Isabel Allende: Fiction is true, fake news is censorship

On the 24th of March Isabel Allende received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ghent. Gie Goris met the author in San Francisco and had a long interview with her on stories and lies, women and power, politics and migration. ‘The strength of women is not in power or in physical strength, but in resilience and compassion.’

  • Casa de las Americas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Casa de las Americas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
  • CC Casa de las Americas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) CC Casa de las Americas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
  • Shawn (CC BY-NC 2.0) Shawn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Gie Goris

MO*redactie
Hoofdredacteur, Azië, religie & conflict
31 March 2017

Isabel Allende is the author of best sellers such as The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, Paula, The Japanese Lover, Love and Shadows,… Later this year a new book by her, Invincible Summer, will be published, in which Guatemalian refugee and a Chilean journalist experience a terrible night in New York City. For the title Allende borrows from a quote from L’Eté by Albert Camus: ‘In the middle of winter I assesed that, inside of me, an invincible summer is hiding. And that makes me happy. Because it means that, no matter how hard the world pushes me, inside of me there is something more powerful, something better, that pushes back.’

On March 24th Allende received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ghent for the societal impact of her literary work. This honorary degree was granted without a consultation with the literary faculty, and this caused a small storm of indignant comments about outdated magic realism, the negative consequences of exotism and the difficult relationship between big sales and literary value.

‘Most of the comments on my work appear in a language I don’t understand’

‘Most of the comments on my work appear in a language I don’t understand’, says the author during a conversation we had with her at the beginning of this month in Sausalito, near San Francisco. Allende writes her stories in Spanish, but her books are translated in 35 languages and millions of people buy and read her work all over the world.

Her house, where the first part of the conversation takes place, could serve perfectly as a location for a sequel to the original House with the Spirits: at the end of the nineteenth century it served first as a luxury brothel, then became a Pentecostal church and a chocolate factory, and now it is the office of Isabel Allende ànd of the Isabel Allende Foundation. That foundation invests about a million dollar annually in projects that focus on equal opportunities for girls, equal pay for equal work, and sexual and reproductive rights for women.

How that foundation came about, was told in the form of an extensive story – it is always a story with Isabel Allende – during the second part or the conversation, accompanied by excellent sushi, sake and green tea flavoured icecream. To go from Latin America’s Spirits to Asia’s culinary spirit, one only has to cross a street.

Isabel Allende: I kept the revenue of Paula, the book I wrote about the disease and death of my daughter Paula Frijas, on a seperate account, without knowing what I was going to do with it. After she died, I also didn’t manage to start writing again. A writer’s block, I thought. But a friend rather called it an empty reservoir, and thus according to him it was a matter of refilling that reservoir of stories and images.

‘Isn’t it terrible that even mothers want to get rid of their daughters because girls are seen as lesser beings and as a burden?’

For this, I went on a journey through India. On a sweltering day in Rajasthan the driver had to stop to let the overheated motor cool down. A friend and myself were waiting in the shadow of a big acacia tree, next to a few local women. We didn’t understand each other, but still tried to communicate through gestures. We also gave them the bracelets that we had bought a little while before. When we could leave again, one of the women came after me with a package she wanted to give me in return.’

I tried to convey to her that I couldn’t accept that, but she didn’t take no for an answer. When I opened the package, to my horror I saw a newborn baby. The driver pushed the package back into the arms of the woman and urged us to get in the car immediately. When I expressed my astonishment once again while driving, the driver answered: “It was a girl. Who wants a girl?” That was the moment I knew what I was going to do with the money of the book Paula. Isn’t it terrible that even mothers want to get rid of their daughters because girls are seen as lesser beings and as a burden?’

CC Casa de las Americas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

It was in the original house with the spirits that Isabel Allende realised for the first time that women had less opportunities and rights than men. She was taken into the house of her grandfather together with her mother, but because of that her mother became dependent on men for all choices and decisions.

‘It made me rebellious at a very young age and the older I got, the more that rage turned itself against all forms of authority.’ The journalism at a feminist monthly magazine offered her a first constructive outlet for that rage. Yet she changed from journalism to the writing of fiction. Why?

Isabel Allende: Because I am better at lying than at being a reliable source of facts. As a journalist already I was a storyteller, much more than an investigator or a reporter. Journalism is very immediate and fast, literature offers me the freedom to tell the truth without being limited by evidence or facts, or by the bias of my own point of view. On the other hand, fiction that isn’t rooted in reality doesn’t work. Readers need that ground layer of truth and credibility to be able to give in to fiction.

Are the “alternative facts” of the new American president then also a form of fiction?

My fiction is based on thorough research, their lies are meant to hide the reality. In that sense “alternative facts” and “fake news” are both contemporary variants of the old censorship that existed under the military dictatorships of the seventies.

