Isabel Allende: Despite Terrorism, the World Is a Better Place Now Than Ever Before

Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende is pictured at the Book Fair in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, October 15, 2015.
Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende is pictured at the Book Fair in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, October 15, 2015. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Isabel Allende never stops writing. The first time she put her hands on a typewriter she was too young to have even felt or known most of the things that would drive and define her narratives later: love, passion, exile, betrayal, loss, reconciliation. She kept writing, as a journalist and then novelist, through revolutions and turmoil (the assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende was her relative), global and personal changes, historical and private crises. And so, writing has not only made her rich and famous, but has also kept her young and full of life.

At 73, Allende still maintains the charm of a youthful Latina Sibylla, a pragmatic intellectual who can tell the future from experience and unabashedly talk about love and heartbreak, in her books or in person, the way young women do in the age of Adele. That's part of Allende's magic: in conversation or in her stories, her personal tales bestow on humanity a sense of hope that is never too far to materialize. No wonder her ever-expanding audience can't have enough of her and she cannot stop writing.

When I banter that she has been accused by some critics that she is a writing machine, not a writer, Allende laughs. "I don't have a life," she says nonchalantly a recent afternoon. "I just write." Her prolific nature has been expressed through various genres -- historical novel, memoir, young-adult literature, crime fiction -- and her consistent ability to produce complex narratives, sometimes as often as once a year, has earned her the admiration and the venom of the literary world.

But the success of her work (her books have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide) renders her invincible. From "The House of the Spirits," her debut novel in 1982 that famously began as a letter to her grandfather and developed into one of the most beloved Latin American novels of all time, to "Paula," her powerful memoir about her younger days as a journalist in Chile and the loss of her daughter to a very rare disease, to "The Japanese Lover," her latest novel that is currently climbing the best-selling lists, Allende has created a world in which the ordinary and the magical coexist harmoniously.

In the following conversation, Allende speaks with me about her conviction that the world is a better place despite the threat of global terrorism, her aging and the ills of separation with her second husband of 27 years. We discuss her latest novel and why Harold Bloom's belief that technology might me endangering literature is wrong.

Michael Skafidas: Last year you received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. That brings you to the illustrious company of previous recipients such as Angela Merkel, Stephen Hawking, Aretha Franklin and Margaret Thatcher, among many others. Does this award carry any empowering significance in your work?

Isabel Allende: No, it has nothing to do with my work. It's a great, yet undeserved and unexpected honor, and I think I received it mostly because I am a Latina immigrant and immigration and Latinos are in the public conversation today. So it felt like I was receiving it in the name of millions of people of my race and ethnicity in this country. It is a wonderful recognition, the highest honor that a civilian can get in this country. I feel honored but I don't feel that I deserve it personally.

MS: Crisis and mayhem are not new to you. You grew up and came of age during one of the most turbulent periods in Latin American history. But I was wondering how the current global crisis is affecting you: Paris is burning, as we speak, and there are fears about other ISIS attacks in Europe or in America. Do you think of it or do you just shut down and do your work?

IA: I shut down and do my work but, of course, what happens in the world affects me. Sometimes, that's part of the writing. Maybe it isn't exactly what happened in Paris but the idea of fear, panic and terrorism -- that can come in a book. However, I am perfectly aware that the world is a better place now than ever before. In my lifetime, the world has become better, not worse. And the world is moving, very slowly but surely with more democracy and more liberal way of thinking, more inclusion and more diversity. I was born in the middle of World War II, the middle of the Holocaust; I was born when there was no declaration of human rights, when feminism was not an issue, when children were working in factories. I mean, today's world is a better place!

For women, I should add, in my lifetime, things have changed quite a bit as well, but not enough. They have only changed for women that have education and access to health care in the Western world. But look at the rest of the world. Still in many places, women are sold into premature marriages, prostitution, forced labor; they are forced to have children that they cannot support or that they don't want. They are abused, tortured, exploited and even killed with impunity.

MS: In one of our previous interviews, you had told me that magic realism was not simply a literary device for you, but rather a way of living life through a daily reality full of spirits, small superstitions and little miracles. Is this reality mainly a product of imagination or memory?

IA: Both, but also of being open to the mystery of life. We don't have an explanation for everything that happens. We don't control almost anything. And if we are not open to that mystery, life becomes so small. I feel that my life and therefore my writing accept the possibility of all the mystery. Everything we don't know; everything that can possibly happen. I don't believe in ghosts; I don't think that I will see the ghost of my daughter walking into a room, no. But I believe that her spiritual presence is with me all the time, and that's an exercise in memory and in love.

