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Chilean Writer Isabel Allende’s New Novel, “In the Midst of Winter,” Examines Immigrant Lives & Love

StoryNovember 07, 2017
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Best-selling Chilean writer Isabel Allende discusses her new novel, “In the Midst of Winter,” which centers around the lives of several immigrants, and the role of writers and artists in the Trump era.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, our guest is Isabel Allende, the great, best-selling Chilean writer, one of Latin America’s most renowned novelists, as well as novelist in the United States. Her latest book is called In the Midst of Winter. Let’s turn to a passage from the book, when Isabel Allende describes the working relationship that Evelyn Ortega, the young undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, has with her employers, the Leroys.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Allende writes, quote, “Evelyn did not have fixed hours in their house: she in theory worked from nine to five, but in practice spent the whole day with the child she was looking after and even slept next to him so that she could attend to him if need be. In other words, she worked the equivalent of three normal shifts. According to Richard and Lucia’s calculations, she was paid much less in cash than she was entitled to. To them it seemed like forced labor or slavery, but this did not matter to Evelyn. More important was that she had somewhere to live and was safe.”

That is from Isabel Allende’s new novel, In the Midst of Winter. And you bring together these characters, one from Guatemala, undocumented from Guatemala, one from Brazil, a family, although originally from Europe, and one from Chile, Lucia.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, three unlikely characters that are stuck in a dangerous situation during a snowstorm in Brooklyn. So, it’s a very—for three days. It’s a very contained story. But then I have flashbacks to the stories of each one of them. And each one have been traumatized by things of the past. In the case of Lucia, by the political events in her country, in Chile, in the '70s. In the case of Evelyn Ortega, the Guatemalan undocumented refugee, because she's escaping from the gangs and the horrible situation in her country. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are the triangle of the north, the places in the world that is not—that are not at war, where there’s most violence, more violence than anywhere else. And people are escaping from the narcos, the gangs, corruption, poverty, inefficient government. And she’s also escaping for her life, because she’s a victim of the gangs. And in the case of Richard, the American professor at NYU, who has a perfectly safe life—he’s vegan, he has four cats, he seems—it seems that nothing can happen to him. He also has a bad past that haunts him.

And there’s a quote at the beginning of the book that gives the title to the book, and it says, “In the midst”—it’s a quote by Albert Camus—”In the midst of winter, I finally found in me an invincible summer.” And that’s the whole point of the book. And I think it’s timely, because we all go through winters in our lives, sometimes very long winters. And we have to remember that there is an invincible summer waiting to emerge. Sometimes that happens to nations, to countries, to the world. I mean, I was born in one of the longest winters, in the middle of the Second World War. And I have seen in my life many moments of great crisis in which we seem that we—it seemed that the world was never going to recover from what was happening. But it does. I’m very optimistic. So now that we feel—many people feel in this country that we are in a political winter, that might last four years, and if we are unlucky, maybe eight. We have to remember that under the surface the summer is there, and there are forces that will make it happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I was particularly struck, there was one scene in the novel—and we don’t want to give away too much of it, obviously, for people to buy it and read it—but when the coyote, who is bringing Evelyn from Guatemala up through—

ISABEL ALLENDE: The smuggler, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —Mexico, Berto Cabrera, says—brings all these people who he is guiding through across the border to pray.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, to pray.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he says, “We are pilgrims in a church without borders.” Just the image of a coyote gathering together with everyone to pray really brought a smile to my face.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, actually, I didn’t invent it. I saw it. Yeah. And that’s—in this case, the coyote was linked somehow to the evangelicals. So, there’s a whole—I wish—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, you saw it?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, I didn’t see it personally. I saw it in a video that someone had taken. And the coyote had gathered his group, and they were all praying. He gives them the instructions, because they have to cross Mexico. And he says to them, “From now on, you are all Mexican.” So he tells them the words that they cannot say. The Guatemalan voz, for example, you cannot say in Mexico, how you have to treat the authority. And because Evelyn Ortega is so—he thinks, so dumb that she will not learn how to pass for a Mexican, he says, “You will be mute, and so you don’t speak. I’m taking you to a nun school where they treat the deaf and the mute.” So, all those stories, I don’t have to make them up. They are real.

There’s a book that I totally recommend, and I should have read it before I wrote my book, but I didn’t know it existed. It’s a book by Luís Alberto Urrea, and it’s called The Devil’s Highway, in which it tells the story of 14 people who died in the desert of thirst and heat, but, mostly, all the infrastructure that sustains the smuggling of human beings, the trafficking of human beings, why people leave—because nobody wants to leave what is familiar to them, unless they are desperate—and why—and who are the people who make it possible, the crime organization that sustains all this.

AMY GOODMAN: And though you didn’t write this in the age of Trump—you start all your books on January 8th—you’re now traveling in the age of Trump, as you talk about the book. And, of course, you’ve lived here. Your feelings today? I was thinking about you describing September 11th in Chile, as your country changed. Do you see any similarities?

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. I see the fascist forces have been in this country and in my country always, because Trump doesn’t invent anything. He picks up what is already there. Pinochet would not have been possible for 17 years without the support of a third of the population that thought that it was much better to live under a repressive government and don’t have any urban crime than have democracy and have free will and all the things that we take for granted.

When I came to this country 30 years ago, I told Willie, who was then the man I loved, I said, “I’m scared. This country has this fascist element that I’m so scared of. I ran away from that.” And he said, “Are you crazy? This is the cradle of democracy.” And I said, “Yeah, but people have this sense that they are superior, that they can teach the world how to live, how to govern themselves. Half the population is armed. There is the idea of white supremacy, a latent fascination with violence.” We don’t want violence in our lives, but we are fascinated with the violence of football, of war, of the video games, of movies. We want to live it vicariously. And then, when it happens, like in the church a few days ago, then we are horrified. But our kids grow up with it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 and post it online at democracynow.org. Isabel Allende, the great writer, has written a new book. It’s called In the Midst of Winter.

Happy birthday to John Hamilton!

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