Isabel Allende: No, those are lies. My fiction is based on thorough research, their lies are meant to hide the reality. In that sense “alternative facts” and “fake news” are both contemporary variants of the old censorship that existed under the military dictatorships of the seventies. Art on the other hand tries to record life and give meaning to it. That is a way to find the truth.

The international women’s day receives more attention every year. Does that please you?

Isabel Allende: In fact, it is sad that we need an international women’s day. It is significant that there is no men’s day, right? The place of men and masculinity in society seems to be beyond discussion, that of women and femininity apparently still isn’t. And then in the United States you get a president like Donald Trump, an explicit misogynist who still managed to convince 51 percent of the female voters.

While his opponent, Hillary Clinton, tried to be the embodiment of successful emancipation.

Isabel Allende: But Hillary Clinton didn’t really represent the women of the US/ She represented the status quo of the system with all the benefits for the elite that come with it. Hillary had nothing new to say, while Trump was clearly all about change – the wrong kind of change, as far as I’m concerned, but in any case change. And gender hasn’t played a role in that.

Should gender be a central point in every political debate or policy?

‘When a writer is being called important, one can be sure that he is white and male. Otherwise it will certainly be mentioned that she is female, or black, or Latin-American.’

Isabel Allende: Perhaps gender shouldn’t be central, but it is an issue that must always be present. But nobody will elect a politician because she is a woman, or because of race, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, …. What really matters, is the political program and the capacity of the candidate.

The same goes for literature. When a writer is being called important, one can be sure that he is white and male. Otherwise it will certainly be mentioned that she is female, or black, or Latin-American. The adjective diminishes the importance of the value of that literature, and confirms a norm that apparantely isn’t achievable to all those “others”.

How important has Michelle Bachelet been, the first female president of Chile and Latin-America, who has now been elected for a second mandate?

Isabel Allende: When she was elected for the first time, she broke about all of the taboos in conservative-catholic Chile: she was a woman, a single mother, a socialist, an atheist. And the first subject she put on the table as a president, was violence inside the family.

Her second election was won on the basis of the power of her own personality, almost despite all of the political parties that supported her and had lost the trust of the people.

If the popularity of her own government is low at this moment, it is less a motion of distrust towards her than against the politicians that form her government. She is an incredibly strong woman.

And how would you define that: a strong woman?

Isabel Allende: The strength of women is not in power or physical strength, but in resilience and compassion. Each time she is repressed, she gets back up. A thousand times. She takes care of others, even though she doesn’t receive enough care herself. Strong women aren’t warriors, but endurers. They aren’t necessarily leaders, but the ones who bring people together. While fathers are often absent in Chile, it are always the women who support the household, the family and the wider community.

‘The strength of women is not in power or physical strength, but in resilience and compassion. Each time she is repressed, she gets back up. A thousand times.’

Isn’t feminism supposed to create more space for women to be themselves and to realise their own potentialities, also outside of the traditional family circle?

Isabel Allende: Feminism is about choices, about the possibility for women to make every choice that also men can make: women should be able to choose for a life as a mother working at home, but also for a career as president or a Navy Seal. We must be able to make choices about our reproductive health, but also about our intellectual or artistic capacities. Women still have to fight to get their rights or to be able to make choices, for men this is much less an issue.

Was the women’s march right after the inauguration of president Trump a good step to increase that possibility of choice?

Isabel Allende: Definitely. It was a cheerful and mild demonstration that brought millions out on the streets. It was more of a celebration than a bitter protest, even though this manifestation was only possible through the election of Donald Trump. He embodies misogyny, and because of that he threatens about everything women have achieved through the years. Because when the president boasts about harassing women, who will prevent this from becoming normal in the rest of society? This attack on women’s rights is so direct and brutal that one has to fight back. And we will have to persist.

Casa de las Americas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

It appears to be hard to persist, in politics at least. In Latin-America, leftist governments have to move over for rightwing parties.

Isabel Allende: By now I have lived long enough to know that the pendulum can swing in both directions. For a long time Chile has been the most socially-conservative society of Latin-America, but it was also the first country where a Marxist was elected to be president (Salvador Allende, a cousin of her father), after which the country lived for almost twenty years under the iron hand of the extreme right and neoliberal dictatorship (under Augusto Pinochet) to finally elect the first female president of the continent. And from left now we go back to right.

What gives me hope, is that young people don’t participate in the elections, because the parties and institutions still date from the nineteenth century, while the needs of this era of information and communication just aren’t met.

Is there still hope, then, or only resignation?

Isabel Allende: What gives me hope, is that young people don’t participate in the elections, because the parties and institutions still date from the nineteenth century, while the needs of this era of information and communication just aren’t met.

And why would one find that hopeful?

