On her latest visit since fall 2007, renowned author Isabel Allende graced the campus and local community with her presence and wit last Thursday. The Center for the Pacific Rim hosted a book interview with Allende, to talk about her newest work “Island Beneath the Sea.” It is Allende’s ninth novel, in addition to four memoirs and a trilogy of children’s novels.
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, Ph. D, Kiriyama Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Pacific Rim, conducted the interview. Hatcher introduced Allende as a publishing phenomenon—an author who has filled shelves at the library.
A self-proclaimed feminist, Allende said she finds ease in incorporating men into her writing. In her Chilean culture, she is trained to observe and study men. Many of her books feature female protagonists, and “Island Beneath the Sea” is no exception.
The novel takes place during the Age of Revolution and slave revolts in 18th-century Haiti. The main character, Zarité, is a beautiful slave and concubine to a plantation owner. The daughter of an abused mother, she is born obsessed with freedom.
Originally, Allende planned New Orleans to be the book’s setting. She said New Orleans is a city she has fallen in love with. However, she later realized the French flavor in the city originates from Haitians who fled Central America in the early 1800s. By learning about what she called “an extraordinary history” of Haiti, she was then determined to use the country for the novel’s location.
On a personal level, she shared a pivotal moment in her life when she lost her daughter Paula Allende in 1992. Her daughter had complications with the disease porphyria. She was only 28 years old when she passed.
When asked, “How did you handle your daughter’s passing?” Allende said, “You don’t handle it, you survive it.”
To deal with the turmoil, Allende turned to writing. Her book “Paula,” which was published in 1995, allowed her to organize her pain. Looking back she said, “the wonder of literature can contain a feeling and preserve it.”
In honor of her daughter, Allende began The Isabel Allende Foundation in 1996. According to the foundation’s website, Allende said her daughter “worked as a volunteer in poor communities in Venezuela and Spain…My foundation, based on her ideals of service and compassion, was created to continue her work.”
The foundation supports programs that preserve the rights of women and children. The organization has helped many needy people across the world, including in Bangladesh. Her main focus is helping immigrants in the United States, especially those of Chilean ethnicity.
Although born in Peru, Allende was raised in Chile (her father was the Chilean ambassador to Peru).
Her career first began in journalism in the 1960s. This was the common starting point for many writers in Latin America. Allende learned good research skills and the importance of grabbing the reader’s attention, a lesson she continues to incorporate in her own writing. She published her first book “House of the Spirits” in 1982. It launched her career as a novelist.
Maria Palma, a communication studies major, said Allende’s books have great diction. “Isabel Allende is admirable considering her background in a ‘macho’-oriented culture,” she said.
The audience posed many pressing questions. One of which was her thoughts on the Arizona immigration law. In response, she proposed an agreement between the United States and other countries to send people to work with proper documentation.
Allende considers herself lucky to have received a visa through her marriage to husband Willie Gordon, who she met in 1988. Gordon is also an author.
One of the causes she supports is the United Nations’ Fifth World Conference on Women (5WCW), a conference that funds the leadership development of women in society. The last conference was held in 1995 in Beijing, China. The next conference is planned for 2015 in Beijing. With today’s technology, Allende said such an event is possible.
Allende recently received the Chilean National Prize for literature. She is the fourth woman to be the recipient of the prestigious award. Although intellectuals in Chile are highly critical of her books, the general public nominated her for the award. Despite the controversy, she is grateful for the prize.
Allende said that this would be her last year writing. She plans to go on sabbatical.
Valerie Shortt, a hospitality major, identifies with Allende’s books. Shortt said, “They capture the human spirit and her stories are relatable to the average woman.”
For more information on Isabel Allende, visit www.isabelallende.com
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