Isabel Allende on home, moving, and creativity
Best-selling novelist Isabel Allende recently spoke with us about what it means to pull up roots and settle down in a new and unfamiliar place. Her latest book, The Soul of a Woman, is both the story of her personal travels and her embrace of feminism. In our podcast, Coming to America, she talks about the challenges of immigration, the magic of women helping women, and what it means to come home to one’s true self. Listen to the audio (23:00) or read the full transcript below.
“When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, I am not exaggerating.” As a child, Isabel Allende watched her mother, abandoned by her husband, provide for her three small children without “resources or voice.” Shen then became fiercely defiant, determined to fight for the life her mother couldn’t have. More here.
Welcome to Reinventing Home. I’m your host Valerie Andrews. Today I’m talking with celebrated novelist Isabelle Allende about her search for home—and what it’s like to live in the land of the imagination. Her first book, The House of the Spirits, brought her international acclaim and she has since written nineteen novels and five memoirs. I met Isabel thirty years ago, and for the past seven, I’ve been part of her prayer group–one we affectionately call The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder. I can promise you that her life is as dramatic and deeply moving as her books.
Isabel, thank you for being here with us today.
Thank you, Valerie, for having me. It’s a pleasure.
In your new book, The Soul of a Woman, you talk about your childhood homes in Peru, Chile, and Lebanon. What was it like moving around so much and living on different continents?
I think that I have a sort of foreigner trauma. I have always been a foreigner. And I have never felt really comfortable in a place except for a very few years when I was a newlywed mother in Chile. We had a little prefab house where for a few years, I felt that that was really home, that I belonged there and I was never going to move again. But as a child, and as a young adolescent, we were moving all the time, we were leaving behind countries, friends, sometimes the language. And I was a shy, very angry and rebellious child but also very shy socially, so awkward in a way. It would take me a long time to integrate into a school, make friends.
The feeling of being a foreigner was also reinforced by the fact that my house was pretty dysfunctional in many ways. My mother and my stepfather were passionately in love, but they didn’t fit together and there were horrible fights. Plus, I was living with a stepsister who was a very difficult child and eventually developed a few mental problems. So, I retreated into books mostly.
So, your imagination became your home very early on.
According to my mother as soon as I started speaking, I started telling stories and I loved to read. So, reading was like a form of escaping, but also it was a universe inside my head that kept me safe.
Did you move a lot because your father was in the diplomatic service?
Yes, because my stepfather was a diplomat. My father was also a diplomat and he abandoned my mother—she was stranded in Peru with two babies in diapers and an infant. She returned to Chile and lived several years with her father. So, I grew up in my grandfather’s house.
And where did you get your love of literature?
Not so much from my grandfather. I had an uncle Pablo who collected books. So, the house was full of books. Piles of books on the floor, under the bed, in the closet, everywhere. They were not children’s books and no one was really paying any attention to the children. I grew up with mild neglect which is a wonderful form of growing up because nobody messes around with you, nobody really cares.
And so I read whatever I could put my hands on. Eventually, I found in the basement of my grandfather’s house a green metal trunk that was full of books: Jack London, Mark Twain, Dickens. And later, I found out that the initials on the trunk T.A. were the initials of my father, Tomas Allende. And that was his legacy, that’s what I inherited from him, a trunk full of books.
That’s a beautiful story. He left you the tools of your trade as novelist.
After the military coup in Chile, you had to pack your bags and flee to Venezuela overnight. How did you cope?
Very badly at the beginning. Because as I told you I loved my little home, it was a tiny prefab house with thatch on the roof, everything was like a dollhouse. There I had my children. It was the first years of my marriage when I was in love with my husband. I thought that my life was perfect. I adored my job as a journalist. And then we had the military coup and in 24 hours everything changed in my country. And soon after that, I had to leave because I got involved in some resistance that was of course very dangerous at the time and so I eventually left without my husband. He closed up the house with everything it contained and left with the kids, So with the idea that we had the key, we would go back to our home.
And this is interesting because many refugees leave with the key to their homes with the idea that one day they will go back. And the average time a refugee spends away from home is between 17 and 25 years. Many never return, and they always keep the key.
So, when we went to Venezuela it was with the idea that it was going to be for a few months at the most, but the dictatorship lasted 17 long years. Thirteen of those years I spent in Venezuela. And then I met Willie. an American lawyer, moved to the United States, I spent the rest of my time here.
In Venezuela, you began to write The House of the Spirits. One of the memorable scenes in that book has the dancing table where seances are held. I know you had a similar table in your childhood.
