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Acclaimed Chilean Novelist Isabel Allende on Michelle Bachelet, Immigration and Chile as a “Country of Poets”

StoryNovember 17, 2006
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Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is a prolific writer with 15 books in just over two decades. Her works have been translated to more than 27 languages and have hit best-seller lists around the world. She joins us to discuss her latest work, “Ines of My Soul,” the centuries-long struggle of the indigenous people of Chile, the significance of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, immigration and much more. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we formally introduce our next guest, Isabel Allende, I just wanted these two — it’s hard to say California women, given that Isabel Allende is hardly someone we think of exactly from California, but to get a chance to greet each other. Welcome, Isabel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Welcome, Alice. It’s wonderful to hear your voice and to read your words. I think you are the person we have been waiting for, for many, many years.

ALICE WALKER: Thank you so much. And we are together.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alice, thank you very much for having been with us, as we turn now to Chilean novelist Isabel Allende. We welcome you, here in Miami. Both of us are transplants for the hour. Isabel Allende, here for the Miami Festival of Books.

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is a prolific writer, with 15 books in just over two decades. Her works have been translated into more than 27 languages. They’ve hit best-seller lists around the world.

Born in Lima, Peru, in 1942, Isabel Allende traveled the world as the daughter of a prominent Chilean family. Her uncle was Chile’s president, Salvador Allende. He died on another September 11: September 11, 1973, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup. Afterwards Isabel Allende’s family fled to Venezuela, where she continued to work as a journalist.

Her debut novel in 1982, House of the Spirits, chronicled four generations of a Chilean family through the tumult of that country’s political history. It’s a history that’s intertwined with Allende’s own. Her latest book is called Ines of My Soul. It recounts the story of Doña Inés Suárez, arguably the founding mother of Chile. Isabel Allende joins us in Miami. Welcome.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It is wonderful to have you with us. I was wondering, as we just listened to Alice reading, if you might read a short section before we talk about the novel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: It is embarrassing to read after Alice. I will read the beginning, the first paragraph. When I wrote this book, it was very easy to be Inés Suárez, to just put myself in her place and talk in first person, so this is her talking 500 years long.

“I am Inés Suárez, a townswoman of the loyal city of Santiago de Nueva Extremadura in the Kingdom of Chile, writing in the year of Our Lord 1580. I am not sure of the exact date of my birth, but according to my mother I was born following the famine and deadly plague that ravaged Spain upon the death of Philip the Handsome. I do not believe that the death of the king provoked the plague, as people said as they watched the progress of the funeral cortege, which left the odor of bitter almonds floating in the air for days, but one never knows. Queen Juana, still young and beautiful, traveled across Castile for more than two years, carrying her husband’s catafalque from one side of the country to the other, opening it from time to time to kiss her husband’s lips, hoping that he would revive.”

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, reading the first paragraph of Ines of My Soul, her new book. She’s traveling the country now talking about this work. Why don’t you start off by saying why this woman, this Spanish conquistadora, as you say, why did you choose to spend the years of your life now writing about her?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I don’t think I choose the characters. Sometimes they just appear in my life. And Ines is one of those characters that history has forgotten. She is mentioned once or twice in the Chilean history books as a woman, the only Spanish woman that accompanied 110 Spanish soldiers that conquered Chile. And the few things that they have to say about her are astounding. She was a dowser. She could find water where there was no water. Thanks to her, the troops were able to cross the desert of Atacama, the driest desert in the world, because she found water in every instance. She saved the city of Santiago from the first major attack of the Indians. And I’m not going to tell you how she did it, but she was there with 36 soldiers, and she saved the city. So, this is a very extraordinary person who lived to be 73 years old, which was a long life at the time.

And there are many things about her that I don’t like, but those were very brutal times, and one has to see the life of Ines in its context. Today, of course, we have sympathy for the indigenous people that were massacred, and for how the Spanish invaded and occupied and destroyed civilizations in Latin America. However, that happened 500 years ago, and the clash of these two cultures was inevitable. And something happened after that, and we are the product of that time. I am a mestiza. I am the product of the Spaniards and the Mapuche Indians, so I can understand both currents, both traditions, and I feel that I can write about it, because I feel it inside. I feel the landscape also. I close my eyes, and I am in Chile, and I am in the Chile of 500 years ago, before they destroyed the forest and they polluted the waters.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Isabel Allende, greetings to you from here in New York. I would like to ask you, in terms of your being able to unearth the facts of her life in order to be able to base your novel on it, how difficult was it, in being able to uncover the trajectory of her life?

