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Chilean Writer Isabel Allende on Her Memoir, Her Family, Michelle Bachelet, Torture and Immigration

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Bestselling Chilean writer Isabel Allende is world-renowned for her narrative craft and gripping stories that blend the mythical with the personal. She has written over a dozen books that have sold fifty-one million copies. Her debut novel in 1982, The House of the Spirits, chronicled four generations of a Chilean family through the tumult of that country’s political history. It is a history that is intertwined with Allende’s own. Her latest book is a memoir titled The Sum of Our Days. Allende joins us in our firehouse studio for an extended conversation about her writing, her family, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the treatment of immigrants in the United States and much more. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 17, 2006Acclaimed Chilean Novelist Isabel Allende on Michelle Bachelet, Immigration and Chile as a “Country of Poets”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re joined by bestselling Chilean writer Isabel Allende. She’s the world-renowned writer known for her narrative craft, gripping stories that blend the mythical with the personal. She has written over a dozen books that have sold fifty-one million copies.

Isabel Allende was born in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a prominent Chilean family. Her father was the Chilean ambassador to Peru; her uncle, Salvador Allende, Chile’s president between 1970 and 1973. He died on another September 11th — that’s September 11, 1973 — when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup. Isabel Allende’s family then fled to Venezuela, where she continued to work as a journalist.

Her debut novel in 1982, The 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, her sixteenth, is a memoir; it’s called The Sum of Our Days. It continues from where her most famous novel, Paula, left off.

I’m joined right now by Isabel Allende. She’s here in the firehouse studio in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ISABEL ALLENDE: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s wonderful to have you with us, although I have to say I felt guilty having you in today, because in your book, The Sum of Our Days, which is a beautiful look at your life, at your family’s life, after the death of your daughter, you talk about — I don’t want to use the word “torture,” but the pain of being separated from your family, your friends, your extended community, when you have to go on these book tours around the country and around the world.

ISABEL ALLENDE: It’s part of the job, and I do it — you know, getting there is the difficult thing, but once I am here talking with you, it’s great.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this book picks up where Paula left off, very painful story of your daughter. Why don’t you talk about what happened to Paula?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Paula had a rare condition called porphyria that runs in her father’s family. So my son also has it and two of my granddaughters. And actually, it should not be fatal today. There is enough technology and knowledge today to prevent it and to cure it. And Paula had a crisis, unfortunately, in Spain at a moment when the hospital was on strike. Just a series of bad coincidences. They gave her the wrong medication. She fell in a coma. They didn’t monitor the coma. It is was negligence, but nobody’s fault; things happen, you know? And the worst part was that the hospital covered up that Paula had severe brain damage. She was in a vegetative state for five months, until finally they gave me back my daughter like a newborn baby. And I brought her to California, to our house, where she died a year later.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book begins at that moment with, in a sense, slowly, you regaining your life. Talk about that process.

ISABEL ALLENDE: During the time that she was in a coma, I was at her bedside holding her hand, impotent — there’s nothing I could do. And then, this book, The Sum of Our Days, starts when we scattered her ashes in a forest in West Marin, where I live in California. And from that moment on, many things changed for me and the family. I had to live without Paula, and I wrote a book, and in the process of writing the book, I sort of understood what had happened. I accepted it. I could limit the pain, the grief. And by putting it in the page, by telling it, I could deal with it. And that’s the story of my life, Amy.

If I can write it, I can cope. And I’ve been writing many books, but in every book I try to explore something in my own soul that I need to solve, I need to understand. And maybe that’s why I wrote The House of the Spirits. It was such a time of terror and upheaval and confusion in Chile. I couldn’t understand what had happened. I lived in a country that I thought was the most solid and longest democracy in Latin America, and all of a sudden it became a place where there was torture and concentration camps, and people were doing horrible things to each other. And in order to understand that, I needed to write a book. And now I know that it can happen everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about writing House of the Spirits, and then we’ll come forward, how you did it. That was your first book. Your name is world-renowned now, but then, you didn’t think that book would ever see the light of day.

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. I was a political refugee living in Venezuela. I had a job that was twelve hours a day, no money. It was a hard time. But I had this story inside that I really needed to tell it. And with the excuse of my grandfather, my grandfather’s death, I started writing at home in the kitchen, writing in the kitchen at night, and then I had 500 pages, very dirty manuscript with soup and coffee stains. And then, at the end of the year, I had this thing that didn’t look like a letter for my grandfather; it looked like something else, but I didn’t know what it was. It was a lucky book. I found an agent. The book was published. It was an immediate success.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you send it to?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I sent it by mail to Barcelona. I didn’t know the agent. And she took the book, and she said to me, “This is a good book, but everybody can write a first good book, because it’s the story of their lives. It’s the second book that proves the writer.” So while the book was being published in Europe, I started writing a second one, which also deals with the same theme of dictatorship and torture and death.

