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A Conversation With Isabel Allende

Maggie Grimason
11 min read
Isabel Allende
(Isabel Allende)
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In 1972, just a year before his death, Isabel Allende visited the poet Pablo Neruda in his home. At the time Allende was working as a journalist in her native Chile. As relayed in her memoir, Paula, Neruda gave her some life-changing advice: “My dear child, you must be the worst journalist in the country. You are incapable of being objective, you place yourself at the center of everything you do, I suspect you’re not beyond fibbing and when you don’t have news, you invent it. Why don’t you write novels instead? In literature, those defects are virtues.” Lucky for us, just 10 years later she published her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which marked the beginning of her meteoric rise to fame.

In the years since then, Allende has written 22 books of fiction and nonfiction, her latest being the soulful and expansive novel
The Japanese Lover. This book explores the lives of two women, the aging Alma Belasco and the youthful Irina Bazili. Through their friendship and the slow revelation of their personal histories, Allende beautifully renders what it means to lose something—freedom, a loved one, the sense of possibility that comes with youth—and how those things can be reclaimed. The heart of the novel unfolds around the enduring romance of Alma and Ichimei Fukuda, an itinerant gardener on her family’s estate.

On a 13 stop book tour, Allende will visit the KiMo Theatre (423 Central NW) on November 19 as a fundraiser for the Albuquerque Public Libraries, sponsored by Bookworks. In anticipation of her visit, I was lucky enough to speak with Ms. Allende by telephone while she was in New York City in between speaking engagements. A gracious and thoughtful woman, Allende illuminated her life and her work in the conversation. Emphasizing feeling over definition, she resisted the urge to explain her work concretely and instead shared her thoughts—about
The Japanese Lover, her life and her process—all of which are just as magical as her style of fiction.

Alibi: The Japanese Lover seems to largely be about love and loss—two themes you once described as defining your life. What advice would you give to someone suffering a loss?

Allende: I would give them the same advice that my mother gave me. When my daughter Paula died, it was the hardest loss and the worst moment of my life. Paula had been ill for a very long time in a vegetative state and she eventually died. My mother said, “This kind of sorrow is like a long, dark tunnel that you have to walk alone. Day by day, year after year, but with the certainty that there is light at the other end. Just keep walking.” Since then I have had other trials in my life. None as long and hard as that one, but I have had other losses. Every time I remember that—just keep walking. It gets better with time. We learn from every loss. I became a much stronger person after Paula’s death. So, I would say to any person experiencing a loss that life is about great moments and dark moments. Just as we go through the light moments with happiness, we have to suffer the bad moments.

And what advice would you give to someone in love?

Plunge into it! Don’t be afraid! If in the process you get hurt, well, so be it. It’s not worth it not to live the love because you are afraid or because you want to protect yourself or be cautious. I see that happens a lot among young people. They can have casual sex, but they are afraid of falling in love. How can you experience love if you don’t take the risk?

In The Japanese Lover we’re largely presented with Alma Belasco’s memories—are memories, to you, a way of conquering time and death, or a poor substitute for the real thing?

I don’t know because I’m not thinking of death. I think we all create our own legend with our memory. Some people choose to remember just the bad things, other people remember just the good things. I see my life in technicolor, so I have created my own legend that is epic and larger than life. So, when you ask about memory, I think it is very personal. For some people it can be a source of solace, and for other people it can be hell.

This book deals with many social issues and confronts injustices from history. What do you hope readers will learn from the stories of characters sent to internment camps, struggling with AIDS or navigating interracial romances, for example?

I’m not trying to teach anything. It’s not about giving lessons to the readers. I just want to tell a story and each story has a time and a place.The time and the place will give me a lot of information that is sometimes unavoidable in a story. In this case, the characters have lived 80 years and the most important event in their lives was the war. Alma would not have ended up in San Francisco without the Nazis invading Poland and Ichimei would probably have been a very different person without his family spending four-and-a-half years in an internment camp and losing everything they had. Each character is defined by those historical moments. They were unavoidable in the book.

Do you read novels while you’re writing one?

No, I read a lot of fiction, but not when I’m writing. When I’m writing I do a lot of research. And also, I don’t want to be influenced by another writer. If the voice of another writer is in my head, I can’t find my own voice, but I read a lot of fiction otherwise.

Many years ago you said that writing helps you to “decode the mysteries of memory” and search for your own identity. Do you feel that, throughout your long career as a writer, you’ve succeeded in discovering yourself?

