When Magic Met Reality
An Interview with Isabel Allende
for Common Ground Spring 1996
by Virginia Lee
To those who already know the work of Isabel Allende, it needs no introduction, For those who have yet to discover her compelling storytelling, you are in for a rare treat. If the name sounds familiar, it is. She is indeed related to Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile who was elected democratically and then brutally assassinated by a military junta in 1973.
Although the tragedy of this event is woven throughout her work, and well-documented in many of her novels, Allende’s writing is by no means political. Her uncle’s assassination is simply an event which indelibly shaped her life, as much as any of the magically vivid and eccentric characters in her family who made her who she is: a clairvoyant grandmother who resolved the crises in her life by holding séances and consulting the spirits, a staunchly conservative and patriarchal grandfather who disliked the winds of political change, a father she never met and a fiercely independent mother who bravely raised three children after an ill-fated marriage.
All these characters — and more — come to life through her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which takes place in the grand old house of her grandfather in Santiago, Chile. Her second book, Of Love and Shadows, chronicles the horrendous crimes of terrorism, murder and torture which took place during the years after Allende’s assassination., all seen through the eyes of the heroine, Irene, who slowly awakens to the reality of what is going on around her.
Allende’s writing is as whimsically magical as it is tragically real, which is perhaps why her style is described as “magic realism.” As she traces a matriarchal line from grandmother to mother to granddaughter, we see how the fabric of Chilean life is so beautifully woven in a complex tapestry of mysticism and tradition. The benevolent ghosts of beloved ancestors have as much place in everyday life as the cruelest dictatorship, which reveals Allende as a writer full of humor, compassion and understanding of what it means to be human.
After she left Chile in 1975, Isabel Allende went into 13 years of exile with her family in Caracas, Venezuela. Cut off from friends, career and a way of life she had taken for granted, Allende had to begin life anew. Loneliness and frustration overcame her at times, until she was compelled to begin writing novels to ease the stress of her deteriorating life.
To reveal any more about her would be to deny you the joy of discovering her yourself. But I will tell you that she is now living happily ever after in California — in Marin County to be exact. To find out how she got here, you must read her newest book, Paula, which tells tragic story of her only daughter who fell into a coma at the age of 28, a coma from which she never awakened. Allende’s first work of non-fiction, Paula brings the reader full-circle, revealing many of the mysteries contained in her earlier writing.
CG: Critics define the style of your writing as “magic realism.” Are all your books written in this genre?
IA: I think that every story has a way of being told and every character has a voice. And you can’t always repeat the formula. Magic realism, which was overwhelmingly present in The House of the Spirits, doesn’t exist in my second book, Of Love and Shadows. And that’s because my second book was based on a political crime that happened in Chile after the assassination of Salvador Allende, so it has more of a journalistic tone.
So, the answer is: Magic realism is not in all my books. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. On the other hand, you will find those elements in most literature from all over the world — not just in Latin America. You will find it in Scandinavian sagas, in African poetry, in Indian literature written in English. You find it in American literature written by ethnic minorities. Writers like Saloman Rushdie (sp?), Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Hoffman all use this style.
I believe that magic realism has always been present. For a while in the U.S. and Europe, a more logical and practical approach to literature prevailed, but it didn’t last very long. That’s because life is full of mystery. And the goal of literature is to explore those mysteries. It actually enlarges your horizons. When you allow dreams, visions and premonitions to enter into your everyday life and your work as a writer, reality seems to expand.
CG: You have been compared to another celebrated South American writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. How do you regard this comparison?
IA: Oh, I’m very flattered. Unfortunately, they don’t do that any more. That was only for my first book.
CG: How much of your writing is fiction and how much is autobiographical? And where do the two overlap?
IA: Most of my work is based on people that I have known or events that have been significant in my own life. I am not a character in my books, except in my latest one, Paula.
But in all my other books, I often wonder: Why did I choose those subjects? Why did I want to write about those people? Why those characters? In a way, those are the things that I worry about, issues that concern me, that in one way or another I am emotionally connected to. So, every work in one way or another is autobiographical. It is often said that writers can only write about themselves. I don’t know if that is true. I never did it consciously. But obviously, everything I write seems to be related to my own life.
The House of the Spirits is the story of a family that looks very much like mine. It’s not exactly my family, but I drew heavily from my own family to create those characters. For example, my grandfather was Esteban Trueba and my grandmother was Clara del Valle. If you read that book, and then you read Paula, you can see the relationship. Most of the characters who appear as fictional in House of the Spirits, you can find their real names and their real biographies in Paula.
CG: Having read Paula, it seems obvious that you are Alba in House of the Spirits and Irene in Of Love and Shadows.