AMY GOODMAN: And that book was…?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Of Love and Shadows. They made a movie of that one, too, with Antonio Banderas, by the way. Oh, my god, Antonio Banderas.

AMY GOODMAN: That book, about a young journalist and about what happens to her, her being shot and trying to uncover a massacre.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes. That story is based on a couple I knew. It’s not my story. But those stories were very, very common in Latin America at the time. Half of Latin America was living under some kind of dictator — military dictatorship, most of them supported by the CIA, by the way. And so, this was — I didn’t even mention the country, because it was so common. It could have happened in Nicaragua, in Uruguay, in Argentina, anywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did it feel to come to live in this country, as you said, the country that supported those dictatorships, that supported, well, Pinochet and the death of, on September 11, ’73, of your uncle, Salvador Allende? He died as a result of that coup.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I never thought that I would come to live in the United States. I was not pursuing the American dream. I didn’t know what that was. But I was passing by on a book tour, fell in lust with a guy and decided to spend a week with him to get it out of my system. That was twenty years ago. I’m still with the same guy. I have become an American citizen, and I love this country. I think that this country has incredible potential for goodness, an incredible possibility for doing the wrong thing, too.

So, being an American citizen, being able to vote, gives me some little power. And the fact that I’m talking with you, that I have a public life, I feel that I can be influential, even if it’s in a little — in a very little measure. But I want to change things, and I think that that’s what we are all trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, your book is a memoir, a look at this family that you’ve gathered around you, a part of it, in northern California in Marin. Describe the family compound, if you can call it that.

ISABEL ALLENDE: We have an emotional compound. We live within a few blocks of each other. We cook for everybody. We raise the children together. And this is not a blood-related family, except for my son and my grandchildren. The rest we’ve put together with Americans and — mostly Americans, people who have chosen to belong to this little tribe, which is different than having the real family. I don’t know how your family works, Amy, but if I lived in Chile with my family, it would be horrible. I just don’t like those people, very conservative, very Catholic. I don’t like them. But this little tribe that I have here, we’ve chosen to be together, so it works perfectly.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work?

ISABEL ALLENDE: It works with humor, with tolerance, with acceptance, with responsibility that each one assumes, and a lot of privileges that each one of us has because we belong there. It’s giving and taking; it’s not just taking.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the Sisters of Perpetual Disorder.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I have a little prayer group. We call it “prayer group,” although we pray very little. We mostly talk. And it’s six women that we get together on Tuesdays, and we witness each other’s lives. We help each other, but it’s not therapy. We meditate. And we are always in touch through the email. I had the feeling that I belonged in the United States when I met these women and I found this sisterhood. I think that every woman in the world should have a circle of women. It’s very empowering.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of women and going back to Chile, Michelle Bachelet, the new president of Chile, can you talk a little about what she means to you, going back — she went back to — was it Mille Flores, a place where she had been tortured herself with her mother under Pinochet?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Michelle Bachelet is an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary biography. She is the daughter of General Bachelet, who did not comply with the military coup, so he was arrested by his peers and died in torture. Then, the wife and the daughter, Michelle, who was very young at the time, were arrested, too, by these men who Michelle called “uncles,” because in Chile you call uncle and aunts to the extended family. And they were tortured. Eventually, they left. They went to — first to Austria, then to Germany, where she became a doctor. As soon as she could, she returned to Chile and started working in politics.

She was elected president by an incredible majority, because people wanted something new. And she somehow projects the image of the mother. She’s very feminine, she’s very soft. And at the same time, she’s very strong and very clear. It’s not easy for a woman to be president in a country like Chile. I think it’s not easy anywhere, but in Chile it’s very difficult because we had never had it before. She has broken many rules. She’s single, agnostic, a socialist. She’s very different from the normal presidents that we have had in Chile.

AMY GOODMAN: I have three headlines today. This was from April 4: “President Michelle Bachelet: Women are More Rational.” This is a piece that comes out of the Times of London. It says, “Chile’s first woman president has claimed that at times of crisis she and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, the only other woman leader in Latin America, are less likely to panic than their famously macho male counterparts. Speaking during a visit to London, President Michelle Bachelet bemoaned the sexism in her region, which she said continued to hamper the advancement of women.”

