Isabel Allende’s Vision of History

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Isabel Allende recalls it as the day when Santiago went silent. On the morning of September 11, 1973, Salvador Allende rushed to La Moneda, the Presidential palace, after learning of an unfolding military uprising. Tanks laid siege to La Moneda, a neoclassical building from the early eighteen-hundreds, as the armed forces called on President Allende to resign. Vowing to defend the Constitution, he declared, in a radio address, that he would not step down: “Social processes can be arrested by neither crime nor force.” Minutes before noon, military planes bombed La Moneda, setting its north wing on fire and blanketing the rest in smoke. When troops later stormed in, they found the President’s body in one of the palace’s main halls, his hand resting near a rifle. By day’s end, Augusto Pinochet had taken power, marking the start of his seventeen-year rule. “That distant Tuesday in 1973, my life was split in two,” Isabel Allende wrote decades later. “Nothing was ever again the same: I lost my country.”

Salvador Allende was her father’s first cousin. She believed in his vision—of transforming Chile into a freer, more equitable society, through la vía chilena, or the Chilean path to socialism—but worried about whether his project would prosper, in a world riven by competing ideologies. The disdain for President Allende among conservatives was no secret; neither was the White House’s opposition to him. The C.I.A., which backed those who deposed him, had tried to prevent him from taking power. But, like many others, Isabel Allende dismissed the rumors that his rule might be in question, or that democracy could be at stake. “We were proud of being different from other countries of the continent, which we scornfully referred to as ‘banana republics,’ ” Allende later wrote. “No, that would never happen to us, we proclaimed.”

After Pinochet took power, Allende, who worked as a TV anchor and a humor columnist, was let go. “There was nothing to laugh about—except those who were governing, which would have cost you your life,” she wrote. In the absence of a free press, news spread by word of mouth: thousands of people were tortured, or left to die, in detention centers. The number of victims imprisoned, disappeared, or killed by the state would eventually surpass forty thousand. But a sense of denial prevailed among those who could not bear the truth and those who had no sympathy for la vía chilena. “Chileans learned not to speak out, not to hear, and not to see,” Allende wrote. “When I felt repression tightening like a noose around my neck, I left.”

In 1975, on a rainy winter morning, Allende left Santiago for Caracas, Venezuela, carrying a fistful of soil; her husband and two children joined her a month later. Allende took her first steps as a novelist with a letter to her ailing grandfather, which she wrote from a makeshift desk in her closet. “I wanted to tell him that I remembered everything,” Allende later said. The letter grew into a five-hundred-page manuscript, which editors in Latin America turned down. But, in 1982, Plaza & Janés, a publishing house in Barcelona, printed three hundred and eighty of its pages, under the title “La Casa de Los Espíritus,” or “The House of the Spirits.”

An international success, “The House of the Spirits” helped Allende find a voice that other people living in exile could relate to. “Chile was not an isolated case,” Allende later wrote. “In 1975, half of Latin America’s citizens lived under some kind of repressive government, most of which were backed by the United States.” Allende went on to be exceptionally prolific—she has published twenty-six books, of which more than seventy-seven million copies have sold—but she never abandoned the subject of displacement. She revisited it time and again as an obsession, a form of catharsis, and a subject of study. She also had other losses to contend with. Among Allende’s most memorable works is “Paula,” an ode to her late daughter, who died at the age of twenty-nine, after being diagnosed with porphyria, a rare genetic disorder.

Now eighty-one, Allende recently published the novel “The Wind Knows My Name.” The book straddles two periods in history, guided by two main protagonists: Samuel Adler, a Jewish man born in Austria before the onset of the Second World War, and Anita Diaz, a Salvadoran child who is separated from her mother, amid the U.S. government’s “zero-tolerance” policy. The author draws a parallel between the viciousness of Nazism and the violence across Central America, where more than a million people have been displaced from their homes. As a means of punishment and a source of grief, family separation recurs through time, Allende powerfully shows.

Days before the fiftieth anniversary of the coup in Chile, I spoke to Allende about the legacy of exile, “The Wind Knows My Name,” and the state of American democracy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I’d be remiss not to mention an important date ahead: the fiftieth anniversary of Pinochet’s coup in Chile—a day that marked your life and your career as a writer in exile. What memories do you carry from that day?