Valerie, you have sat around that table many times during our prayer group. You know, it’s interesting, that was the table where my grandmother experimented with telepathy, with moving objects without touching them, with calling the spirits, and paranormal stuff. So I grew up with the seances. I don’t remember seeing the table moving. Everybody says it did move. But you’ve seen the table! It’s pretty heavy. It needs two men to move the table, so I don’t know that if that is part of the legend or if it is really true.
This is an enormous piece of furniture. How did you manage to hold on to it all these years?
When we left, my mother had the table in Buenos Aires, then the table ended up with my brother Pancho and then Pancho sold it to somebody. Years later my mother returned to Chile and she bought the table back and I bought the table from her and brought it all the way to California. So, this table—I mean if we add the value of the traveling to the table, it would be worth its weight in gold.
Do you feel your memory of a place grows stronger the longer you’re away from it?
I think that’s so in my case—I don’t know if everybody feels the same way but I cannot trust my memory. It gets confused with imagination. I think that the process in the brain between imagination and there is no line between imagination and memory really, because everything is subjective, everything that we remember is subjective. So, how much do we omit in our memories? How much do we highlight? How much do we invent?
When I was writing The House of the Spirits I exaggerated everything that I remembered. So, the members of my family appear in the book but the house of my grandfather was never as big and grandiose as the house in the book. But I can remember that as I was writing, and inventing, and imagining, I also had the strong feeling of nostalgia, but now on the page, I had the opportunity to recover everything I had lost.
It must have been a very healing experience writing that book.
Absolutely. Healing and fun. I have never been able since to write with that innocence or freedom. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what the book industry was. I had never read a book review in my life. Most normal people never do. And I knew nothing about publishing or about books except that I liked to read. When I started writing I didn’t know if it was a memoir, if it was a letter to my grandfather because it began as a letter to him, or a novel. I didn’t care. I just sat down in the kitchen every night and just typed.
You’ve had so many homes over the years, I’m wondering if there are a few things you just can’t live without.
Well, first photographs. I want photographs of the people I have lost and the people that are far away. And I always want to have a good bed. That’s important for me and not much more, you know. I have lived in very small spaces with very few things and in a large, large house that my second husband Willie built, almost a mansion. When we divorced, I just gave away everything and sold the house and that was that. I don’t even remember what was inside. However, I do remember a few things from my first home, the little prefab house in Chile. I remember everything from that house. I could draw it if I had any talent for drawing.
Well, that was the very first home you made for yourself.
Yes. It was perfect.
You’ve done so many wonderful projects with your foundation. I wonder if we can talk about how you’re helping other women find a sense of home.
Yes. The idea of the foundation was to invest in the power of women and girls because I’ve been a feminist all my life. So, the foundation invests in those things that are really essential for women.
First, protection against violence and exploitation. Second, control over your body and your fertility, so health care and that includes reproductive rights. And then you have to have the capacity to work and support yourself, because if you depend economically you are always submissive and you are always vulnerable. There is no feminism without economic independence, so education and preparing women with skills is very important.
Among the hundred projects that we have, we have several that empower women who are at high risk. And in the case of Thistle Farm—it’s a wonderful idea that started in Tennessee with a house for women who were coming out of prison. Most of those women have been in prison for drugs or prostitution or some minor crime, some minor thing but they lose everything including their children. When they come out, it’s very hard to get a job, they don’t have a home, they don’t have a family who wants them. If they go back to the street, they will end up in the hands of the same pimp who exploited them and abused them.
So, the idea is providing a home for these women that is like a safe haven. The project is called Thistle Farm and Thistle is a plant that is very resilient and the harder the conditions are the stronger the plant is. And so these women, several of them in a home, they set up their own rules, there is no policing of anything. The only rules are no drugs and no violence. And they can stay there for up to two years. Some of them are able to reunite with their children, to get a job, to get back to life and back on their feet.
Sometimes it happens that the pimp shows up again and everything goes to hell. But that’s not often. Most of the time they are safe because they have a safe home and they have each other. They become a family.
But we have other projects that help women find housing. We are working a lot with immigrants at the border. You know, there are refugee camps, thousands of people living in subhuman conditions. So, I feel very responsible, being an American citizen, to try to help those people who have no home and who live in tents.
Have you been able to help the children who were separated from their families?
Yes. We are making some progress. There is an organization called KIND, Kids In Need of Defense. You know that any criminal serial killer that goes to court has by law the right to have an attorney appointed to defend the case. But it’s not the case of immigrants because they are not citizens. And a child who can be three years old coming from Guatemala alone is totally unrepresented. She goes to court, probably holding a doll, and she doesn’t know where she is, what this thing is, what is this language they’re talking in. She is crying because her mom is not there. There are now some 40,000 American lawyers, mostly women. who work pro bono to represent minors in court. That is one of the many projects that we’ve tried to support.