IA: I’m not Alba really. I gave my childhood in the house of my grandfather to the character of Alba, but I never had a lover and I wasn’t tortured. The later part of her life doesn’t resemble mine.
Now I was a journalist in Chile at the same time as Irene in Of Love and Shadows. So, I gave her my life as a journalist in a women’s magazine, which is how I discovered what was really going on in my country. And the character of Francisco really existed. He is still a very close friend of mine. So, there is a lot of me in Irene, but I am not her. She was much more courageous than I ever was. Even my escape from Chile was not as spectacular.
CG: As a former journalist in South America, did you find the transition from writing non-fiction to fiction to be an easy one? How is it different and how is it the same?
IA: I didn’t think about the transition because it happened in a very smooth and natural way. I had been working as a journalist until I left Chile in 1975. But I couldn’t find a job as a journalist in Venezuela, so for many years I did all sorts of odd jobs instead.
When I heard that my grandfather was dying in Chile, in 1981, I decided to write him a letter, which after 500 pages turned out to be The House of the Spirits. When I started writing it, I wasn’t thinking in terms of journalism or literature. I just started writing because I had all these words stuck in my chest, these stories in my head. I just needed to express myself. So, as you see, there was no abrupt transition.
On the other hand I find that journalism and literature are very similar in many ways. They both work with the written language in a way that is not only beautiful — but effective. It has to produce an impact, an emotion, a response of some kind in the reader.
As a journalist, you know that you have to have a good lead, that you have six sentences to grab the reader or else they turn the page. If you’re not effective, the reader goes away and abandons you. There’s a lot of competition in journalism. Writers tend to forget that because they primarily write for themselves. They write alone and have no deadlines. And they often forget that there is a reader. As a writer, your first obligation is to make your writing credible and interesting.
CG: How many hours a day do write? And what is your greatest struggle as a writer?
IA: I usually write about six hours a day. And the greatest struggle is to find the time and the solitude to write. I never seem to lack a plot; there is always a story to tell.
CG: Many writers find it difficult to write about themselves. What advice can you give writers who want to tell their own story?
IA: If you’re a beginner, it helps not to write in the first person. One student tried to write her story for twelve years, but she couldn’t get through the first two chapters, because she couldn’t betray herself by lying. But writing fiction is always lying. You have to accept the fact that you are going to play with the truth. In order to achieve a deeper, meaningful truth, you very often have to work with lies. And it’s difficult to do that in the first person, when you are the main character and you are writing about yourself.
But if you imagine a character that is different from yourself, with her own name, then you have the distance of the third person. It’s much easier. I know people who can write a whole book in the third person. And when it’s done and they can get the story out of their hearts, then they can change it to the first person. I don’t think I would have been able to write my first novel in the first person.
CG: Despite all of the tragic things that you have witnessed and experienced in your life, it seems as though you have never lost your sense of humor. Is that the one thing that saw you through it all?
IA: I think that what has helped me the most is love. I have had a lot of love in my life, beginning with my mother. And of course, a sense of humor. I think that I have the capacity to observe myself from a certain distance and see how absurd I am.
CG: Paula took you to a different dimension than any of your other books. Can you talk about what the experience of writing it was like for you?
IA: Paula is not fiction. it is the first time that I ever wrote anything non-fiction. It forced me to be so candid, so truthful to myself that it was painful. But on the other hand, it saved me from insanity. After Paula died, I really wanted to die with her. I was extremely depressed; they were giving me Prozac and tranquilizers or else I just couldn’t get through the day.
But as soon as I started writing, I stopped taking medication and I could deal with the pain. I could set boundaries to the pain. I could see that this pain is called death; it’s called love; it’s called my daughter died. I could finally say the words aloud and I could deal with it. Before that, it was like being in a hurricane of fear and confusion, and there was no limit to it. By writing, everything became clear; it had its own space.
CG: In Paula, I find your honesty incredible, the way you could talk about the fisherman who molested you as a child. Most people couldn’t write about things like that. Was that hard for you? Did it take courage?
IA: When I started writing that book, it was supposed to be a letter for my daughter, Paula, and I didn’t find it difficult to write for her. Then six months later, I realized that she was never going to wake up. But I went on writing because I couldn’t stop, although I wasn’t writing for her so much anymore. I began writing letters to my mother.
After Paula died, and my mother came to the funeral, she brought all the letters I had written to her that year — 190 letters in all. I had been writing practically every day. She asked me to read them in chronological order so that I could realize that the best thing that could happen for Paula was to die. She was in limbo between life and death, between heaven and earth.
