Isabel Allende in-conversation with Erica Wagner

When a few months ago I heard on the literary grapevine that the legendary writer Isabel Allende was coming to London’s Southbank Centre to present her new book, mysteriously called “A Long Petal Petal Of The Sea”, I promptly booked a ticket. Serendipitously or not, UK was pounded by storm Ciara that Sunday, yet the audience braved the elements in order to see & listen to Isabel, whose natural power of word was no less striking than the gusts of wind sweeping through the UK.

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London by night shines bright

The biggest-selling Latin-American author, Isabel Allende is also a very striking woman, even in her late 70s – just as she emerged on stage, beautifully coiffed hair, red lipstick, striking face and the most gorgeously vibrant yellow coat, the audience broke into spontaneous applause. This was only the first of the many rounds of delighted clapping that the wit, charm & wisdom of Senora Allende ellicited.

Curiosity gap
In-conversation with Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende was interviewed by the author & interviewer Erica Wagner, before the microphone was given to members of the audience. Senora Allende also presented her 20th novel, just published for the first time by Bloomsbury Publishing. The book, already topping New York Times’s “bestseller list”, titled after one of Pablo Neruda’s lines of poetry (Isabel Allende told us that he actually read out his poetry in the building we were all assembled in, many moons ago).

One of the things that sets Isabel Allende apart from many other writers is that she is first and foremost a storyteller. Her intention is never to teach, lecture or preach, nor to elevate herself above the others. In her new book (she generally starts writing a new book on January 8th, it’s a comfort, as well as a stoical habit). With this book one of the main threads was the strong connection, often unseen to the naked eye, between Spain & Chile.

A long petal of the sea
Isabel Allende’s newly released 20th novel

As a child Isable heard many stories of the Winnipeg & the refugees the ship brought to her homeland, the sounds of their Spanish sounding ‘weird’ to the Chileans. But only many years later, when Isabel reconnected with an old family friend (who was a very private man) and listened to his stories, that the seed was planted for writing this particular book. Isabel learnt about people walking for days from Spain to France in freezing weather, beaches closed with barbed wire and turned into makeshift ‘concentration camps’. Experiences of war, displacement and sorrow of the human tragic condition. The fact that there are millions of refugees in the world right now probably didn’t go unnoticed by Isabel either, as she reflected on times past and present. But she did say very humbly that after listening to her friend Victor’s stories, all she needed to do was just type this book, words pouring out of her.

“People only leave their homeland, with hardly anything on their back and in their hands, when they are truly desperate”

Isabel Allende
southbank centre
Southbank centre, just before the conversation started flowing

Isabel Allende talked of the perfected lives we all see nowadays through the screens of our phones, often forgetting that many simply don’t talk or post about things that go on behind the scenes. But she is a writer and it is her job to weave together stories, meticulously researching history, exploring libraries and the archives, reading letters and papers, examining the photos, yellowed with age. Without them her books wouldn’t have been written, as its those things that allow her to bridge gaps in her own knowledge, bring the stories of the past to the attention of her readers in present times.

“The idea of an exposed, living heart is the leitmotif of ” A Long Petal Of The Sea”

Isabel Allende

Senora Allende read a passage from her book, a heartbreaking episode between the doctor and the boy who got injured on the journey. His heart, open, exposed, only covered by a steel tin. It was read in a quite, assured voice, yet there was so much emotion I couldn’t help but shiver in my seat. A momentary pause descending on the audience, as we all contemplated what we just heard.

Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende

On Meeting Pablo Neruda: before Isabel became a writer, she was a journalist. One day she was sent to interview famed poet Pablo Neruda. Having driven quite a distance in her small car, Isabel has spent time in Neruda’s company, exploring his ‘treasure’ collection (“when regular folk collect things that I saw at Neruda’s home its called junk. But because it was collected by Neruda, it was artful”). They had a lovely lunch, but as it was getting late, Isabel enquired, whether she could start asking him questions for the interview. To which the poet replied that in his opinion she was the worst journalist he has ever encountered and he had no desire to be interviewed by her. In fact, he recommended that she switched from journalism to writing, as the qualities that were letting her down in her profession, would come handy for her as a writer. Isabel didn’t pay attention to his advice and only later, remembering this episode, having gained world-wide recognition as a writer, she thought back on Neruda’s parting words to her.