It was a day in September, the beginning of spring for us. And I remember it was very confusing. I got up early in the morning, my kids walked to school, and I drove to my office. I saw that the streets were empty, that some people were stranded waiting for buses that never came, and there were some military trucks going back and forth. But we had no experience in military coups. I don’t think that most people knew what it was about.

I reached the office, and the janitor who was at the door said, “It’s a military coup, go back home, everything is closed.” So, I tried to get to the house of a friend, who had a telephone, to call my in-laws and ask them to pick up my kids at school. My friend’s husband was a French teacher who had gone to school at dawn to correct some tests, and she had not heard from him. She was incredibly worried. So, I said, “I’ll go and pick him up.” The school was in downtown Santiago, close to La Moneda palace. When I got there, I met with my friend’s husband, and I got to hear Allende’s last words on the radio. Then we saw the bombing of the palace. We saw the flames and the smoke, the planes, and the noise. We couldn’t believe what was happening.

Can you imagine? It would be like having the American military bombing the White House—something impossible to imagine. Then we had practically three days of curfew. You couldn’t get out at all. Everything was censored, there was no radio, no TV. So, it was a very strange time of uncertainty and fear.

About a year and a half later, you moved to Venezuela, where you lived for thirteen years. And then you fell in love with a Californian and followed him to the San Francisco Bay Area, where you have lived for almost four decades.

From the outside—and compared with your childhood years—this seems like an extraordinarily stable period in your life. Yet you’ve described feeling like a perpetual foreigner, even in Chile. Where does that feeling stem from?

Probably from childhood. I was born in Peru, but my father abandoned my mother when I was three, so we returned to Chile, where my mother was from, to live in my grandparents’ house. Then my mother married a diplomat and we travelled. Every two years, we would be saying goodbye to people, places, schools, languages, and move to another place.

Then I became a political refugee and then an immigrant. So, my life has always had that feeling of being displaced, which is not a bad thing for a writer. It’s actually very good. Because you have to pay attention. You have to listen, to observe carefully, to understand the clues and codes of a new place. Maybe because I don’t feel that I totally belong in a place, I’m always asking questions that other people take for granted. And, in the answers, I get the stories.

You wanted to believe that the dictatorship wouldn’t last, as many other Chileans did. In 1988, the year that a plebiscite put an end to Pinochet’s rule, you returned to the country, but you never moved back. Why?

Because by the time we had democracy in Chile, I was married to an American. I was trying to sponsor my children and my grandson to come to the United States as well. I didn’t think it was the right time to move back. It never was.

My parents were alive—they lived to be very old. So, I would go to Chile very often to see my parents, but it was almost like a foreign country after a while.

When you look at Chile today, how do you see the legacy of the coup manifest itself?

Everybody knows what happened during the dictatorship and the atrocities that were committed. It has all been publicized extensively. However, some people still justify it, there’s a percentage of the population that says, “Well, without that, we would have had a Communist dictatorship,” which was never really the case. But that was the excuse for the coup.

The country is very polarized, very divided. We have a leftist government with a very young President, who is not popular. The problems that people complain the most about are immigration, crime—urban crime—which, if you compare it to any other city in Latin America or the United States, is nothing. There is great disparity in wealth and opportunities. But we all agree that we have to preserve democracy. So, I don’t think another coup would be possible in Chile today.

You’ve described the act of writing as a constant exercise in longing. What do you long for these days? And is it any different from what you longed for in the early eighties, when “The House of the Spirits” was published?

When I first started writing, I was longing for everything I had lost: my grandfather, whom I adored, my family, my in-laws, my work, my country, my friends, everything that was familiar and dear to me. Everything I had lost when I left Chile. And I think that writing “The House of the Spirits” was a crazy attempt to recover all that, to put it somewhere where it would not be lost. Because I didn’t trust my memory, I was forgetting a lot. And I wanted to preserve all that.

When I write now, I don’t have the feeling that I need to get back everything I lost, but I always refer to the past, to my memory, to the people I have known throughout my life. There is also a longing for a world that I can understand, and that I can handle. I think that every writer has that feeling—we write to try to understand.

You have held on to a number of writing habits over the years, including starting your books on January 8th—the day that you began writing the letter to your ailing grandfather, which then turned into your first novel.