Isabel Allende: My hope is rooted in the knowledge that this new generation will govern us within a decade or so. They will bring about change. We will elect in different ways and resolutions will come about differently. Young people will react, the way also women have reacted. Bernie Sanders’ campaign made it clear that this reaction is already happening. The disappointment of the Democratic Party of the establishment should translate into the building of something new, inside or outside of the party.

One of the central political matters of our time is migration. Both in Europe and in the US some politicians score political success by cultivating fear of migrants and refugees. You yourself are a migrant in this country, how does this new wind feel to you?

Isabel Allende: Currently, an enormous amount of people are migrating, and most of them are fleeing from war and violence, but also from poverty and hunger. This demands an answer on a global scale. The most fundamental answer must aim to close the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. If we let this contrast exist and let it grow, then violent conflict is inevitable. In a world where the borders for capital, goods and knowledge continue to shrink, the construction of walls for humans is unacceptable.
This is the century of migration and true globilzation for everyone.

For most people, migration is not a choice.

Isabel Allende: I didn’t choose to flee Chile in 1973 either. But after that I did choose to migrate to the United States. Refugees leave to survive. In Guatemala the situation is so brutal, with the gang violence, the corruption and the poverty, that the people have to flee. Most of the time it are the young, the brave and the strong who flee. The elder, the sick or the weak stay behind.

Migration thus brings in a bonus for the country of arrival, but is the worst thing that can happen to the countries of departure?

‘People prefer living in a place where they feel at home, speak the language and have relationships, to being in a place where they have no rights, no history and no family.’

Isabel Allende: Indeed. Migration is a symptom of something that runs deeper and is worse. Syrians would rather live in Syria and every Guatemalan family I know, would have preferred staying in Guatemala. People prefer living in a place where they feel at home, speak the language and have relationships, to being in a place where they have no rights, no history and no family.

The violence or the injustice that makes these people flee, must be handled on the spot. And apart from that we should put a lot less emphasis on differences and borders, and much more on the fact that we are all human, with the same needs, fears, and hopes.

But people do feel a need for local anchors, or for a feeling that they belong to a group or a community.

Isabel Allende: I am aware of that, but I believe in evolution. We no longer live in the era of tribes. And even though history is not straight, upward movement, still I see through all of the pendulum’s movements a tendency towards a more democratic, more inclusive, better informed world. Today there are more people with a decent middle class existence than ever before. 2017 is a low, with the sudden rise of new nationalism and the extreme right, yet I believe that the larger tendency is not fundamentally affected by that.

One of the communal identities that made a strong comeback, is the religious identity. But religion is nowadays mostly seen as a political ideology and less as spirituality.

Isabel Allende: I am not a religious person myself, but I see how important religion is to others. People apparently feel the need to believe in something, and as far as I’m concerned that belief in God can be a perfect start to collaborate for a better world. I mostly do not trust the organized religions, because of their potential to make fanatics of their followers. Religion can become a terrible weapon of repression, but it can also be a power for the good.

Shawn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

In your books spirituality is quite important.

Isabel Allende: I tell stories that are important to me. And therefore I connect to what exists in collective hope, fear or consciousness. One develops that connection by being alone often to write, and probably that is also true for mystics or monks. It isn’t a rational, but an intuition.

Thus the stories I tell are not concealed messages, but experiences I want to pass on. Stories are the essence of language, and people are tied together by stories. Music is story, history is story. And every story offers insight.

For your literary influences you obviously point to writers of the Latin-American wave, such as Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa, but also to nineteenth-century Russians, from Dostojevski to Turgenjev and Bulgakov. But those Russian authors are much more dark and demanding in their literature than you are.

Isabel Allende: Is thzat not a question of culture? Aren’t Russians far more dramatic than the Latin-Americans? Latin-America is a continent of exploitation, violence and repression, but at the same time it will always be a continent of color and fragrance, of music and celebration. Even in Oaxaca, a province in Mexico that is marked by deep poverty and extreme violence, people continue to come together to celebrate life and death with music and dance and colorful flowers.

‘I write in Spanish as well, because a novel originates more in the belly than in the mind’

You have been living outside of that reality for a long time. Is that the reason why you hold on to that latino color more than most young Latin-American authors?

Isabel Allende: My parents live in Chile, and rhey are 101 and 96, so I go there often. In the United States I am always having contacts with Latin-American migrants. I write in Spanish as well, because a novel originates more in the belly than in the mind, and that is where your mother tongue rules. I dream in Spanish, I curse in Spanish, and if I pray, I pray in Spanish.

I learned about the importance of stories in the kitchen of my grandfather’s house. There the radio played all of the time – which was forbidden in the rest of the house, abhorred by the vulgarities that could invade the house – and I got hooked to the radio dramas that were broadcast between the music. Stories to me are a compass that help me find my place in the universe.

Translation by Eileen Coolen

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