When I read my mother’s letters and the letter I had written to Paula, I realized that only thing I could do was to make it into a book. That would be my way of mourning her. But I didn’t have the intention of publishing it; I thought it would just stay in the family, because I hadn’t changed any names or events. But when the book was finished, my relatives read it — like my son and Paula’s husband — and it became a family decision to publish it. At first, I was going to eliminate some parts and change some names before it was published, but I found I couldn’t do it. It would mean betraying the very essence of the book. Then I sent the manuscript to all the people who were involved in the book, to see if they had any objections, and no one objected.
CG: Your ability to recall vivid details from your past is absolutely remarkable. Is this a natural talent or do you have a special technique that you use?
IA: Sometimes I recall things very clearly. For example, I can recall every detail of what happened with that fisherman. I do not recall other things, so I have to make them up — but the reader doesn’t know that. It just has to be believable.
CG: Many reviewers regard Paula as your greatest book. Would you say that writing about Paula affected you more deeply than all the other books?
IA: Yes, all the rest was rehearsal. And now I find it very difficult to write again. What can I possibly write about that is as significant to me as Paula was?
CG: Will you write another book?
IA: I don’t know. I am trying.
CG: You come from a most unusual family. Would you talk about your uncle, Salvador Allende, and how he influenced your life?
IA: I don’t think he influenced my life much until he died. When we had the military coup in Chile in 1973, it was not him, but the military coup that changed the lives of so many Chileans. It affected half the population of Chile dramatically.
Salvador Allende was an uncle in an extended family. I saw him on weekends, sometimes on vacations, but I did not live with him. He was just another uncle.
After the military coup, I realized that he had this historical dimension that I had not seen before. And I only saw that after I left Chile, because at the time after the coup when I was in Chile his name was banned. And nothing was published about him. Only when I left Chile and went to Venezuela, every time I said my name, people would ask immediately if I was related to Salvador Allende. Then I realized what a man he was.
CG: Will you ever write a book about Salvador Allende?
IA: No, I don’t think so. I’m not good at biography. I was not that close to him, and I was not that far away from him that I could be impartial. I can never be that objective. That’s why I was a lousy journalist.
CG: Do you believe in destiny or karma? And how do your beliefs affect your perception of what happened to Paula?
IA: I do believe in destiny. I believe that we are dealt a hand of cards and we have to play the game of life as best we can. And often the cards are marked.
In Paula’s case, she could have played the game perfectly, but it was written in her cards that she would die at the age of 28. I think that this is karma. I struggled so much to save her. I had the resources, I had everything to help her and I couldn’t. There was nothing I could do for her. Now I know how little I can control other people’s lives, how little I can protect my grandchildren or my son or any of the people I love.
I do believe very strongly that there is destiny and that each one of us has something very special to do in this life. And we do it the best we can — or the worst we can — I don’t know.
There is beautiful metaphor among Buddhists, who say that life is a river. We are in a boat navigating in this river. We can’t change the course or the speed of the water; we will always be in this river, until we reach our death. But we can steer our boat where we want it to go. We can avoid hitting certain rocks — and more or less direct our course. But not much. The river will always be there and so will the rocks.
In my own life, I could not avoid Paula’s death. It was written in my destiny that I would have to suffer that. Now what I do with that suffering, that’s my choice. I can commit suicide, or I can write a book.
CG: Do you believe that what happened to your uncle was destiny?
IA: Yes. But that does not mean that the people who killed him are not to blame. I do believe that the torturers and the murderers are still to blame and that we should try to stop them. But it’s part of life.
CG: Was it your destiny to meet your husband, Willie?
IA: Of course. I meet thousands of people every day. Why did I see him and know immediately in my heart that he was the right person? I pursued him until he was defeated. If you had seen how he was living, the screwed up children, the absolute mess his life was in, anybody else would have run. Any normal woman would be horrified. And I was horrified. But my destiny was to live a love affair with him.
I was 45 when I met Willie. And by that time, a woman knows that love is work. It doesn’t just bloom like a flower in the desert by a miracle. It’s something that you work on every day.
CG: Physically, Chile and California are often compared. But culturally, how is Chile different from California?
IA: Although the landscape is very similar, the cultures in Chile and California are quite opposite. Chileans are always looking inward. The Catholic Church is very powerful and we are very conservative in many ways. Tradition is important for us, and we don’t like change. We don’t like to be different, so everybody tries to look the same.
But California is a place of weirdoes. I’ve never been in a place like this, where you are free to be whatever you want and no one even notices. What could I possibly do to get some attention here? This is the weirdest place on Earth and I think that’s great. Also, this is a very multi-cultural place, whereas Chile is very heterogeneous. It’s a place where people look alike, think alike, live alike — and don’t trust anything that is different.
