bestselling Chilean writer and one of Latin America’s best-known novelists. Her latest novel is called Island Beneath the Sea.
Renowned Chilean novelist Isabel Allende joins us in our studio to talk about her new book, Island Beneath the Sea, her first novel in four years. The story takes readers back 200 years in time to the slave uprising that led to the creation of the world’s first independent black republic, Haiti. Allende also discusses the new Arizona immigration law, the new Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, the earthquake in Chile, and the rise of leftist leaders in Latin America. [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: The bestselling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is out with a new book. It’s called Island Beneath the Sea. It’s her first novel in four years. The story takes readers back 200 years in time to the slave uprising that led to the creation of the world’s first independent black republic, Haiti. It’s a fictional love story centered on one woman born into slavery in colonial Haiti, or Saint-Domingue, as the former French colony was once called. But the story unfolds against world-changing events at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the characters are dragged by history from Haiti to New Orleans.
AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende is renowned as one of Latin America’s greatest novelists. She’s the author of eighteen books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. They’ve been translated into twenty-seven languages, sold over 50 million copies around the world. Isabel Allende now lives in California, but she was born in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president between 1970 and '73. When Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup in ’73, Isabel Allende fled with her — fled from her native Chile to Venezuela. Well, we're joined now by Isabel Allende, who’s right here in New York.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
ISABEL ALLENDE: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: There are so many things to talk with you about, but let’s go right to the book first.
ISABEL ALLENDE: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Island Beneath the Sea, the research you did for this book, from Haiti to New Orleans, talk about why you chose to take this on.
ISABEL ALLENDE: I didn’t choose it. I think the subject chose me. I wanted to write a book about New Orleans, because I just fell in love with the city when I did some research for another book. And then I found out that much of the French flavor of the city — the cuisine, the voodoo and all that — comes from 10,000 refugees that fled from the Haitian revolution — it was not called Haiti then — at the end of the 1700s. And they came, some to Cuba, some to France, back to France, and many to New Orleans. They were white French colonizers that came, also with their domestic slaves and their African mistresses and their children of color. And they changed the look of the city, the flavor. And so, in the research, I started focusing more on Haiti, so half the book happens in the plantation when the slave revolt started. It was an amazing historical event, the only slave revolt in history that has succeeded, and these people just did something that is unbelievable.
ANJALI KAMAT: Can you talk a little bit more about this revolt? You talk about Toussaint L’Ouverture?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, Toussaint L’Ouverture joined the revolt a year later, but it started — the alternatives for the slaves were to escape, and they would go to the mountains if they could make it, or death. They would be exploited to death. The idea was that they would last between four and six years and then be replaced by new slaves that were coming all the time into the island. So the conditions were so atrocious that they didn’t even have children.
And when they rebelled — these people came from different places in Africa. What kept them together was their obsession with freedom, of course. They connected through the drums and the spiritual strength of the belief that they were empowered by the Loas and that from the island beneath the sea, from Guinea, from Paradise, the souls of the dead would come and help them in battle. So, for every man that was fighting against the cannons of Napoleon, there were 10,000 souls fighting. I thought it was just — and then people say, well, this is magic realism. No, it’s not magic realism. It’s always "magic realism" when it’s somebody else’s religion, you know? Somebody else’s language is “dialect."
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Tété.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Tété, or Zarité, is a slave that — I start with her when she’s nine years old. She’s sold to the owner of a plantation, a white, French planter, that is not a bad guy, really. And he has a wife who has gone crazy. Many European women that married people in the colonies went crazy. They couldn’t stand the weather. They couldn’t stand the mosquitoes, and they couldn’t stand a life of terror, because, of course, the slaves were terrorized, but also the owners of the slaves, because they feared an uprising. They feared that they would be poisoned. They feared that they would be knifed at night. So everybody lived in fear, and that created a state of permanent violence.
So this Tété has to raise the child of this mad woman, whom she loves as her own child, and then she has children with the master. So there’s a lot of interesting things in the relationship between the masters and the slaves. There’s all this struggle of power and race and all that, but also there is love and dependency, and incest, often. Nobody speaks about incest in times of slavery, but it was very frequent. And it was not a crime. It was not considered a crime. Rape, for example, was considered rape only if the woman was white. Otherwise, there was no crime.