ISABEL ALLENDE: It was not that difficult, because much is known about the time of the conquest, the place where it happened, and the 110 guys that came with her. So by researching all that, her figure emerged. And the rest was a work of intuition. I imagined the kind of person she would have been, a woman of Extremadura 500 years ago, probably not very tall, because people were not very tall, but very healthy and very strong, because she survived all kinds of ordeals and lived a long life. She was a passionate woman, because she was capable of crossing the known world of the time for a man, her husband. And when she discovered that she was a widow, she turned around and fell madly in love with another man and went all the way to Chile following him. So she must have been a woman of great passion and great courage. She wasn’t afraid of anything, and I can admire that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, on a more current situation, we had in the headlines the statement of General Pinochet’s daughter that he will not apologize to the Chilean people for what happened under his rule. Your reaction when you hear that?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Long overdue. There has not been justice in Chile. Justice is very slow and not fair, blind, deaf. And the people who suffered during that time suffered in silence. Their suffering was never acknowledged. It was denied. Then we had democracy for many years, and the idea was that in order to protect this fragile condition, democracy, that suffering had to be put aside. Those people had to sacrifice their truth and their past and their losses. And so, now it’s too late, and Pinochet will never be arrested. He lives in perfect comfort and wealth. And I don’t think that by apologizing to the people that he so awfully tortured and whose lives he destroyed, he will do any good.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Isabel Allende. We’re here in Miami. Juan is in New York. Here, Isabel Allende is at the Miami Festival of Books. She heads to Minneapolis tonight on a grueling book tour, but we’re going to come back to her in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we are talking about global communications. We’re talking about crossing borders. And we’re doing it with Isabel Allende. I think there is no better personification of a woman of the world breaking down those borders. Her book is Ines of My Soul. It is her latest book. It’s a novel.

On a current issue, following up on Juan, I wanted to ask you about Michelle Bachelet, your thoughts.


AMY GOODMAN: And also the fact that this new woman president of Chile has just gone to Villa Grimaldi, where she had been held, as well as her mother.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Michelle Bachelet is an extraordinary person, no matter that she’s a woman. It’s wonderful that we have a woman president in Chile for the first time. And what is even more wonderful is that she has come to the government and appointed 50 percent of women in every level of government. So when you see a photograph of the secretaries of state or any official photograph, the caption says, “Count the women,” because 50 percent are women. It’s the first time in history that female energy and male energy, in equal terms, are running a country. It’s the management of the country with this female energy. And I think that it’s an extraordinary experiment. And if it works, it will be imitated, and it will open up new spaces for peace and understanding in the world.

Now, Michelle’s story is very interesting. She was the daughter of a general, General Bachelet, who did not comply with the coup, the day of the military coup. He was arrested by his peers, and he died in torture, tortured by his friends. And then his wife and his daughter, who was then practically a child, were also arrested, and they were tortured. Eventually they were set free, and they ended up first in Australia, then in Germany, where Michelle became a doctor, a pediatrician. And as soon as she could, she returned to Chile, even in times of Pinochet, and started working to defeat Pinochet. Then she became minister of health, minister of defense, the first woman minister of defense, who had to deal with the same people who had killed her father and tortured her and her mother. And this woman lived in a building, where she would meet her torturer in the elevator. So this is what Chile has had to put up with.

So when General Pinochet, after 30-something years, says that he’s willing to meet the victims, it’s not enough. It’s not enough. Now, Michelle has never talked about revenge. She has never talked about these things. She doesn’t want to be used as an example. And she doesn’t talk about reconciliation, because that is a word that she thinks is very personal. You reconcile and you forgive in the deepest of your heart, and you cannot ask that from anyone. She talks about reuniting the Chilean family, getting together and building the future together. But reconciliation, forgiveness is something that is very personal. So I have great admiration for this woman.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in Miami, not that far from here, just outside Atlanta, this weekend will be a massive protest at what was known as the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. There are thousands who will be going there. You are the niece of Salvador Allende, who died on September 11, 1973, in the palace. Can you talk about the U.S. role, since that’s what, coming up this weekend, people will be talking about, especially in Latin America?

