Isabel Allende: ‘Where are my roots? They are in my books’

US-based bestselling Chilean author talks of pain, loss and her novel about displacement

Bestselling Chilean author Isabel Allende is one of the most widely read Spanish language writers in the world, yet her work is often dismissed as “too commercial”, or “books for women”.

“But that happens to all female writers,” she says, speaking in her musical accent from her home in California. “It takes a very long time to get half of the respect that any man gets for half the work.”

There is, she says, “the idea that women do read men’s books, and men resist reading women’s books, unless it’s some theme that’s of interest to them. Because women are more interested in personal stories. We want to hear women and men’s stories. That’s what interests us most. We learn from that.”

And what are men looking for?


“Validation of their own ideas. Validation of their own experience. They want to know more about politics. They read biographies, mostly non-fiction.

“Look, I have sold 75 million copies of my books. Do you think I might care if someone says they don’t read me? Because sometimes a guy says, ‘I know you’re a writer but I don’t read women’s books.’ And they say it in my face! Can you believe it?” she says, laughing now. “Can you imagine the other way around, if I said to a man, ‘I know you’re a writer but I don’t read men’s books!”

Allende has little time for such nonsense; she is busy writing her next book. At 77, she is as prolific as ever – but her journey to success was not without difficulty. Following the bloody Pinochet coup of 1973 that overthrew her second cousin, Salvador Allende, the first elected socialist president of South America, Isabel took great risks to arrange passage out of the country for fellow Chileans before she herself was forced to flee. She has now written more than 20 books and, in 2014, she received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her latest novel, The Long Petal of the Sea, is built on a recurring theme in Allende’s work: the displacement of people. A young couple flee the Spanish Civil War to Chile on The Winnipeg, a boat for refugees chartered by the Nobel prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, only to then find themselves at the mercy of the Pinochet dictatorship. Over and again, fascistic forces upend their lives, making their homes impermanent and leaving their families without footing.

Her latest novel, The Long Petal of the Sea, is built on a recurring theme in Allende's work: the displacement of people. A young couple flee the Spanish Civil War to Chile

In recent times of cages and walls and the insistent “othering” of migrants, Allende felt compelled to finally write this story, one that was told to her by a fellow exile in Venezuela 40 years ago, who himself had travelled on The Winnipeg. “It’s something that is in the air, everybody’s talking about it. And because I have experienced both situations, being an immigrant and being a refugee, I can understand the feelings.”

Recurrence of history

The story of The Winnipeg refugees is a “sort of happy ending”, she says, given how well they were received in Chile and how the refugees “contributed immensely to the culture”. However, she insists, “It is not my intention to preach. I just want to tell a story.”

And yet it is difficult not to see this novel as a reminder of the endless recurrence of history, of half a million Franco refugees fleeing Spain with many interned in harsh camps in France – of people fleeing from countries in which refuge is now sought.

How does Allende feel to see a creeping fascism emerge in her adopted home in the US?

“I’ve lived long enough to know that there is always, in every country, part of the population that is potentially very fascist. And given the wrong circumstances, that emerges,” she says.

She recalls moving to the United States in 1987 and telling her then husband, William Gordon, “I said, this is potentially a very fascist country. He said, ‘What are you talking about? This is the cradle of democracy.’ And I said, ‘That’s a myth.’ The United States is very tribal. You have nations within nations. Right now, the division is so sharp that people don’t even talk to each other.”

'The United States is very tribal. You have nations within nations'

She is “scared stiff” at the prospect of four more years for Trump but Allende has no dystopian vision of what is to come. “I have lived long enough to know that humanity is in a process of evolution, that things always get better, even if for some time, we seem to have a backlash and go back to terrible times. The curve is towards more democracy, more inclusion, more education, less poverty.

“I was born in the middle of the second World War. It was a terrible time. The United Nations didn’t exist. Feminism was beginning, but there was no contraception. The pill had not been invented.”

Allende was calling herself a feminist at five years old when the word was unheard of in Chile. She is captivated by the recent mass protests in Chile against “terrible inequality”, and by women protesting rape culture.

“You have a few people who have indecent wealth. There’s 40 per cent of the population that cannot pay for basic services because everything was privatised. We are living under the constitution created in 1980 by Pinochet which has favoured this group of people who own the country. All of a sudden, there was this explosion of anger.”

Men and power

Allende despairs at the continued “extreme influence of the Catholic Church” in Chile despite its many abuse scandals. She tells me how abortion was only recently introduced, in very limited circumstances, after years of protest. “I abhor institutionalised religion, all of them,” she says. “They are patriarchal, they put women down. You have to believe in a dogma that always benefits the men who have the power.”

