In Isabel Allende's books, human beings do not exist merely in the three-dimensional sense. They can exert themselves as memory, as destiny, as spirits without form, as fairy tales. Just as the more mystical elements of Allende's past have shaped her work, so has the hard-bitten reality. Working as a journalist in Chile, Allende was forced to flee the country with her family after her uncle, President Salvador Allende, was killed in a coup in 1973.
Out of letters to family back in Chile came the manuscript that was to become Allende’s first novel. Her arrival on the publishing scene in 1985 with The House of the Spirits was instantly recognized as a literary event. The New York Times called it "a unique achievement, both personal witness and possible allegory of the past, present and future of Latin America."
To read a book by Allende is to believe in (or be persuaded of) the power of transcendence, spiritual and otherwise. Her characters are often what she calls "marginal," those who strive to live on the fringes of society. It may be someone like Of Love and Shadows 's Hipolito Ranquileo, who makes his living as a circus clown; or Eva Luna, a poor orphan who is the center of two Allende books (Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna).
Allende's characters have in common an inner fortitude that proves stronger than their adversity, and a sense of lineage that propels them both forward and backward. When you meet a central character in an Allende novel, be prepared to meet a few generations of his or her family. This multigenerational thread drives The House of the Spirits, the tale of the South American Trueba family. Not only did the novel draw Allende critical accolades (with such breathless raves as "spectacular," "astonishing" and "mesmerizing" from major reviewers), it landed her firmly in the magic realist tradition of predecessor (and acknowledged influence) Gabriel García Márquez. Some of its characters also reappeared in the historical novels Portrait in Sepia and Daughter of Fortune.
"It's strange that my work has been classified as magic realism," Allende has said, "because I see my novels as just being realistic literature." Indeed, much of what might be considered "magic" to others is real to Allende, who based the character Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits on her own reputedly clairvoyant grandmother. And she has drawn as well upon the political violence that visited her life: Of Love and Shadows (1987) centers on a political crime in Chile, and other Allende books allude to the ideological divisions that affected the author so critically.
But all of her other work was "rehearsal," says Allende, for what she considers her most difficult and personal book. Paula is written for Allende's daughter, who died in 1992 after several months in a coma. Like Allende's fiction, it tells Paula's story through that of Allende's own and of her relatives. Allende again departed from fiction in Aphrodite, a book that pays homage to the romantic powers of food (complete with recipes for two such as "Reconciliation Soup"). The book's lighthearted subject matter had to have been a necessity for Allende, who could not write for nearly three years after the draining experience of writing Paula.
Whichever side of reality she is on, Allende's voice is unfailingly romantic and life-affirming, creating mystery even as she uncloaks it. Like a character in Of Love and Shadows, Allende tells "stories of her own invention whose aim [is] to ease suffering and make time pass more quickly," and she succeeds.
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Allende has said that the character of Gregory Reeves in The Infinite Plan is based on her husband, Willie Gordon.
Allende begins all of her books on January 8, which she considers lucky because it was the day she began writing a letter to her dying grandfather that later became The House of the Spirits.
She began her career as a journalist, editing the magazine Paula and later contributing to the Venezuelan paper El Nacional.
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From the March/April 2000 issue of Book magazine
"Stories are like dreams; they follow their own rules," Isabel Allende says as she stands at a podium, addressing the audience in the Chicago Hilton and Towers' ballroom, where the Chicago Foundation for Women is holding its annual brunch. "The writer and the dreamer have so much in common: They can't control the plot, they are always part of the story or the dream."
It is this inability to control one's own destiny that has determined so much of the 57-year-old Peruvian-born writer's life and so much of her fiction. Starting her professional life as a journalist in Chile, in 1975 she was forced to flee to Venezuela to escape Augusto Pinochet's fascist regime, which two years earlier, reportedly with CIA assistance, had assassinated her cousin Salvador Allende, then president of Chile. She turned from journalism to novel-writing unexpectedly as well -- her first novel, The House of the Spirits, a sprawling tale of magic realism profoundly influenced by Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, was originally intended to be a letter to her grandfather who was dying in Chile. The book Paula, written in response to the slow, painful death of her 28-year-old daughter, began as a series of journal entries and letters. On a more whimsical note, Aphrodite, a book about the twinned natures of eroticism and food, came from a dream Allende had about Antonio Banderas ("I placed him on a Mexican tortilla, slathered him with guacamole and salsa, rolled him up and ate him," Allende says).
