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‘As an eternal foreigner, I don’t take anything for granted’: Isabel Allende

Peru-born Chilean writer Isabel Allende, 77, who describes herself as a ‘novelist, feminist, and philanthropist’ on carrying her family name with pride, immersing herself in poetry before a new work and her latest novel.

Written by Seema Chishti |
Updated: February 23, 2020 9:02:39 am
“I am a fiction writer but in my work, I use the skills I learned as a journalist,” Isabel Allende says

A Long Petal of the Sea
Isabel Allende
336 pages
Rs 550

Your latest book, A Long Petal of the Sea (Bloomsbury) has strong elements of both journalism and fiction. How much of a journalist or fiction writer do you feel you are today?

I am a fiction writer but in my work, I use the skills I learned as a journalist, like conducting an interview, researching, editing, etc. As a journalist, I had to grab raw readers by the neck and keep them interested to the end. I don’t forget that when I write novels. I want my readers to stay with me and be engaged with my story. Also, I think that I have a journalist’s curiosity about the world, so my books are based on meticulous research. Although I have been labelled a writer of magic realism, I try to portray reality in all its complexity.

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Contrary to the idea that magic realism is a Latin American genre, you have always maintained that elements of it are found in literature from all over the world. Does it still remain a special device that can be made effective in today’s times? Or do we need more realism now and less magic?

Artists and writers accept that the world is a mysterious place, we don’t have explanations for everything, we control very little. Our job is to dwell on the unknown and try to interpret it. That always has a place in the world, not only in Latin America, not only in the past. I recently read a novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dance (2019). It is about the brutal reality of slavery but it is also a magic story.

Two of your finest works include your debut novel — The House of the Spirits (1982) and your non-fiction tribute to your daughter, Paula (1994). In the first, you wrote letters to your deceased grandfather, and, in the other, you dwelt on the loss of your daughter. How difficult was it to write these deeply personal books?

I wrote my first book, The House of the Spirits, with ease, quickly, without planning it or even realising that it was a novel, I thought it was a chronicle or a memoir. I had never read a book review or taken a writing class, I had no idea that the book industry was almost a minefield. I’ll never have that confidence and innocence again. Writing Paula, the memoir about my daughter, was painful but necessary because it helped me to understand what had happened during that terrible year of her illness and accept that her only way out from the prison of her inert body was death.

You tried to write a book jointly with your ex-husband, a writer of crime fiction. Then in another book, you worked closely with your partner to get into a man’s head. How hard or easy is it to involve intimate partners in your work?

My agent had the idea that I could write a crime novel with my husband. That didn’t work at all. I learned that I can’t write with another person. Writing for me is a very intimate and private endeavour, I don’t even talk about the story or share the manuscript until it’s finished.

You are related to Salvador Allende (president of Chile, 1970-73). Considering all that has happened in Chile since 1973, how hard has it been to be Allende’s niece?

It has not been hard at all. I carry my surname with pride. Maybe during the military coup in Chile in l973, it was liability, but it never crossed my mind to change it or to use my husband’s name.

Should writers be political? And frankly in today’s times all over the world, do they even have a choice?

I cannot speak for other writers. In my novels, there are unavoidable political and social issues because my stories are placed in a certain reality; they are not floating in a void untouched by the events of the world. The last thing in my mind is to deliver a message or preach. That’s not the role of fiction. However, the person I am, my ideas and feelings are clearly expressed between the lines and in the themes I choose to write about. For example, my last three novels deal with migrants, refugees, and displaced people looking for a safe haven. That’s political.

Speaking to a journalist in France in 1985, Milan Kundera said that writers living away from home should not just become ‘migrants’ focussed on the aspect of ‘displacement’ in their lives. Does the idea of finding ‘home’ or being in exile cast a burden on the lives of writers?

It depends on the writer and the circumstances. There is no rule for how one should feel about displacement. In my case, getting away from my country has been very important. Exile made me a writer. My first novel was an exercise in nostalgia. I wanted to recover the world and the people I had lost. As an immigrant and an eternal foreigner, I don’t take anything for granted, I observe carefully, I listen and I ask questions. That’s how I get my stories.

You write in Spanish, but you now live in a predominantly English-speaking country (the United States). How does that impact your work?

Living in the US makes my work more difficult. On my desk, you will find several dictionaries and grammar books. Before starting a new book — always on January 8 — I spend a week reading poetry in Spanish. That brings back the rhythm, the flavour and the richness of my language. When I send my manuscript to my agent in Spain, it is checked by someone who makes sure that I am not using sentences translated from English.

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