Yes. When I write, I sort of organize experiences. For example, when my daughter was ill, I spent a year at her side, holding her hand, and it seemed that all the days were alike. It was just waiting and waiting. The praying and the anxiety and the terror were there, but nothing changed. Then, after she died, I wrote a book called
Paula. By organizing the memories of that year, by writing it down, giving adjectives to the feelings and putting things in order, I could understand the mystery of death. I could let go and accept what had happened. At many instances in my life I have written about something and I don’t understand why I’m writing about it. Why am I obsessed with the slave revolt in Haiti that happened 200 years ago? It has nothing to do with me culturally. In Chile there were no plantations, no African slaves. Why would I spend four years of my life studying slavery in Haiti? When the book was done, I realized that I was obsessed not with slavery in Haiti, but with absolute power with impunity. And that obsession has been in my life since the military coup in Chile [in] 1973 when I saw the absolute power of the military, the power to abuse and the abuse of power and what that can do to a person or to a society.

That kind of ability to discover some order, to learn about the world and yourself in your writing is really interesting to me. I was curious if in writing The Japanese Lover you learned something new about yourself or the world?

I was writing that book during a very particular moment in my life. I was over 70 already, so I am considered an old person. I don’t feel old, I feel 15. Chronologically, though, according to the calendar, I’m old. So, I’m facing the aging process. It was also the end of my marriage. I had been married for 27 years and was very much in love with my husband for many years. So, I was exploring the theme of love and the loss of love. How can love endure? What about passion? Is passion possible at any age? Can you be passionately in love at 70 or 80? I think you can. That is what I was dealing with and learning about. The real aging process begins when you become limited and you depend. It is not the years that determine age, but dependency.

And certainly the character of Alma, she’s so vital. I really appreciated the perspective you give your readers on old age. It seemed really hopeful and beautiful.

It can be. It depends on health and resources. If you’re really unhealthy and poor, there’s no way that you can have a good old age. You also need community. You need family, friends. Loneliness is a terrible thing in old age.

It seems you’re partial to strong female characters—are there women in your life whom you model these women after?

Yes. I have worked with women and for women all my life. I don’t know any weak women. They’re all extraordinary. The mission of my foundation is to empower women and girls, so through my foundation I get to meet extraordinary characters—women who have gone through hell and not only do they get back on their feet, they become leaders in their communities. So, I have many examples for characters in my books.

Words applied directly to paper, like letters and diaries, are essential to revealing the mystery behind the romance in The Japanese Lover. And you began writing your first novel, The House of the Spirits, as a letter to your grandfather. Do you still write letters?

Yes, every day, to my mother. And she writes back to me every single day. We email each other. I feel that the day is not complete if I have not written down what has happened during the day and communicated it to my mother. I’m incapable of keeping a diary, but I can write to her.

That was my other question, I was wondering if you kept a diary.

I can’t! I don’t want to write something that nobody will read.

You’re well-known for your use of magical realism in your writing and that enters into The Japanese Lover near the end. Do you believe in magic in any sense?

Yes. I believe that the world is a very mysterious place. There is much that we don’t know, that we can’t explain, that we can’t control. Why do we suddenly fall in love with a person and it has to be that person and no other person in the world? There’s magic in that moment. People will go to war for something that is entirely intangible, like a feeling or religion. In the same way, I think there is much in nature and at work in the universe that is unexplainable. You can call it magic, you can call it whatever you want, but I am open to that mystery in my life, and of course, in my writing.

It’s suggested in The Japanese Lover—do you believe in ghosts?

I have never seen one and I don’t believe my daughter will appear in any form or that I will die and meet her in some place, but I believe that the memory of my daughter is so strong in me that she’s a presence. It’s not that I see her ghost, but I feel her presence near me.

What’s on the horizon for you now? In your work and outside of it, and what are you excited about?

Well, I want to fall in love again, to begin with. I want to have a Japanese lover, or a lover from any culture. I hope that next year I will be writing again. What will I be writing? I have no idea yet.

You do a lot of work with you foundation [The Isabel Allende Foundation, whose mission is to support women in achieving economic and social justice]. What’s your ideal world? What kind of world would you create?

I would create a world without patriarchy. A world where feminine and masculine values would be in balance. We need a critical number of women in the management of the world. That’s the starting point for any profound change in the culture in which we live.

The Japanese Lover

ÒI Don't Know Any Weak WomenÓ

Isabel Allende

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