When her daughter Paula passed away at 29, Allende set up a charitable foundation to honour her, with a mission to empower women and girls. Reproductive rights are top of the agenda. “A woman who does not have control over her fertility doesn’t have control over anything really. [She]doesn’t own her body.”

Allende describes her new novel as an “homage to Pablo Neruda” who made the story of The Winnipeg possible by arranging funding for the refugee ship. She met the poet once, briefly in 1973, before the coup. “I was a lousy journalist. He immediately realised that. He said that I suffered from too much imagination. I would do better at fiction.”

However, she is aware that Pablo Neruda is not held in such high regard by everyone in Chile. Recent plans to rename the Santiago airport after Neruda faced great opposition. “The Me Too movement in Chile, the young feminists whom I admire, have attacked, almost censored him because he confessed in his memoirs that he raped a woman in Thailand. And we know that he abandoned his mentally ill daughter. But if you censor the work, then there will be nothing left because start looking around at the painters and musicians, even the scientists, everybody. I make a difference between the life of the author and the work.”

'I've been living in English for 32 years. And I write in Spanish. So a couple of weeks before I start a new book, I start reading Neruda

Neruda’s poetry accompanies her always. “I’ve been living in English for 32 years. And I write in Spanish. So a couple of weeks before I start a new book, I start reading Neruda – it brings me back the language, the metaphors and the landscape of Chile.”

Writing brings a certain order to the world for Allende. “It helps me to understand the confusion of life,” she says. Her mother died last year, bringing an end to Allende’s nightly ritual of writing to her about the events of the day, her thoughts and dreams. “It was like keeping a record of an inner life that now, I don’t do. I miss it terribly. I think that’s why now I’m approaching January 8th, and I don’t know what I’m going to write.”

Allende begins every book she writes on January 8th, the date on which she began her first book, The House of the Spirits. It’s a superstition with a practical element. “I need some discipline. If I don’t have the time to start I will be procrastinating forever.” If she cannot write fiction, she will give herself “a journalistic assignment. But I have to write, if I don’t write I drive everybody nuts. I’m so hyper and bossy.”

“Pain is unavoidable but suffering is optional” according to a character in Allende’s new novel – and a similar attitude seems to have buoyed Allende through political and marital turmoil, and the death of her daughter.

“In my mother’s family, I would say that 90 per cent of its members are depressive in one way or another, and I’m not. I’m never paralysed by sadness or by pessimism. I trust that things will change, and most probably for the better.”

Daughter’s death

Her memoir, Paula, written at her daughter’s bedside when she was in a porphyria-induced coma, is considered by many to be her masterpiece.

“I knew that after Paula died, I would live with that for the rest of my life and what I also knew was that there would be no other pain that would be comparable. So, for example, when I divorced Willy four years ago, everybody said how can you be willing to divorce him at your age – I was 72 – and you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone, you’re so courageous. I said, it takes more courage to stay in a bad relationship than to leave.

“I also knew that that kind of pain and stress was not even comparable to what had happened with Paula. It was not even 10 per cent. So how could that put me down? It’s very strange, the pain of losing a child.”

She describes the recent anniversary of Paula’s death and the messages she received from readers. “I like it because I don’t want to forget. It makes me a better person, because I can understand other people’s sadness and losses.”

Allende’s curious mind and openness has always helped her with her work. We talk about psychics she has spoken with and her use of ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic tea used in spiritual practice by indigenous people of the Amazon. “I don’t use drugs usually but I have taken it twice, under supervision.” Once to get into the right mindset to write a fantasy book for young adults. And the second time? “I was going through a bad crisis in my marriage and I thought that would help us.”

`He's a very kind man. That's what I was looking for, kindness. Such a rare quality'

The tea didn’t work and, after her divorce from Willy, she resigned herself to life alone, but a new love turned up three years ago. He heard her speak on the radio and began writing to her every day. “Eventually when we met, I asked him point blank, what are your intentions because I am too old, I have no time to waste. We married four months ago. He’s a very kind man. That’s what I was looking for, kindness. Such a rare quality.”

Home is California now, but with her eyes always on Chile, does she still, in some way, feel like she is in exile? “I feel that I’m a foreigner everywhere. A stranger in life, because my life has been about moving from one place to another.

“And where are my roots? I would say that they are in my books, they are in the people I love. I will never completely belong in a place and understand all the rules, the subtleties of the rules. It’s good for a writer. You keep listening and observing and asking questions.”

In her stories, she will continue to return to Chile. “If I write about any other place I have to research. Chile, I have it in my veins.”