put myself in the middle of everything I reported on, I could not be objective, I lied, and probably, if I didn’t have a story, I would make it up. “Why don’t you switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues?” he asked. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow his advice until eight years later.
The best advice for aspiring writers that I have heard is from Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). She said, “Don’t expect your writing to give you fame or money, write because you love the process.” I would add: don’t even expect to be published; do it because it’s your passion.
Q: The second event was when a military coup forced your family to flee Chile and live as political refugees in Venezuela for 13 years. Your latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, unites these two life-changing events: it reveals the little-known fact that Neruda chartered a rescue ship in 1939 to save 2,200 refugees during the Spanish Civil War and it describes the pain of two such refugees on their journey to Chile. How much of your own experience is woven into this novel and why did you feel like this was a story that needed to be told now?
When living in Venezuela I met one of the passengers of the Winnipeg, the ship chartered by Neruda to bring the refugees to Chile. His name was Victor Pey. He told me his story and I carried it inside me for 40 years until I was ready to write it. Now, when the global crisis of migrants and refugees is in the collective consciousness, I felt compelled to tell about those refugees that arrived in Chile in 1939 and how they were received with open arms. They and their descendants have contributed immensely to Chile, as most immigrants do. They were lucky. Nowadays most refugees are received with hostility, if received at all.
Q: Ultimately, A Long Petal of the Sea is a story about finding joy and love in a time of chaos and anxiety. What are some lessons you think readers can take away to navigate this current climate of global uncertainty?
I was born during the Second World War, during the Holocaust, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many other terrible events. I am 78 years old. In my lifetime I have experienced times of uncertainty several times. When that happens, I always remember that everything is temporary, everything changes, the nature of life is impermanence and uncertainty.
Be kind, be patient, help others
We control very little, but we can control how we react to our circumstances. This global crisis will also pass. The definition of crisis is danger plus opportunity. I hope that this danger will give us the opportunity to create a better world and a brighter future for everybody, not just the privileged.
How to navigate? Be kind, be patient, help others.
Q: The book is also a reminder that life is an odyssey that transcends lands and borders. Having lived around the world in places like Beirut, Brussels and San Francisco, what does “home” mean to you and what are some ways that you’ve sought to create a sense of home when you’re away?
I have been a foreigner all my life. I was born in Peru and raised in Chile during the first years of my childhood. I followed my stepfather’s journeys as a diplomat when I was a teenager; I was a political refugee in Venezuela for 13 years and I have been an immigrant in the United States for three decades. My home is where my loved ones are. My husband, my son and daughter-in-law, my three grandchildren and most of my friends are in California. Also, my foundation and my work are in California.
However, when asked from where I am, my answer is always Chile. In truth, I have lived very few years in Chile. Why do I feel Chilean and only Chilean? Go figure… I think that my real roots are not in a place, they are in my memory and in my books.
Q: You’ve famously said, “I can promise you that women working together – linked, informed and educated – can bring peace and prosperity to this forsaken planet.” Who are some women who inspire you and what is your wish for this forsaken planet?
I have a foundation whose mission is to invest in the power of women and girls. I get to meet extraordinary women who have survived horrendous trauma. They have gone through extreme violence, they have lost everything, sometimes even their children, and yet they are never defeated. They get back on their feet, they keep on living, some of them become leaders in their communities, they are able to sing and laugh again. Those are the women who inspire me.
I wish to end the patriarchy as a first step to save this beautiful and forsaken planet.
BBC Travel celebrates 50 Reasons to Love the World in 2021, through the inspiration of well-known voices as well as unsung heroes in local communities around the globe.
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