I’m disciplined. People think it’s superstition, but it’s discipline. I start writing on January 8th, no matter what. I can be in the middle of a book tour. I can be in Chile because my parents got sick. Whatever it is, that day is a sacred day to get started. Then I show up in front of my computer—usually, six days a week, but let’s say five. It used to be for many, many hours. Now I can’t do it for so long—I am eighty-one years old. But I do it almost every day.

Often on January 8th, I don’t know what I’m going to write, I have a vague idea of a time and a place, if it’s a historical novel. Then the process begins organically. At the beginning, when I was writing my first books, I was scared, I had the feeling that every book was like a gift and maybe next time it would not happen. Now I know that, if I’m given enough time, I will be able to write it. But I just need to feel free to let the book talk for itself, to let the characters come alive, tell me the story. If I try to control it, it never works. It never works! It’s like making love. It doesn’t work if you try to control it too much. [Laughs.]

I read that you also invoke the spirits of the people whom you love.

[Laughs.] I try to do that every morning. I wake up very early, when it’s still dark, around five o’clock in the morning. I don’t like to call it meditation, because it sounds very woo-woo. [Laughs.] And I’m not a woo-woo person. But it’s at least half an hour of being grateful, of feeling the book that I’m writing. And I start my day also by invoking the people I love that are no longer with me: my daughter, my grandfather, and my parents.

Are you ever afraid of the blank page?

No. I had a writer’s block after my daughter died. And I’ve learned that, if I cannot write, I can go back to my training as a journalist and write nonfiction. If I’m given enough time to research, I can write about almost anything.

Do you think and write in Spanish?

Always in Spanish. But I can write also, if it’s nonfiction, simultaneously in English. Or, if it’s a short story, then I can have both texts in the computer and go from one to the other, sentence by sentence. But if it’s a novel, I can’t. A novel, for me, is like embroidering a tapestry. It takes time and threads of many colors. You undo it and then you do it again. Then you don’t know the pattern until it’s done. And that process happens in the womb. It doesn’t happen in the brain. So, I have to do it in Spanish!

Writing fiction comes more naturally to you than writing nonfiction.

Yes, unless it’s a letter. I’m communicating something to someone. That’s easy. But if I am writing to be published, a nonfiction book has to be very precise. You can’t make things up. You can have an opinion about something, but the facts are facts. There are no alternative facts. In fiction, you are free to do whatever you want. And you are free to lie, to invent, to re-create the world. I love that.

“The Wind Knows My Name” is unmistakably grounded in the real-life experiences of thousands of families at the southern border, and the experiences of children as well, hundreds of whom remain separated from their parents today. What drew you to this subject?

I have a foundation that works with women and children. We are focussed on a few areas, one of them is refugees—worldwide, but, of course, at the border between the United States and Mexico. We help finance organizations and programs that are already working in the field. So, through the organizations that we have been helping, I learned about the case of a little girl who was blind, separated from her mother. And that story symbolized, or summarized, the tragedy of all the children who have been separated from their families.

It’s not just the kids that we hear about today, it’s the little Jewish kids during the Second World War, escaping from the Nazis; the children of slaves who were sold and separated from their mothers; the Indigenous children who were taken away from their families and placed in horrible Christian orphanages, where many of them died of starvation. Not only here, but also in Canada, in Australia and New Zealand—in so many places. It is an ongoing tragedy that humanity has endured.

You could have chosen any of those experiences or time periods. Yet, you chose Vienna, in the late thirties—you chose to focus on Samuel Adler, a boy who grew up in a Jewish family and was separated from his parents. What were you hoping to elicit in the reader by drawing a parallel between his experience and that of Anita?

The fact that history repeats itself. Things have happened before and will continue to happen if we don’t stop them. Let’s say a reader who has no sympathy for immigration, no knowledge of what’s going on, and doesn’t want to know much, stumbles upon a novel that tells that reader a story about a little girl. Maybe that reader cannot connect to that little girl because she’s a person of color. If she were from Scandinavia, it would be easier. We can relate to those who are similar to us.

It’s so difficult to relate to numbers. When you hear that there are more than a hundred million forcibly displaced people in the world, that millions of them are women and children. That doesn’t mean anything until you see a face, you hear a name, you know a story, then you could be that person, that child could be yours. And then everything changes.