ANJALI KAMAT: Can you talk a little bit more about your research process? Did you go to Haiti? Did you read books of history? How did you get — how did you develop such a fine sense of the flavor of this moment 200 years ago?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I had been in Haiti before, but it was a different country 200 years ago, so it didn’t make much sense to research Haiti now. But I did read a lot of history books. Unfortunately, history is written by white men, always the winners. And the voices of the poor people, the women, the children, the people who were defeated, it’s never in the history books. So I researched a lot in correspondence of the time, travelogues of the time, people who — of course I have then to study medicine, herbs, trade of slaves, go back to Africa to see where the slaves came from, the ships where they were transported. All that’s very interesting, and it’s a lot of research, four years of research.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s remarkable, and then to create the figures that you created. So, talk about Zarité, Tété, the girl that you started with at nine who was enslaved to this man, Valmorain, had his children, had their children, and then went to New Orleans, and what — how her life transformed.
ISABEL ALLENDE: The life in the plantation was horrible. Then the slavery wars started, and the violence was unimaginable. And then they were pushing the whites, either killing them or pushing them to the shores, and then finally, when they burned Le Cap, a hundred ships left Le Cap with refugees.
AMY GOODMAN: Le Cap is Cap-Haïtien?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. And so, she goes with her master and the children. There’s a moment in the book that, to me, is the most important moment, when Tété has to choose between staying in the island with her lover, who she adores, and be free, or remain a slave, stay with the master, but the keep the children. And she keeps the children and goes with the master. And I think that most women would have done the same. If you have to choose between freedom and the lover or your children, most women stay with their children.
AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about New Orleans.
ISABEL ALLENDE: So then they go to New Orleans, where life was very different. There was a class of free people of color that had economic resources, education, because the boys were sent to France and they came back as professionals. The girls went to the Ursuline school. It was a very different situation. And, in New Orleans, the trade was — slave trade was already abolished, so slaves were very expensive. It was an investment of capital. Therefore, they were well treated, much better than in Haiti, where they were disposable.
And this brings me, if you allow me, to something that is happening today. Today, there are 27 million slaves in the world that have been counted. We don’t know how many more that have not been counted. And it’s not only what we always think: slave sex, you know, brothels in Cambodia. No. There are labor slaves all over the world in every single country. No country admits that it’s happening, but it is happening. And the difference is that these slaves of today are very cheap. They don’t have a voice. They’re invisible. There are very few abolitionist movements. Nobody sees them, and they’re disposable. You can buy a girl for ten bucks, twenty bucks. And there are whole villages in debt bondage. In Pakistan only, a million. There are slaves in the fishing industry and the lumber industry. But my book is not only about slavery. It’s also about a time, a fascinating time for humanity, when the Western world was changing because of the French Revolution, the American Revolution.
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, there was a statue of Simón Bolívar on the second floor of the presidential palace in Haiti, because when his first failed attempt to liberate Latin America, he fled to Haiti. And they said in Haiti, the Haitian government at the time, the new republic said, that they would outfit him with a new force to return to liberate Latin America, if he promised to abolish slavery if he won.
ISABEL ALLENDE: I didn’t know that. It didn’t come out in my research. But it’s true. It was the first independent republic in Latin America, long before Chile or Venezuela or Mexico.
AMY GOODMAN: How was it to write this book as Katrina happened, and then now, finishing the book, publishing the book, and this earthquake that devastated Haiti took place?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I wrote a story that happened many years ago, and of course, when I was doing the research, I had no idea that this was going to happen. Katrina had already happened, but not the earthquake. And the book came out last year in many languages, so it’s only for the English version that it coincided with the earthquake. And it’s a sort of eerie and horrible coincidence, because a month later we had the earthquake in Chile. So it’s been a tragic year.
ANJALI KAMAT: You went to Chile recently, right after the earthquake.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, yes.