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, I don’t know if men are more prone to panicking, but they will be posturing. And women think of the consequences more.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time in Chile, Chile’s constitutional court halted a government program Friday that provided the contraceptive known as the morning-after pill free to women and girls as young as fourteen. The court voted five-to-four to effectively ban the distribution of the pill by the government’s health services, according to a court communique. Interestingly, it points out that Michelle Bachelet, who started the program, is a pediatrician and the country’s first woman chief executive. This has been a heated legal battle.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes. The Catholic Church is very powerful in Chile. She has no majority in the congress. And this is one of the very first things that she did, make contraception available, the pill of the day after, but any kind of contraception without parental consent to any person in Chile over fourteen years old. And I think it’s a wonderful thing to do. It should be done here.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, I want to ask you about what you’re doing. Part of The Sum of Our Days, you talk about your trip to India and making this decision to set up a foundation for the welfare of girls and women. We’re speaking with Isabel Allende. Her latest memoir is out; it’s called The Sum of Our Days. We’ll be back with her in a minute.



Violeta Parra singing “Gracias a la vida.” Violeta Parra, did you know her?


Yes, she was an extraordinary woman, a real artist. And she died. She committed suicide, because she fell in love with a young man, and he didn’t return her love, and she killed herself.


We’re talking to Isabel Allende. She is on the East Coast now, though she lives in California in Marin County. Her book is called The Sum of Our Days, and it’s a memoir. We were just showing pictures during the break. If you’re a radio listener, you can go to our website at democracynow.org, and you can see those images of Isabel Allende growing up. You can see her grandfather. You can see her — where was one of those pictures, you as a young woman in Belgium?


Yes, I got a scholarship in Belgium by mistake. They made a mistake, and they gave me this fellowship, and it was only for Congolese, and they were all men. So I was there with forty African men, and I was the only woman.


What year was this?


It wasn’t an easy time for me. They treated me very badly.


Now, this is your fourth memoir. Most people write one. Describe memoir writing for you, what a memoir means to you.


I was trying to explain that writing a novel is putting a pack of lies together to get to a truth, to the truth. Without that truth, the novel doesn’t work. In a memoir, it works like the other way around. You work with the truth, and then you end up lying, because my version of what happened is different from the version of everybody else in the family, you know. And I don’t talk so much about myself as I do about the rest of them, because everybody has an interesting life. But that is my version of their lives. And sometimes they don’t even recognize themselves in the memoir.


Well, talk about writing about other people’s lives and what this means. I mean, you’re talking about real people here.


And their secrets and some stuff that is really very, very personal — drugs, divorce, gay couples, all kinds of tragedy that has happened in my life and in my family, but also very good things that have happened. I see the world in terms of stories. So when I look at them, they are not my relatives; they are stories. And I can grab those stories and put them in a book. And, of course, afterward, I had to submit the manuscript to each one of them for them to read. And each one came back to me with their own story, and they said, “No, it didn’t happen this way.” But I write a letter to my mother every day, so I had the events written the same day with the feeling of the day, while they were remembering something that had happened ten years before. So, in the discussion, we reached agreements with everybody. And I think that in a way I was able to go deeper and deeper into each story, know them better, love them more. And that’s the book.


And there were some who said no.


One person said no. My youngest stepson, who has a very complicated life, didn’t want to be in the book, and so I took him out. That meant that I had to rewrite the book. But the funny thing is that there’s a lot of therapy in the book, and the reason for the therapy is not in the book. I had to take him out.


What do you mean, you write a letter to your mother every day?


I do. We’ve been separated most of our lives. But she is the longest love affair in my life. It began before I was born. And she has always been with me emotionally and always there for me. So we both write every day. At the beginning, it was the mail. Then it was the fax. Then it was email. And now we are back handwriting, because email conveys information but doesn’t give you, you know, the flavor, the emotion. And so, we are back with the mail now.


And what role does she play in your books?


She’s the storyteller. She’s the keeper of memory. She’s —


She reads —


She’s my soul. She reads everything I write. And it’s unconditional love. I know that whatever I do, my mother will accept, and she will protect me no matter what.


The title of your book, The Sum of Our Days, where did it come from?


It’s the last sentence of the book. I didn’t have a title for the book, and a person who was reading it in Spain said this is the title, the last sentence. It wasn’t my idea. Actually, the best parts of the book are not my ideas, really.


Isabel Allende, you describe in the book one of the great moments for you, which has to do with the Olympics and the passing of the torch. There is now a controversy going on. Wherever that Olympic torch goes, there are pro-democracy, pro-Tibet activists who are interfering with this tradition, and now we just hear there’s an internal memo that has gone out to the athletes that they cannot participate in political issues during the Olympics. But can you talk about that moment, where you were, who you were with?


I was in Turin in Italy in the Winter Olympics. For some clerical mistake, I was chosen to carry the flag with eight — I mean, with seven other women. We were eight women. And I was standing behind Sophia Loren and before Susan Sarandon. And there is a fantastic picture that I have in my office. You see Sophia Loren, beautiful, tall, like a giraffe, you know, elegant, and then —- and the flag, a hole and then Susan Sarandon, also beautiful. I am under the flag. I’m five feet tall, and I am under the flag. So I was invisible. Also -—


Wangari Maathai was also there.