If writing a novel, as you’ve said in the past, is putting a pack of lies together to get to a truth, what truth were you after here?

We all know about the victims. We all know about the horrible policies that create these disasters, but we never hear about the people who are helping. There are thousands of lawyers in the United States who work pro bono to represent kids in court. If a child is represented in court, it is far more likely that he or she will get asylum. If not, they’re deported.

Now, many of those lawyers are women, because there is no money and no glory in it—nothing, except the compulsion to help somebody. And so, it’s that feeling—that subtle thing that makes us human, the ability to put yourself in the place of another person and act—that I’m fascinated with.

Displacement, life in exile, and loss are all recurrent themes in your work, but so is the threat of authoritarianism. The individual behind the family-separation policy is never mentioned in the book, just as Pinochet and Chile were never explicitly mentioned in “The House of the Spirits.” Does this give you greater literary license?

It doesn’t matter who created the policy. What matters is what happened. And let’s say I write this was Trump’s policy, then I limit the whole drama to Trump. And, Trump may be there or not, but the drama, the tragedy, continues. It has not been solved by Biden—and it will not be solved by the next government, either.

Immigration is, of course, not the only tragedy of our time. Freedom of speech has come under assault in recent years. PEN America is keeping track of all the books that have been banned around the country. The list includes hundreds of titles, which cover everything from the legacy of racism to teen-age pregnancy, and “The House of the Spirits” is among those titles.

I don’t know why, really. Is it because of sex? It cannot be race, because it happens in Latin America, and it has nothing to do with race in the United States. Does it have to do with violence? I mean, we live in a culture of violence, with a fascination for violence and guns. So, what is it about the content in “The House of the Spirits” that bothers people?

It’s worth mentioning that the book was also banned in Chile when it came out. It made its way into the country through its Spanish edition, didn’t it?

Yes, it was published in Spain, by Plaza & Janés. And people would smuggle the book without the covers into the country, until censorship was eliminated for books and theatre plays, because very few people could afford it anyhow. Booksellers would have it under the counter, and people would ask, in secret. [Laughs.]

How extraordinary.

It’s wonderful, very flattering. It’s useless to ban a book. It emerges to the surface, and the more you forbid, the more curiosity there is among young people to read it.

What does the banning of the book in the United States say about the state of democracy in the country?

I think that democracy really bothers a lot of people. They would love to have an authoritarian government; they are trying to prepare their minds and prepare the country for something like that. I think that a coup in the United States is absolutely possible. I don’t think that it would have the characteristics of the coups in Latin America, in which the militaries became the mercenaries of the rich. It’s a very different situation, but it could be something happening here, that the government is taken over and the legal institutions that support this country fail. Hopefully, they won’t, but it can happen.

It’s striking to hear you make that case now, because in “My Invented Country” you talk about the fact that, in Chile, you didn’t see the coup coming. Its suddenness and its brutality caught you by surprise. But now, fifty years later, as a citizen of this country, you recognize the threat.

Remember that, in this country, much of the population has guns. So, that can really bring a civil war. And so there is danger—democracy is like health, you don’t appreciate it until you lose it.

Lastly, talking about the loss of rights: the overturning of Roe v. Wade, last year, was a momentous event for women around the country.

You have said that you were a feminist before the concept was known in your family. But you have also expressed doubts about whether the twenty-first century will be the century of women. Tell me why.

Because I think we still have a long way to go. The patriarchy has been the way we have lived as a civilization for thousands of years. And, in order to change that, replace it with gender parity and a world in which feminine values are as important as male values, it will take a long time. I have seen progress in my eighty years—a lot of progress. But I still see all that we have to do. And because my foundation works with women and children, I see how much we need to do. You and I are talking from a privileged point of view. We are educated women, we feel free, we have had a completely different vision of life than a young girl in Afghanistan, who is married at six to a forty-year-old because they can’t feed her in her family. This is happening today, in the world in which we live. While some women are training to be astronauts, other women can’t get out of their houses.

And in a country like the United States, in particular, which was a North Star for so many other countries across Latin America and elsewhere—

It isn’t anymore. Half of the population has a submissive role. And that role is steady because of the fact that women are tied to motherhood. Why would any woman in this country vote for a politician who does not give her the right to choose how many children she wants to have? Post-menopause, I understand, but a young woman is voting against her own interests. ♦


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