ISABEL ALLENDE: The role of the United States, not only in Latin America, but in many other places in the world, is unknown by many people in the United States. People here don’t know what the CIA and the American government has done abroad. And we know, because we are the ones who suffered it. The CIA was deeply involved in the military coup in Chile, deeply involved in torture and killings and disappearing people. And, of course, when Allende was elected, he was a socialist and a Marxist, democratically elected in the most solid and longest democracy in Latin America, Chile, and immediately the American government decided that that could not happen and they were willing to destroy anything in Chile to destroy Allende. And they did, eventually.

So my role, when I speak in public, when I go around this country, when I write, when I answer interviews, is tell people, because people don’t know what’s happening. People don’t know what’s happening in Iraq. We see stuff on TV that doesn’t look real. It looks like a video game. We don’t see the collateral damage. And the collateral damage on women and children, it’s you and me. That’s the collateral damage. Before, in a war, 90 percent of the casualties would be the military. Maybe 10 percent is civilians. Today, it’s the other way around: 10 percent are the military, and the rest are collateral damage, civilians, we the children, the women.

So I get very angry with this theme, and I’m sorry that I can’t keep my voice cool, as I should, but I get very angry when I see what’s happening. And I am an American citizen. I love this country, and I want to change it. And this is what I think we are doing, many, many people, like Alice Walker and many others.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Isabel Allende, I’d like to ask you, getting back to a remark you made a few minutes ago about the changes in Chile and the genuine feminization of the infrastructure of the government, have you noticed the impact of that, in other words, in terms of types of policies that have been adopted that might not have been adopted in prior governments or even in other countries by overwhelmingly male leaderships?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Michelle Bachelet has been accused of being weak, because her style is different from the male style. But to give you an example of something that has changed, 64 percent of the national budget goes to social programs. Can you imagine what the United States would be like if 64 percent of our budget would be for social programs?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Isabel Allende about Michelle Bachelet, about current politics from Chile to Iraq, and also about very old history, because Isabel has just written the book, Ines of My Soul. Can you talk about what the conquest was about? You talk about the blend in your own blood of — or your own native roots. What happened to the Mapuche Native — the Indians of Chile?

ISABEL ALLENDE: The conquest was a horrible event for the people who were in Latin America. There were some cultures, like the Aztecs in the north, in what is today Mexico, that were very brutal and very cruel. The Incas were not like the Aztecs. And then the Mapuche people were tribal people who lived in the south of Chile, from the Rio Bio-Bio south, and they were people who had — they were warriors also, and they had come to that place also by doing war against the tribes that were there before. But they were not brutal. They didn’t use torture. They were nomadic. They only had what they could carry with them. They had a great respect and love for nature and the earth. God was the Mother Earth, and they wouldn’t bother Mother Earth, praying everyday and bothering her with that. Only once every four years. They left no monuments, no palaces, no temples, no ruins of cities.

The only thing they had as a form of art was language, a language that was not written, an oral language: the Mapudungu. And this language was a flowy language, that changed with the mood and the seasons and the events. And it’s poetic language. So Chile is a kind of country of poets because of that tradition.

And then the Spaniards come, and they come in armors with dogs and with horses and with weapons that they have never seen before. And they never were able to defeat the Mapuches. They fought them forever. They never surrendered. And 300 years later, there was a sort of agreement to pacify them, and there is this sort of agreement with them. But they are ready to get back in arms any moment. Now they’re defending a river, and they’re willing to go back to war for that. I respect them profoundly. I think they’re extraordinary people. And there are 200,000, approximately 200,000 pure Mapuche in Chile still living in reservations in the south. But we all have some Mapuche blood, so — even those who deny it. I think we all have some of it. And if we don’t have the blood, we have the culture.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of how some of those natives who are living today might react to your novel, which while at the same time unearthing a genuine powerful figure that has been forgotten, is still basically a novel based on someone who participated in that genocide.