“Rhetoric about the refugees in Chile in 1939 has been the same, as it is now. Nothing has changed”

Isabel Allende
curiosity gap
As painful, as it memorable: new work of historical fiction that moves from the Spanish Civil War to the rise and fall of General Pinochet

When it was decided that Chile will take in the refugees in 1939, Pablo Neruda was tasked with selecting those, who will be traveling on the ship Winnipeg. His ‘brief’ was to bring skilled workers who could work & teach, but not people ‘with ideas’. Those that arrived in Chile after a long journey, were welcomed with open arms. However, many countries have plenty of shameful stories about the ways that some refugees were treated. Not surprisingly, that are being relegated to ‘hidden history’ according to Isabel, because of the inner embarrassment.

Research on this occasion wasn’t too difficult, because Victor, Isabel’s friend, had an amazing memory and his stories were like vivid (and very painful at times) imprints. Not surprisingly, Isabel dedicated the book to Victor, however life dealt her a sad card, as he passed away, aged 103, six days before she has completed the manuscript.

As events described in the book belong to quite recent history, there was plenty of additional material available for Isabel too, including many people sharing stories of their family history. As well as library material & archived papers. Having said that, Chile wasn’t really a country of immigrants at the time, due to the vast distance one had to travel to get there.

Isabel’s charitable foundation: one of Isabel’s books, “Paola”, is based on her daughter’s life that was tragically cut short when she fell gravely ill at 26 and sank into a coma. This book started as a love letter to Paula, written during the hours spent by her bedside. In the end it became a personal memoir and a testament to the love & immeasurable loss that transcends the passage of time.

isabel allende
image courtesy of Amazon

Much to Isabel’s surprise this personal love letter to her daughter became a bestseller, but Isabel didn’t want to use the money that she felt belonged to her daughter. She thought long and hard how to separate proceeds from the sale of this book from the others and how to put them to good use. In time, she started a charitable foundation (that is now expertly run by her daughter-in-law) that focusses on the needs of women and children. Who are always the first to suffer from wars, conflicts, violence and displacements. The foundation dedicates its time, funds and efforts to the areas and projects with the greatest needs – reproductive rights, abuse & exploitation of women, immigration.

“In reality, the most important things about my life happened in the secret chambers of my heart and have no place in a biography. My most significant achievements are not my books, but the love I share with a few people—especially my family—and the ways in which I have tried to help others”. Isabel Allende

Isabel also highlighted the fact that we hear so many horrifying, heartbreaking, infuriatingly negative stories about the state of the world daily. But what’s often relegated to the background deserves to be spoken of too – the good of the people, the efforts, the help & the selfless deeds done by regular folk. Those who give their time and knowledge selflessly to those that desperately need it. Men and women who collect donations or travel vast distances to deliver supplies to those who are in the dark and desperate places. We simply DO have to hear about the good things too!

“In storytelling it is so important to pay attention to how you narrate things and present stories.”

Isabel Allende
Southbank Literature & Spoken word

Life, like history, goes round in circles and right now authoritarian regimes seem to be having their moment of powerful fame. Having said that, Isabel Allende believes that the overall curvature of history is positive. She does a lot of research before & during the writing process of her novels, so “I study the past and believe me, no matter what is being said now, things were worse before”. She also made the audience laugh by reminding us all that is it still predominantly ” old, white men” who are writing the history books.

“Important voices often remain silent”

Isabel Allende

During the event another recently published book “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins came up the conversation. In part, because of the growing louder conversations about racism and criticism of the ‘white authors’ writing about the lives of black people or ethnic minorities. In part, because of the questioning of the paradigm of “who is entitled to write which story”. In my opinion Isabel Allende came up with the best & heartfelt answer to this fundamental issue. While she hasn’t yet read Jeanine’s book, she said that in her opinion the writer of fiction shouldn’t be censored. The writer shouldn’t be told what she should or shouldn’t write. When the author writes fiction the point of it, its central cornerstone, is empathy and the reader should feel their sorrow, if the issue is dramatic – that’s the job of the writer. Irrespective of age, race or gender inside we are all alike, we all react to emotions like love, loss, pain, injustice, betrayal. And that’s what we should focus on – things that unite, rather than divide.