That’s why I am always a source of embarrassment for my relatives. In Chile, I’m regarded as weird. I don’t dress, talk or think the way they do. My mother is always asking me to behave like lady, and I don’t even know what that means.
CG: Will you ever go back to Chile?
IA: I go back every year to see my mother and I feel very comfortable there. But I don’t think I could live there now, especially since I have a home here. My son and my grandchildren are here. And my husband has not retired and I hope he never will. He could not do his kind of work in Chile. I don’t really miss Chile because now I can go there anytime I want.
CG: Politically, how is the U.S. different from South America?
IA: South America in general is like a cake of many layers, where social classes are like castes in India. The structure of the society is very hierarchical; it’s hard to move form one class to another. You can move down, but very seldom can you prosper in life. There is an economic class that is always the most powerful. And they manage to use the armed forces like mercenaries to defend their own interests against the poor, which is always the enemy. In most of Latin America, there is usually a large Indian population with lots of poor people and a small middle class.
I see that in this country we are going in that direction more and more, although fortunately we haven’t reached that point yet. This country is based on a huge middle class, a well-educated working class that sustains the country.
In Latin America, democracy has always been jeopardized by these colonels and generals who abuse power. That’s because we don’t have a real tradition of democracy, as you do in the United States. On the other hand, there are some countries that are doing very well right now, like Chile.
CG: As someone who has lived all over the world, what is your opinion of the American political system?
IA: When I came here, I couldn’t see the difference between Republicans and Democrats. The only difference was that the Democrats had scandals about sex, and the Republicans had scandals over money. I couldn’t understand why I should vote for the Democrats and not for the others, because to me it was exactly the same. Now I can see more of the nuances.
This country has a young energy that is fascinating. It comes from its immigrants and from its diversity; it comes form the values of this society. Here you are respected if you are a self-made person. I come from a tradition in which to be a self-made person would never be a virtue. Individualism is not a virtue. There, if you don’t have a family, you don’t have a community.
For example, my husband was an orphan at the age of 6 left to shine shoes in the street and now he is a lawyer. In Chile, he would be a gardener, and he would have never, never gone to law school.
Because of its values, this country has an energy that allows a lot of change, for the best and for the worst. Most of the important things in the world are generated in the United States. It’s a very important place for culture, for ideas, for technology and for science. I’m fascinated with the complexity and the texture of American society.
CG: Do you think that the U.S. would ever be in danger of falling under military dictatorship?
IA: Yes, I have been talking about this frequently. I think we know very little about how powerful the Pentagon is. Potentially, this could be a very fascist country. In this society, there are vast sectors who live a very isolated existence and as a result are ignorant. There are people who believe in having their own weapons, who don’t believe in government, who think that the poor should be eliminated and don’t want integration. The heart of the neo-Nazi movement is in Nebraska, of all places in the world. This potential for fascism exists. Given a very good excuse and the wrong circumstances, it could spread like wildfire.
The perception of what this country is is very different for a white person than for a person of color. You ask a black man in the inner city anywhere in the United States, he will see this country differently than you do. It’s really two different countries.
I was trying to explain to a group of white women what it feels like to be Hispanic in this country, and having an accent and looking the way I do. And I am very privileged to be driving a Lexus and surrounded by journalists, students and well-educated people. I live in an exclusive environment. But if I were cleaning houses, as most Latin women are, then my perception of this country would be different too.
CG: Have you ever encountered prejudice from people who don’t know who you are?
IA: Yes, in Indiana.
CG: Many regard California as the heart of the New Age movement. How does all of this strike you and is there anything similar in Chile?
IA: I have not lived in Chile for more than 20 years, but there is a group of my friends who are always searching for alternative ways of thinking. But in religious matters, the Catholic Church is just too powerful. There, you will find the New Age people wearing a cross. And they still go to church.
I’m not into the New Age very much myself. I don’t wear crystals or anything like that. I like the environmental aspect of the New Age. And I like how they make fun of the masculine stereotype of God and have reinvented the Goddess. But when you take it to the extremes of fanaticism, it becomes very funny. I know women who dress like Celtic goddesses and dance in the forest under the full moon. Give me a break.
I grew up with a clairvoyant grandmother who held séances in the living room and loved to move the teapot with her psychic powers, so a lot of the New Age isn’t so new to me.
CG: What will you do if you don’t write again?
IA: There are a lot of things that I can do. I can enjoy my husband and my grandchildren and I can make a living making empanadas.
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been widely published in magazines ever since, including Harper’s Bazaar. She is a regular feature writer for Common Ground, and has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and more recently Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor in Santa Cruz.