MS: In many of your novels, starting with "The House of the Spirits," you give a voice to the repressed, the marginalized and the subaltern. Would you agree that Latin American magic realism came forward as one of the most popular agents of the post-colonial discourse?

IA: Yes, it was very popular at the time because in a way it came up with a language and a style that could describe Latin America to the world and Latin America to ourselves, Latin Americans. It was a blend of many different voices, all of them male by the way; different yet harmonious voices describing a reality that had not been described before in that language or that style.

At the same time, I should say that I'm not conscious of any particular style or any particular literary device when I am writing. I have written 22 books, and they are all very different. I have tried all kinds of genres. So I do not put myself in a box and say, for instance, I'm writing post-colonial literature. I don't know what I'm writing. That's the business of professors and critics. My job is to tell a story, and that's it.

MS: Unforgettably strong and independent women inhabit most of your novels. At the same time, some critics have complained about the stereotypical portrayal of Hispanic men that relies on clichéd behavior in your books. What do you say to that criticism?

IA: They can say whatever they want about my books. They also said about Gabriel Garcia Marquez that the female protagonists in his books were clichés. He still wrote beautiful stories.

MS: Do women remain the largest part of your readers?

IA: Yes, even though I have more men now than before because some of my books are required readings in schools and colleges. Also, in my book tours I get to meet an audience every night. And I see that there are mostly young people, and there are a lot of more men than before, but always young, I don't get older men. As I'm getting older, my audience gets younger!

MS: That's indeed ironic in the age of social media and the younger generation's resistance to reading literature.

IA: Who told you that?

MS: My experience as a professor of literature. But also, among other people, Harold Bloom who told me recently that "there is a vast change in the cultural climate, which has devalued the very difficult act of solitary deep reading." We have replaced deep thought with materialism and patience with instant gratification. Young people read less, and literature might be one of the very first victims of this big cultural change.

IA: It's not true! More and more books are published every year. If people were not reading them, they wouldn't be published. We are in a different moment. We are now reading electronic books or whatever else, but people are still reading, and people still need stories. I think that social media and the media of technology have indeed become addictive; especially young people cannot let go of their phone for a minute because they are disconnected from life! The phone has become like life support. But that is going to pass, and that is a fact. It's going to go away because we all need silence. We all need time to reflect and think. I am not at all pessimistic about this.

MS: In "The Japanese Lover," you capture something very touching about the pains of old age. Does this have to do with the inevitability of your own aging and some personal realizations about it?

IA: Yes, I would not have been able to write this book ten years ago. I can only write about stories that connect with me. In my new novel some of the main characters are old. Around me a lot of my friends are aging badly, many of them are losing or have lost their parents; my mother is 95, my stepfather is 100. So I'm surrounded by the scene of aging. I myself am in my 70s and not getting any younger. Although I'm very healthy, and I have a lot of energy, and I still feel 50, I'm over 70 and I understand that I am preparing for later.

Where am going to be in 10 or 15 years? That is the question. And, of course, how do I want to live the rest of my life? This has not been a good year for me because I have been separated from my second husband after 27 years. So I have also been exploring the theme of love in this book, as well as the loss of love, romantic love, passionate love. Can love endure? Can an older person fall in love like a teenager? And my answer would be, yes, of course!

MS: Really? That's very hopeful; I'm pleased to hear that because I'd think the opposite!

IA: Why would you say that? I'm sure you can fall in love like you did when you were 20. I am absolutely sure!

MS: It must be difficult to separate when you are older. Most people separate when they are younger.

IA: Yes, because they are hoping for a new relationship and a new life. But at my age, people prefer to stay in a relationship that is not working. I do not understand that. I think it takes a lot of courage to separate. But it takes more energy to stay in something that is not working. So we sold the big house, and I moved to a small one on my own. Change is good.

MS: Is it scary to be living alone after all these years of cohabitation?

IA: No, because I'm open to love, and I think that I will fall in love with a wonderful man and will have a third husband or companion. People are afraid of falling in love because they don't want to suffer. But how can you live if you are afraid of suffering? I'm not afraid of it. Why would I be? When my daughter Paula died, I was in the deepest pain, and my mother said, "This kind of sorrow is like a long, narrow, dark channel. You have to walk this channel alone and be sure that there is light at the other ending. Just keep walking." Since then, I've had other channels in my life, not as long and dark as that one, and this year has been like that. But I know there is light at the other end and that next year will be a wonderful year.

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