Author Isabel Allende: Celebrating a Lifetime of Writing

Isabel Allende [photo: Lori Barra]
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This is one of a series of interviews highlighting the winners of the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Find more here

Isabel Allende’s life changed forever on September 11th, 1973.

That was the day that Allende’s father’s first cousin, Salvador Allende,  a Marxist, who had been Chile’s president since 1970 was overthrown by a military  coup.  The deposing of her uncle eventually led to her career as a highly acclaimed, best-selling writer.

Allende, the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Lifetime Achievement winner said she and her fellow Chileans were completely unprepared for the overthrow, given that her country had a long-standing democratic tradition.

“We didn’t have a tradition of military coups or chieftains or things like that.  Nobody knew what a military coup really was.  In 24 hours, the country changed.  It became a country that was ruled by the military, in a very repressive and brutal way.  The idea was that the military had intervened to defend the Christian, Western way of living.”

Allende, who lived in Chile with her husband and two children was working as journalist.  However, she quickly realized that given her close ties to the Allende government, things were no longer safe in her country, so the family fled to Venezuela.

Allende struggled to find work as a journalist, so she took a number of jobs to try to help support her family.  Running out of options, she turned to writing fiction.

“Finally in 1981, I was almost 40 years old I started writing a letter to my grandfather that became my first book. (The House of the Spirits) Without that exercise in nostalgia, in trying to recover the world I had lost, which is what the book is about, I don’t think I’d be a writer today.  I would be in Chile, as a journalist, probably a happy one or a retired one by now,” Allende said.

Following The House of the Spirits, which became a best-seller in both Spain and (West) Germany, Allende has written a number of books, ranging from Of Love and Shadows which told the story of a love affair set against the backdrop of a repressive government regime, not unlike the one Augusto Pinochet headed in Chile, following Salvador Allende’s overthrow, to Paula which was a heartbreaking account of the death of her daughter after a long illness.

Allende’s books have often featured strong women struggling to free themselves from the oppression of a patriarchal culture.  Allende says having her female protagonists move beyond the Latin America stock characters of “mother,” “bride,” and "prostitute" wasn’t intentional.

“I wasn’t planning it that way, but that’s how it came out.  I come from an unusual family in which there are quite a number of extraordinary women, but also because I was writing from a feminine perspective. All of the writers of the great boom of Latin American literature of the 1960s into the 1980s were male, so it was their vision of the feminine world, at a time when boys and girls were raised differently.   They went to different schools. Nothing was co-ed at the time.  You can imagine that men had a very partial and limited idea of what the feminine world was about.  I was writing from inside, I knew better in that sense.”

ideastream will stream the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony Thursday at 6 p.m. live online.

Isabel Allende speaks at The City Club of Cleveland Friday at 12:30pm on 90.3.

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