ANJALI KAMAT: Can you talk about that trip? What did you see? What was it like?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, first of all, when we landed, the airport had been damaged. It didn’t collapse, but it was damaged. So they had tents, and we had to wait in the plane until the tent was free for us to go through. And then in Santiago, there wasn’t much damage. The damage was in the south. The south is devastated. I mean, people are homeless. The winter started. It’s raining. And the government, of course, is trying to repair hospitals and roads and communications. What’s interesting is that when I got there, there still was no electricity in the south in many places. And if there’s no electricity today, there’s no communication, because everybody has a cellular phone, but you can’t charge the telephone after ten hours. And so, you can’t call anybody. And even the police and the armed forces had switched all their old radio system for the new cellulars, you know. Nobody could communicate. It’s been very hard. But Chile is prepared. We are used to it. If we don’t have a tragedy in, let’s say, five or six years, we start feeling really uncomfortable. We worry.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion. Isabel Allende is our guest. She is the bestselling Chilean author. Her latest book, her first novel in four years, is called Island Beneath the Sea. She’s speaking tonight in New York at Union Square at 7:00. And I have been there when you, at Barnes and Noble, have spoken. The place is packed out. Tomorrow you’re heading to Philadelphia and going on from there. We’ll link to her tour at democracynow.org. But we’ll be back with her in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Isabel Allende. Her new book, just out in English, is Island Beneath the Sea. Did you write it in English or Spanish?
ISABEL ALLENDE: In Spanish only. I can’t write in English. I mean, a novel is something that happens here [points to her belly], not in the brain. So I could write maybe something that is non-fiction in English, but fiction I do in Spanish, and then I have a great translator, who is now eighty-three. So, I will write for as long as she can translate.
AMY GOODMAN: You, this weekend, are traveling with your book. There are mass protests around the country around immigration, protesting the Arizona law. Can you talk about this immigration debate and what you think needs to be done?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, I think it needs to be put on the table. We need to discuss, and we need everybody that is affected by this to be together. This country was made with immigrants. Everybody, all of you, are immigrants. All of you. Except Native Americans. And every new wave of immigrant that has come to this country, especially if they have a different color, have been received with aggression. We are all in love with the idea of the immigration, and we hate immigrants. That’s the truth. And so, now we need everybody that is Hispanic — and I’m calling you, please — get together with one sentence, one word, that will keep us all together and on the same foot, because this is something that needs to be discussed. It’s like — you know, it’s like racism, that you cannot put it forever under the rug. You really need to bring it to the surface and talk about it. We need laws, too.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it like for you to move here?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, in my case, it was different, because I didn’t move following the American dream or running away from a horrible situation, as most immigrants do. Why would anybody leave their families, their land, their language, everything that is familiar to them? They only do it because they’re desperate. There’s no other reason. And they wouldn’t come to the United States if there wasn’t jobs here. So, people are benefiting from this labor that is very cheap and has no rights. And so, they want the labor, but they want them to disappear at 6:00, to be invisible, to have no rights, nothing. Just do the work and shut up. And for me, it was different because I didn’t come here to work or following the American dream. I came up because I fell in lust with a guy, and then I forced him into marriage, so I’ve been legal always. So my case is different.
ANJALI KAMAT: Let’s go back to Chile. What’s your assessment of the new government, the billionaire president, Sebastián Piñera?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I’m very sorry that the Concertación, the governments of center and left, that — it’s a coalition of parties that have governed for twenty years and done an excellent job —- did not win the election. But Sebastián Piñera has just started with a country that has had a catastrophe. We cannot judge him. Wait, we have to wait and see what he does. He’s not doing a bad job, not yet. And maybe he’s not. So I hope he won’t. I think that Chile needs everybody. Michelle Bachelet, our last president, was the first woman president in Chile, socialist, agnostic, single mother, just a woman that everybody loved. She left the government after four years with 84 percent approval in the polls. That’s unheard of in Chile, where everybody is complaining all the time about everything, especially about the government. So why would Piñera win the election with this incredible popularity of Michelle Bachelet? We don’t know. Just, we don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: And now Michelle Bachelet is at the University of California, Berkeley.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: She’s just traveling in the area, the former president of -—
ISABEL ALLENDE: Everybody wants her now. Every country wants her now.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to ask you about the Spanish human rights judge, Baltasar Garzón. He’s facing trial in Spain right now, where he stands accused of overreaching his authority in a probe of human rights abuses during the Spanish Civil War in the Franco regime. Garzón is known around the world for taking on international human rights cases. His actions include indicting Osama bin Laden for 9/11 attacks, probing the abuse of US prisoners at Guantánamo, and ordering the arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Britain in 1998. Last week, rallies were held worldwide in support of Garzón. In Chile, human rights activists gathered at the Spanish embassy in Santiago. This is the Lorena Pizzaro, president of the Group of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees.