“I can put myself into a place of say a Tibetan grandmother, because we both can sit down together and tell each other our life stories”.

Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende
“I feel in lust with my second husband” Isabel Allende

“When I was young, voices of female Latin American writers were minimised & suppressed, so I focussed on raising a family.”

Isabel Allende

It was perhaps surprising to hear that often in the past the author of 20 bestsellers felt like her life wasn’t going anywhere & nothing was working, no matter how hard she tried. Her writing started with writing letters to her grandmother and in time gave Isabel “a voice”. She suffered terrible writer’s block after the death of her daughter – she sat at the desk, tried writing and failed miserably for about three years. Everything in life felt flat & lifeless. What helped bring her talent back to life was…. eroticism & gluttony. Two sins that, according to Isabel Allende, are ‘worthy’ of the trouble (there is also another important ingredient – laughter- that should be sandwiched, forgive the pun, between those two).

At the time of the writer’s block Isabel started researching aphrodisiacs. She explored foods through a million of cookbooks, but found at the time that very few erotic books were in existence. So in the name of research, she went to a … porn shop in San Francisco, taking her mother along. Her mother hardly spoke English and was quite elderly at the time. The experience was akin to a grown-up version of Arabian nights. Isabel painted a very vivid picture, making the audience roar with laughter, picturing what she was describing. For all the research, Isabel Allende couldn’t publish this book while her mother was alive.

“I do the only thing I do – writing – because I am unemployable otherwise.”

Isabel Allende

What also matters a great deal to Isabel Allende when it comes to writing, is the connection with her readers, that “warms up my life”. At the time of mass political discontent around the world, the author chooses to tell stories, rather than take political positions.

In the course of the evening she was asked about Venezuela, where she has lived in the past. She told the audience that the situation in Venezuela, where quite a few of her family members still live, is very sad, and she feels particular affinity with the country, after it welcomed her family with open arms at the time of political turmoil in Chile. Even though she lives in California now, she still feels a strong connection with Venezuela & that the spirit of the country, with its joy & generosity, isn’t internally diminished. Adding, “I trust that things will get better”.

“Fiction happens in the womb, not in the brain”

Isabel Allende

When it comes to her writing, some things still come out better in Spanish (like her fiction), others are better expressed by her in English. Due to Isabel moving a lot because of her parents diplomatic posts, as well as political unrest, she does adjust to new places and countries well, but feels like a foreigner in many places. Having said that, even Peru (where she was born) and Chile have changed beyond recognitions, but Senora Allende likes change and knows that it is inevitable.

Many in the audience thought that the most difficult book to write was “Paola”. In fact, Isabel Allende revealed that it was “Island Beneath The Sea”. The theme of slavery was brutal, especially when Isabel learnt through her research that an average slave hardly lived beyond six years on plantation, as it was ‘easier’ to buy a new one, rather than to look after the people. Reading about the power & impunity wielded over unprotected & uncared for people was horrifying. She was careful about gathering the facts and checking them, but that task made her feel so unwell and physically sick, that she took a step back from writing it, on the advice of her husband. Yet subject seeped into her heart, so once Isabel was well enough, she completed what she started.

“Island Beneath The Sea”

Before the event came to an end, Isabelle Allende, in all her passion & vibrancy, spoke of human emotions and the role they play in shaping our lives. Love, loss, separation, happiness, despair, anger – so many things are often out of our control. Her advice when dealing with adversity, pain or suffering? Do the only thing you can – react to it, with the knowledge that it too will pass. Confront everything with an open heart. Take risks, because if you are afraid, you life will become too narrow. Those words came from a petit, yet powerful woman, who has lived, loved & continued to write passionately about the many subject that are as relevant to us today, as I am sure they will be to the future generations.

To learn more about Isabel Allende, please go to her website by clicking here

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