She was one, Wangari Maathai.

AMY GOODMAN: The Nobel Peace Prize winner of Kenya.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, yes, who is also tall. Everybody is — there she is, Wangari.


You describe hugging her very tightly.


Yeah, she’s like a tree, you know? You hug her, and she smells like a tree, and she’s warm and wonderful, just wonderful. And Sophia Loren is also wonderful. She is over seventy, she looks great. She eats carbohydrates all the time. We were like nine hours in the green room, and she was eating bananas and pretzels while everybody else was watching their diet. And I asked her, “How do you — how come you look so good?” She said, “Posture. Posture is very important. And don’t make old people’s noises. So, ahh, when you get up from the chair, no.” I try to follow the advice.


Isabel, being an immigrant in America, can you talk about that? You talked about having a panic attack during an immigration raid in San Francisco.


I work very closely — my foundation works very closely with immigrants in the place where we live, most of them Latino immigrants, Hispanics. And there were raids, families that were torn apart. They would break into their houses in the middle of the night, right 4:00 in the morning before people had time to get to work, and they would take the parents and leave the children behind. So the community tried to help. And it’s very frightening.

I lived in Venezuela thirteen years as a political refugee, and some of — sometime during that period, I was illegal. I didn’t have documents. I could be pulled out of a bus and deported. If I would have been deported to Chile, that would have meant death. So I know the feeling of terror, of vulnerability that the immigrants feel. I am very privileged. I am married to an American, I’m a citizen, I have documents, I support myself, I don’t have to be standing in the street waiting for a truck to pick me up to go pick oranges. So I know how privileged I am. But because my foundation works so closely with immigrants, I also know how hard it is for them.


And that foundation, you write in The Sum of Our Days about your trip to India, and you also write about meeting a woman here in New York on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue.


Well, after I wrote Paula, the book was incredibly successful, and I decided that I was struggling to touch any of the income that would come from that book that was set aside in an account, waiting to see what I could do with that money that would be meaningful to Paula, who worked all her life for women and children as a volunteer. She was a psychologist and a teacher. And during and after the book was published, I was on a book tour here in New York, and I saw a woman on Fifth Avenue wrapped in a plastic — black plastic bag, a garbage bag. And she was crying in the street. She was African American or African, I don’t know. And I tried to connect. She couldn’t speak the language. She was crying. I had the feeling that I couldn’t do anything for that person.

Then we did a trip to India. And in a village, in the middle of nowhere — there was not even a village there — it was a tree, an acacia tree, and some women, six or seven women around the tree with a few little kids. And we got out of the car to greet them, to try to talk to them. And in India, like in many places of the world, people really touch. There’s not this distance that we have here in the West. And so, they started touching me, and then when we were — when I was leaving to go to the car, one of the women gave me a little package. And I had given her all my bracelets. So I thought she was trying to give me back something. And I said, “No, no, it’s not necessary.” But she insisted. And she put me this thing in my pants. It was very small. And when I wrapped this dirty rag, there was a newborn baby inside. She was giving me her baby. And the driver of the car that we had rented took the baby out and gave it back to her and pushed us back into the car and said, “You can’t take it. You can’t take it. You can’t take it out of the country. And it’s dirty. Don’t touch it.” I was in shock. I didn’t react until I was in the car, and my husband said, “Why would she give you the baby?” And the driver said, “It’s a girl. Who wants a girl?”

And that sort of gave me the idea of what I was going to do with that money that I had in the bank. So I created a foundation to empower women and girls. And now my daughter-in-law, Lori Barra, runs the foundation, and for more than ten years she has done a wonderful, wonderful job.


As you live in this country, one of the big issues of war: torture. Your thoughts about that, coming from where you’ve come from?


I do not think anybody in their right mind can approve of torture — nobody. First of all, it’s not effective. When you torture someone, you get the wrong information. The horrible thing about torture is that you don’t need to be a psychopath to torture. Almost anybody can do it, if they are trained to do it. And the victim and victimizer are both horribly traumatized by this experience. We lived that in Chile, and we know that it leaves scars in the society for generations. This needs to be stopped in Guantanamo, in Abu Ghraib, in all the secret prisons that the United States is using today to torture people. No one can approve of that.


Would you say you come out of a country of torture, whose whole population has been tortured, one way or the other, in Chile?


Thirty years have passed since the military coup, and still there are people traumatized, families that lost children, people that are still looking for their grandchildren or their children that died in torture and their bodies were never found. No one is accountable. There is impunity, you know? And thirty years later, we have democracy, and still there is impunity for the torturers, who are walking in the streets. Michelle Bachelet lived in the same building with her torturer. She would find him in the elevator. This is the president of Chile. This is how traumatized a society can be.


Isabel Allende, I want to thank you so much for joining us. Her book is The Sum of Our Days.

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