LORENA PIZARRO: [translated] We have come to demonstrate our concerns to the ambassador and our rejection of the unjust prosecution that Judge Baltasar Garzón is a victim of today. Today we see that the same powers that once sought impunity for human rights violators in Chile are the same powers as the criminal right-wing in Spain who today prosecute the judge who has made international human rights his work.
AMY GOODMAN: She was speaking from Chile. Could you comment on the significance of Baltasar Garzón’s indictment of Pinochet, what was it, twenty years ago?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Boy, it’s hard to believe right now that it was that far.
ISABEL ALLENDE: It changed the situation in Chile, because Pinochet was untouchable. And he was no longer the — he had left the presidency because of the — he lost the plebiscite in 1988, but he was untouchable. And he was senator for life, and nobody dared say a word about Pinochet or the military in Chile. Everybody still lived in fear, until he was arrested. And for the first time, people said, "Oh, my god, he’s vulnerable. He can be arrested like everybody else." And so, people were protesting in the streets. And I was there. In twenty-four hours, from being called a senator for life, General Augusto Pinochet — he was the former dictator — and the whole tone of the conversation changed. So it was really very important for the whole democratic process in Chile.
AMY GOODMAN: He just flew out of New York, going back to Spain, Baltasar Garzón. But tell us your own story, Isabel Allende. You’re always creating and weaving the stories of others, the people in your mind, the characters that you create. But talk about —- well, you were born in Peru, but then grew up in Chile in exile.
ISABEL ALLENDE: I was born in Peru because my father was a diplomat, and the children of diplomats born in other places have the nationality of the parents, so I’m Chilean by nationality. And my father left when I was three, when I never saw him again. And my mother returned to live with her three children to my grandfather’s house. So I grew up in a crazy family. With a family like mine, you don’t need to invent anything. You can be a fiction writer very easily.
AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in your own "house of the spirits"?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes! My grandmother would move tables without touching them and summon the spirits. Crazy people. Wonderful, crazy people. And then, my mother married another diplomat. I traveled all my childhood. Then when I came back to -—
AMY GOODMAN: Where did you go?
ISABEL ALLENDE: We went to Bolivia. We went to Europe. We went to the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: Lebanon?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Lebanon. And then, when I was fifteen, I returned to Chile, and I decided I was never going to move again. But that was not going to be my fate. So I married, had two children, worked as a journalist, and then we had the military coup in 1973, which was a brutal event that divided the country, and many, many people were arrested, tortured, executed. Many disappeared.
AMY GOODMAN: But this was not only a coup against the country and the elected president, Allende, it was a coup against your family, as he was your uncle, your relative.
ISABEL ALLENDE: I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel that it was particularly against my family. I felt that — I felt as a Chilean that me and — like everybody else, was suffering. The fact that we were from the same family, to me, didn’t make any difference, because other people had worse fates than me and my brothers, for example. But in any case, the Allende family left. So I stayed in Chile for a while, because I thought that this couldn’t last. Chile had the longest and most solid democracy on the continent. We had never had anything like this. We didn’t know the rules of the game. No, nobody imagined it would last seventeen years. And so, after a year and a half, when things were really bad, I left first alone, and then my husband and my children reunited with me in Venezuela. And we waited to go back, and we couldn’t go back, and then I became a writer. And then —-
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, you became a writer? Tell us how you became a writer.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, my grandfather was dying in Chile. I was very close to him because I grew up in his house. And so, in 1981, I started writing a letter for this dying grandfather that died without receiving the letter. And I kept on writing at night. I had a day job, of course. And by the end of the year, I had 500 dirty pages on the kitchen table. And that was The House of the Spirits, my first novel.