ISABEL ALLENDE: When I wrote the novel, of course, it’s written from the voice of Ines, the voice of the conquistadors, the voice of the Spaniards. However, there are certain parts in the book, several parts in the book, in which I talk from the culture of the Mapuche. And I tried very hard to be faithful to their ideology, the way they see the world, the nature, the way they lived. And I have the greatest admiration — and I think this is very well reflected in the book — for Lautaro, the greatest general that you can possibly imagine — he can be compared to Napoleon in terms of, of course, given the circumstances — a young man that was able to create weapons, strategies of war, in order to defeat the Spaniards, an extraordinary, extraordinary man.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you something I’ve always wondered about. You’ve lived in the United States for many years. As you say, you’re an American citizen. And yet, you still write in Spanish. And I’m wondering how that affects you, living in a milieu where everything around you is in English, yet your art is still being expressed in Spanish, so the tension that occurs in the writing process, if any.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, I live in Spanish, and unfortunately I live with a husband who thinks that he speaks Spanish. And that can be really dangerous for a writer, because I end up writing like Willie speaks. So then I have to clean up the mess. Also my language has changed because of the English influence. I think that my sentences are shorter, my writing is more precise, more direct. I think better, in many ways, and I like the idea of being bicultural. When I came to this country, I was willing to embrace everything that was good, fight against everything I thought was awful, and not lose what I brought with me, which is my language, my traditions, my way of living, hospitality, and many things that we Latins have.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel, two things. One is that you were a journalist before you were a novelist, and I wanted to ask about that transition. And then another transition, and that is being an immigrant, not only into the United States, but all over, how many times you, your family has been uprooted. But start with journalist to novelist.

ISABEL ALLENDE: When I was a journalist, I was a lousy journalist. So the transition to being a writer was easy, because as a journalist, I lied all the time, I made up stories, I was never objective. So all that can be applied in literature, and nobody notices it. On the other hand, I was a journalist in Chile, but when I went to Venezuela as a political refugee, I could not work as a journalist. So, for many years, I did all kinds of other jobs. And I ended up writing because I couldn’t be a journalist. I had all these stories inside that I needed to tell.

And being uprooted and moving to other places has been my fate. I really was born in Peru, because my parents were diplomats. Then my father abandoned my mother, and we ended up living with my grandfather in Chile. Then my mother married a diplomat, and we traveled all over with my stepfather. We had the military coup in Chile in '73, and I moved to Venezuela. It's very different when you move as a political refugee or an exile, because it’s not out of choice. You are almost forced or expelled from the place you are, and you become paralyzed by nostalgia, always looking back, always wanting to go back.

And then I became an immigrant in the United States, which is a totally different experience, because that, you do by choice, and you look at the future and not at the past. And you really want to succeed, and you really want to make it. And I go back to Chile all the time, but this is my place, and it’s clear for me, and that’s very good. I feel empowered by that.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have any words for government officials around the issue of immigration?

ISABEL ALLENDE: What shocks me about the issue of immigration is that globally, capital has no borders. Money goes wherever money wants to go. There are no borders, no laws, nothing, for the capitalists. And yet, for labor, for the workers, there are fences, electrified fences and bullets.

I think that we should have international agreements for people to work and then go back to their places. Nobody wants to leave their village, their family, their children behind. Women who come to work in this country and leave six or seven children behind, and they don’t see them for years and years, those families are broken. Do you think that they do that by choice? Because that’s the best thing? It’s because they have no other alternative.

So, we have to have a more humane approach to that. And instead of building an electrified fence, let’s do international agreements. We need that labor. Otherwise, they would not come. If there were not employers willing to employ them, they would not come. So why we penalize the poor and we do not penalize the employer? It makes me very angry, the whole issue of immigration.

I think we should face it with a totally different approach. The globe, the planet, when — I remember when the astronauts went to the moon for the first time, and they looked back at the earth, and they saw this blue shining jewel. They couldn’t see any borders there. They couldn’t see anything. It was just a beautiful planet. And we create the artificial borders. We create the conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, I want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende’s book, her latest is Ines of My Soul, a novel.

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