You’re bringing up another important topic and that’s how women create a sense of home for one another.
Absolutely. I always say women alone are vulnerable, women together are invincible. When women get together, men flee. They’re uncomfortable. Because probably we are colluding and yes, we are most of the time, gossiping. But we support each other. I just came out with a book called The Soul of a Woman in which I talk a lot about this—-about solidarity among women, we are not rivals. I would have never been able to do any of what I have done in my life without that support of women.
First my mother, then the nannies that helped bring me up and that helped me bring my children up. Without them, I would have not been able to work outside the home. My mother-in-law who lived next door and took care of my kids, an adopted grandmother who lived with us, my agent, the women writers that have inspired me, the feminists, the journalists that taught me the craft, my daughter-in-law Laurie who runs the foundation and runs my life, my daughter Paula. What would have I done without all of them?
You give your readers strong, empowered women and bring them into that circle of feminism you’ve created.
I get hundreds of letters. Sometimes I open my computer several times a day. Every time there is a long list of e-mails and I try to answer each one. I can’t keep an ongoing correspondence but I read everything. And most of the messages are from women, all ages from different countries. And that sense of empowerment of women of being a sisterhood, of relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters, between friends, that’s important.
I’ve also been thinking about your literary mentor Pablo Neruda. In A Long Petal of the Sea, you tell the story of all the artists and intellectuals that Neruda managed to transport from Franco’s Spain to Chile. How did these people adapt to their new country?
They were all Spaniards, mostly from Catalonia. And they were selected by Pablo Neruda. Half of them were workers, laborers who had some craft, some skill that they could teach to Chilean workers, but the other half were intellectuals, professors, musicians, painters—the people that were Neruda’s friends because he was the most recognized poet of his time. And these people came to Chile with the clothes on their backs and nothing else.
When they arrived to the first port in the north of Chile, a couple of people from immigration went to meet the ship and gave them their first documentation. Amazingly, I mean, the person who represented the foreign office that stamped the visa was my stepfather.
If you see today who are the most celebrated artists and musicians and philosophers and astronomers in Chile, they descend from the Winnipeg, from that ship. But there’s one thing that is important.
When the Winnipeg arrived to the port of Valparaiso there was a crowd at the port waiting for them with open arms to offer them hospitality, to offer them a country where they would find a new home. No wonder they gave back so much! Because when they got were desperate and afraid, they were well received.
And the day that the ship arrived in Chile was the same day that World War II started in Europe, September 2, 1939.
Neruda himself later went into exile, and wrote poems about his socks and his salt shaker—the little things that remind us of home. When your mother died last year, was there something you wanted to bring back from Chile? Something to remember her by?
I brought very few things. It’s interesting because my mother was a very refined woman and because she had been a diplomat she could collect around the world beautiful rugs and silver stuff and paintings, art. She had a beautiful, beautiful home. But when she died, I didn’t know what to do with all that because my brothers don’t live in Chile, they didn’t want anything. So, I ended up giving (her things) away to different people. The first person that took as much as she wanted was the housekeeper that had lived with my parents for 40 years.
I kept for myself a little porcelain dish that belonged to my grandmother that my mother always had on her night table. And I brought a samovar, a silver Russian, samovar to boil water for tea, that my mother always had in the living room. To me, it symbolizes my mother’s refinement. It was very seldom used but it was always there and now I use it a lot. You’ve had tea at the table of the spirits with that samovar.
It’s very elegant and we feel your mother’s presence.
One of the things I admire about you is that you’re always starting something new. You begin a new book every year on January 8 and you recently remarried. What does home mean to you right now?
Home is in my books, in the few people that I don’t want to live without. My son, my husband, my daughter-in-law. And those are the essential people in my life and I don’t count my grandchildren although I adore them. Because each one has his or her own life and they are not close anymore. They were very, very close. I saw them every single day when they were growing up but now I don’t. So, I let them go, in a way.
What do you like best about this stage of life?
Oh, the freedom. I love this stage of life in which I don’t have to be nice to anybody except the people and the dogs that I love. I don’t have to pretend anything. I don’t have the ambitions or unfulfilled dreams or self-doubt that tormented me when I was younger. I don’t care what people think about me anymore. I just like myself more and I can love Roger without any expectations, and in a very free way, just because….
You are at home in your own self and you’re at home in your own life.
I think that’s the point. I am at home in my own skin. Finally.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you Isabel. It always is.
Thank you, my dear. Thank you very much.
HBO MAX has just released a TV series based on the life of Isabel Allende. Here’s a preview.