ANJALI KAMAT: And you started writing on January 8th, and you’ve begun all of your subsequent novels on January 8th?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, but at the beginning, it was superstition, I admit it. But now it’s discipline. I need to clear my calendar and have a schedule. Without a schedule, I couldn’t write.
AMY GOODMAN: With that first book, the dirty 500 pages, how did you get them published?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, my mother, when she read it, she said, "I think this is a book," she said. And she sent it to a few publishers in Latin America. Nobody even answered. And then, a journalist, that was also a writer, Tomás Eloy Martínez, was passing by Caracas, and he said -— we told him about the fact that I had written this, and he said, "You need an agent." I didn’t know that agents existed for books. I thought they were only for sports. And so I sent the book to this agent that he mentioned in Spain. And in a month, I had a reply, and she said, "I’m going to have this thing published somehow. But this doesn’t make you a writer. Everybody can write a first good book, because it’s their story. The second book makes a writer, proves a writer." And so I kept writing just to prove her that I could. But I couldn’t quit my day job until the third book.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Eva Luna.
AMY GOODMAN: And the job that you had?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I worked — I administered a school, the worst kind of job for me, because I’m not organized, and I can’t add or subtract. And I had to deal with banks and money, and it was just awful.
AMY GOODMAN: When House of the [Spirits] became such a smash hit around the world, what did that mean for you? I mean, this is something you’d been writing on your kitchen table. This was a letter to your dying grandfather. What does that mean when it takes on this life of its own and millions of people are now entering your life?
ISABEL ALLENDE: It did not happen suddenly.
AMY GOODMAN: House of the Spirits.
ISABEL ALLENDE: It did not happen suddenly, because I was living in Venezuela, and all the success was happening in Europe. So I didn’t know. I just kept my job, kept on writing in the kitchen the second book. And then, by the end of the year, I got some checks in a brown envelope. I was very surprised. And slowly, it all started slowly. The success didn’t reach Venezuela until much later. And then my life changed. First of all, writing gave me a voice, connected me with people, put me in the world again. I was forty years old. I felt that my life had no meaning, it was a failure, until I started writing.
ANJALI KAMAT: Isabel Allende, we just came back from a trip to Bolivia. As your father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, as you look upon the sort of new generation of leftist Latin American leaders, do you see any of them as continuing in Salvador Allende’s footsteps?
ISABEL ALLENDE: No. It was a different time. In the '70s, when Salvador Allende was elected, it was the time of the Cold War. There were no examples of socialist governments in the Western Hemisphere. The United States and Russia had divided the world, and what had happened in Cuba had terrorized the American government. So the CIA was involved in the Chilean election immediately because they didn't want nothing that even smelled like socialism in any other country. And because we had elected a socialist president that was a democratic socialist president, the CIA could not allow this to happen in any other country. It had to fail. So the idea was to sabotage and boycott the whole thing, to make it fail first. And then, after three years, when the country was really in a terrible economic, social and political crisis, we had parliamentary elections. And the coalition of Allende’s party won again. So then, the CIA and the Chilean parties of the right decided that only a military coup could stop him. So the circumstances today are different. The world is different.
And you cannot compare the government of Salvador Allende with Chávez, for example, which people do all the time, because, first of all, Allende was a democratic president who would have ended his government in six years, and he would have not perpetuated his government. He respected all the civil rights. There was freedom of the press, all the freedoms that people have had, forever. So it was different. And you cannot compare socialism of Michelle Bachelet today with other socialist countries or other socialist experiments in Latin America today, because they’re different countries.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Isabel Allende’s new book is called Island Beneath the Sea. She’s touring the country, in New York tonight, and then on to Philadelphia and beyond.