Allende's Daughter of Fortune is a novel that mirrors its author's tendency to follow unexpected paths. Set in the mid-1800s during the height of the Gold Rush, it concerns an impetuous young woman named Eliza Sommers who leaves Chile in order to pursue the passionate, mercurial Joaquín Andieta, who has gone to California to seek his fortune. Eliza instead finds herself in an entirely different relationship with Tao Ch'ien, a Chinese doctor. At the end, Joaquín, the object of her quest, becomes not so much elusive as irrelevant. What begins almost as romance fiction, full of breathless embraces and stolen kisses, rapidly becomes a novel about Eliza's search for self-knowledge.
"Why did I choose that subject? Why that heroine in pursuit of love and freedom?" Allende asks. "Every book is related to some kind of quest. While I am writing, the quest is not clear, but sooner or later it becomes obvious. Maybe Eliza Sommers is me. Maybe I was her in another life."
You’ve been quoted repeatedly as saying that with your writing, you could seduce any man. What is it about your writing that you feel
has the power to seduce?
I think that the greatest aphrodisiac is imagination, and if you can trigger something in a person’s imagination, in a man’s imagination, you
can seduce him and make him love you, and this has been my life experience. I don’t have a lot of raw material to seduce anybody, but I do have storytelling and that works.
Do you see parallels between yourself and Scheherazade in Arabian Nights who prolonged her life with stories?
No, because I have not had to save my life with my writing. But I have saved myself in the sense that until I became a writer I felt very frustrated. I felt that my life was going nowhere, that the jobs I had I
didn’t like, that I couldn’t express something that I had inside that was suffocating. There was something choking me permanently and when I started writing, I realized that all the craziness that I had, all my madness could be challenged into a sort of universe that you create with the written word, a universe that is very personal and yet is big enough
that other people are part of it as well. Every reader that reads one
my books becomes for a few hours part of that universe, and we share it
and that is universal.
Still, even though you say that you didn’t have to save your life with your writing, it has, in a sense, saved and protected you, particularly in writing Paula, in response to the loss of your daughter.
All my writing comes from some sense of loss or struggle. The House
of the Spirits was the product of exile, and I don’t think that I would
have ever written that book without that experience. I would have been
journalist and a very happy one. I loved my job as a journalist, but
then we had the military coup. I left my country and I couldn’t find
another job as a journalist, and for years I had this feeling that I
wanted to write as I had written before, but there was nothing to write
about, or maybe there was a lot, but I didn’t have the excuse. Then, in
1981, when my grandfather was dying, I started a letter to him that
became The House of the Spirits. He died without reading the letter,
I had the feeling that the book gave me back what I had lost -- a country,
a sense of family and roots, belonging. Every one of my books is like
trying to recover something, trying to become something.
What was Daughter of Fortune written in response to?
You know, I never know why I’m writing something usually until I
read the reviews and then I get the book explained to me. When I wrote
Daughter of Fortune, for seven years I had been researching. I wrote it
very fast, but I didn’t know why I had this compulsion, this obsession
to write about the Gold Rush. I’m not particularly interested in gold
or something that took place 150 years ago in a place
that is not even in my country. Why was I so interested in this? I
didn’t know. And then, the book was published and I was invited to do
the book tour in Spain, and my first interviewer explained what he
thought the book was about, and I realized that he was absolutely
He said that this book is the story of a journey, a journey in time and
space, but also a journey of the soul, a journey of a woman who comes
from domestic captivity out into a masculine world and, in the process,
loses much but gains something that she didn’t know she was looking
She gains strength and freedom. In the process, she becomes very
masculine; she even dresses like a man. She goes back to her feminine
clothes, but never again in a corset, because she already has that
inner freedom that makes her a full person. And the interviewer made the
comparison of this story with the struggle of feminism in the last
50 years, of how women in my generation came out of our domestic captivity
into a masculine world. As we reach a critical number of empowered
women, we don’t have to act like men anymore, and more and more we can
be ourselves, still be women and have the strength and the freedom. The
book is about freedom, which has been the most important issue in my
life because I was not born free. I made myself free. It’s about the
struggle to be assertive, to be independent, to have economic
independence, to get myself an education, which I was not given because
I was a woman and it was not important to educate women at that time. I
was supposed to be somebody’s very good wife. I was supposed to be a
lady. I was supposed to be a very good mother, but I was not supposed
to be creative.
One of the things that comes up in a lot of your work is that you
are frequently inspired by your dreams. Did that play a role at all in Daughter of Fortune?
