Hailed world-wide as the "Lady of Letters," Isabel Allende may be diminutive in size but she is a giant in literary stature. The honorific is a pun. Not only is she among the foremost writers of our age but her novels take epistolary form, including her latest work of historical fiction, Ines of My Soul, which was the jumping-off point of tonight's presentation.
From the beginning of the interview (an interlocutor "prompted" Allende very much in the style of Dick Cavette), Isabel Allende's sense of humor is evident. "For women, the best aphrodisiacs are words," she said. She's also famous for this bon mot, "Erotica is using a feather. Pornography is using the whole chicken." About her talent, she is wryly modest, "As a child I wanted to be a chorus girl when I grew up, but my legs weren't long enough."
She is and always has been an ardent feminist, enhancing female nobility and increasing her readers' appreciation of women in the often magically realistic novels she writes. Her imagination is prolific and graceful, as well as all-pervasive in her life. "Even as a kid, I was a liar. Now I tell lies to make a living. In a larger sense, I don't know where `truth' lies because each witness to a factual event remembers it in her own way. Time shatters recollection and distorts memory."
Her writing career began honestly enough. She became a journalist but, after the assassination of her uncle, Salvadore Allende, the family fled to Venezuela where she was unable to work in her chosen career for 13 years, and the pressure of pent up stories she had to tell built inside her until they came out many years into her exile in her first novel, The House of Spirits.
The newest novel is a melding of fact with fiction, truth with imagination as it weaves the story of Doña Ines Suárez, who came to Chile with the Conquistadores in 1540 and helped found the first Spanish settlement in Santiago. Obviously the book combines all of Allende's recurrent themes of a powerful woman, exotic South American locales, fact blended with invention, and lust for life and love that her readers have come to expect. Allende wrote the novel for reasons she explains, "In history books you can't find Doña Ines. History is written by white males, by `winners.' I imagine how she looks because there is no portrait of her; she was born 500 years ago, but I like to think she looked like Penelope Cruz in the best of times. I make deductions - she was short, strong, healthy, tough. Because I know that people were much smaller in those days from examining Spanish armor; she got around on foot or riding animals; she must have had most or all of her teeth because she lived to a ripe old age (over 70); and she crossed deserts and survived wars. Look, this was a woman who followed a man across the world to found a nation and when she was 40 he traded her for two 20-year-olds. In some ways she's a lot like me!"
When asked what would Doña Ines think of Chile today, Allende had this to say. "She was a narrow-minded Catholic, and Chile is still like that. She was not the wife but the mistress, and everybody has a mistress in Chile - even here! But in Chile the tradition is one doesn't show off; if one is rich, don't make an exhibition of wealth. Now there's a new class in Chile of nouveau riche who don't get it.
"I'm very happy for Chile now. Chile has the first woman president of a country in this hemisphere. The Minister of Defense is a woman. Poverty, once stood at 40% and has been declining steadily in recent years. The policy of paridad or parity for women in public life has led to newspapers' photographs of government officials to bear the tag, `count the women.' It's always 50%. There is now an equivalence of male and female energies in the management of the country that may even herald a change for the world. By the way, in the president's budget 64% of funding is for social programs. Imagine what America would be like if that were the case!"
This "Lady of Letters" literally has an entire closet filled with the daily correspondence conducted with her mother over a lifetime. "Writing each day serves as a starter, often, to my other writing. I write about everything - gossip, what happened in my neighborhood, what I hear about family, the recordings of my life. I believe if there were days when I didn't write my mother they would be days that didn't happen."
As Allende says, her true country is neither Chile nor America, it is memory. "I am like the former Pope. When I go back to Chile, which I do frequently, I `kiss the ground' in my happiness to be back in the land that made me who I am. But after a couple of weeks I want to leave again. It feels too small; it is not the Chile of my childhood. I experience the same kind of feelings about my husband. I parted with him this morning - I came to Miami, he went to New York. And I thought, as we said good-bye, `Damn, he's a tall handsome dude.' And that's the memory I'm carrying with me right now. But I know when I see him tomorrow, I'll be disappointed." The audience erupted in laughter.
Allende had more charming insights about being a Latina married to a gringo. "I have lived so long in English that I am totally bilingual, except for certain aspects of my life. I write to my mother in Spanish, I count, I scold my grandchildren, and I think about money in that language. My husband thinks he speaks Spanish, but quite often he just takes English words and pronounces them as if they were Spanish. Very funny."
Allende spoke more seriously about being a writer. "Everybody has a story. Everybody can write a good first book because they have a story about their lives to tell. The test of a true writer is the second book because it must come from the imagination. It's not easy to find a story, but if you are a writer, it is an obsession.
"I hate being described as the best female Latin American writer of love sagas in literature. When you add adjectives in front of the noun, it always diminishes its value. You see that in phrases like `she is a writer of women's literature,' `children's literature,' `African-American literature.' Only white males are allowed just plain `literature.' I'm just a writer.
"I've been writing for twenty years. When I sit down to write, I never think about where the story is going, if it will be published, how it will be received. I just think, `God give me strength to finish.' But I never finish. That's why all my endings are ambiguous. I can't stop writing because there's always something that will happen next. I just quit. The secret is knowing when to quit."
Allende spoke on other topics, such as the difference between magical realism and fantasy, what it means to be a `crazy' writer, and answered questions from the audience about her literary influences and how she deals with her own `legend,' graciously entertaining her audience far past the allotted time. But her last public statement at the end of the night was about a current political issue. Regarding the Mexican-American border fence, Allende had this to say, "We all celebrated the downfall of the Berlin Wall and what it symbolized. Now someone thinks we should build an even bigger wall along the Mexican border. This country has long had a love-hate relationship with immigrants. We love the idea of people coming to America to build a better life and fulfill their dreams through hard work, but we hate the foreign invader, even though our history shows they all assimilate, becoming what is the American salad bowl. Globalization has made the flow of money around the world limitless, but the movement of labor is still limited."
[Nest Installment: An Evening with Richard Ford, author of Independence Day, the first novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
NOTE: Because I will be at Ford's presentation tonight (Friday) and will be attending Book Fair events all day Saturday and Sunday, Ford's diary will appear Monday, Nov. 20th. I'll follow with various diaries covering the weekend's events throughout next week.]