Often, I find the solution for a problem in a book in a dream. You
will find this really New Age-y, California, and I hate to talk about
it, but because I write my dreams down, I have discovered what certain
things represent for me. When I dream about children, they always
represent the book, because I only dream of children when I am writing
and what happens in the dream to the child happens in real life to the
book. For example, with Daughter of Fortune, I had a dream of a child
who cried with the voice of an old man. The next day, I went to check
the narrative voice because there was something wrong there. It was not
consistent. There was something that’s not working. Sometimes I dream
that there is a maze and I have to retrieve a child from the maze and I
can’t. I’m lost. That usually represents the plot. There are many
like this. With Daughter of Fortune, I remember that I woke up at night
with the feeling that I had to go back to the writing, absolutely go
back to the writing, and when I turned on the computer, I realized that
the last sentence I had written the day before, which was "I am free
now," was the end of the book. There was nothing I could add. All the
chapters I had thought about were irrelevant. That really was the end
the book. My mother was really pissed. She said, "What?! This open
ending?" And I said, "Mother, there is nothing I can add. This is the
Does your mother read all of your work?
She is my editor. She is the only person who corrects the books.
She’s seventy-eight and a sharp cookie and a terrible critic with a fat
red pencil. She’s the only person who reads my manuscripts before
Getting back to the topic of seduction, do you ever find yourself
seduced by your writing? Do your own images captivate you?
Not when I’m writing. But I had a very strange experience last
night. I didn’t have anything to read, because I left the book I was
reading on the plane, so I picked up a collection of short stories that
I wrote in 1987. I had not opened the book since 1987. But since there
was nothing to read, I started reading my own short stories that I had
totally forgotten. I started reading them, and I was surprised at the
images and the things that I had written that I feel that today I would
be incapable of writing. I was another writer then. And something has
happened. There’s a sense of color and heat in that book that I no
longer have, and I was seduced last night by that tone that I know that
I can never have again.
Would you describe writing as a passionate process?
Passionate. Compulsive. Emotional. I find myself laughing and
like crazy, and angry at the characters because they do things that I
don’t want them to and sometimes I hate them. They betray me all the
time. I started Daughter of Fortune with two characters that I thought
were great. This young man who was tormented, he was the devil lover,
was dark and handsome and he goes to find gold and then I couldn’t find
him again. I looked for him all over California. I couldn’t find him.
just betrayed me and disappeared and became like a ghostfaint,
And the Chinese guy who was supposed to appear for a few lines during a
trip on a ship started to grow and grow and became the protagonist.
That’s the wonder of writing, that you don’t know what’s going to
happen. I never work with an outline. I start adding words and ideas.
It’s like embroidery. I always say that a short story is like an arrow
that has one shot and it has to get there and you need direction,
precision, speed, the eye, the wrist to do it in one shot, while a
is like embroidering a tapestry and you do not know the design. You
from the other side and you put threads and colors together, and then
one day you turn it over and you see that there is a design and there
something there that you didn’t know was there.
One issue that comes up fairly often in Daughter of Fortune is
your displeasure with how history has been written.
It’s written by males, white males generally. When I researched the
Gold Rush, I realized that most of the history books were written by
white male historians. Most of them had not even lived in or around the
area. But then I went to the letters that the wives of pioneers wrote,
the letters that uneducated miners wrote to their families, the recipes
that they would share. That’s what interests me -- the daily lives, not
vision of the victors who wiped out the people of color and got the
gold. I know people who are alive today, who still saw signs in
restaurants that said, "No Mexicans or dogs allowed," and that comes
from the time of the Gold Rush -- no people of color, no Chinese, no
Peruvians or Chileans. These people were dogs, even though they were
there before the whites and they taught the whites how to pan the gold
and how to get the gold and then they were deprived of everything. The
whites made laws to take away everything from the people of color. The
women who came were mostly prostitutes, and they had a very hard time.
The worst of them were the Chinese who were brought as sex slaves. Some
of them were eleven-year-olds. Their life expectancy after they entered
the trade was three years. Who wrote the stories of these girls? These
sex slaves kept on coming or being brought in containers from China up
to 1920, in Chinatown in San Francisco. Everybody knew about it. The
authorities knew about it, but until the Presbyterian missionaries got
in there and tried to solve the problem, everybody thought, "Oh, these
were just Chinese. Who cares about the Chinese?" This is what interests
me. The margins. Not the story of the victors.
It seems as if power is defined by the individual who gets to
the story, whether the story is used to colonize, to re-tell history,
Absolutely. It is so powerfulthe choice of words, the way you tell
things. The first thing that the military did after the coup in Chile was
to change the textbooks. The period of [Salvador] Allende was erased from
the books. Those years never existed. Then name of Allende never existed. This
is how you can change history. With a story. With a word.
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