Isabel Allende on writing, exile, & challenging xenophobia through writing

Isabel Allende is one of the writers adding her voice to PEN International’s Make Space campaign, which aims to create opportunities for displaced writers. Here, she talks to PEN International’s Sarah Perry about her writing, her experiences of exile, and the importance of combating xenophobia through storytelling. 

'One thing that I realised during the military coup of 1973 in Chile; in 24 hours my country changed completely. It was the most solid democracy in the continent and it became a dictatorship in a matter of hours. The people who were targeted were of course the political leaders, union leaders, or people like that, but also artists, journalists, writers… because even the military who had taken power by force and who established a brutal dictatorship could understand the power of art, they knew the power of the written word. And that’s why they targeted us. In every war, in every dictatorship, in every situation of conflict, the people who are targeted are those who can direct public opinion, people who can tell the truth in one way or another. They don’t want those voices. So those are the people who disappear first; those are the people who leave first. But they can’t stop writing or doing their work. It’s a compulsion, it’s a vocation, and it’s a calling. You have to do it, no matter what. You risk your life, but you do it.

As a child, I was the daughter of diplomats.  I was always moving, changing language, schools, friends, saying goodbye to places and people. Then - in my youth - I was a journalist in my country, Chile, until I had to leave after the military coup. I ended up in Venezuela with my family, as a political refugee. Later, I became an immigrant in the United States.  I’ve always been a foreigner. I think that’s useful for a writer because it gives you a larger vision of the world and makes you very aware of details. In order to fit in, you have to be very observant and listen carefully, which is good for writing. But from a personal point of view, sometimes it’s sad to feel you don’t belong anywhere. I go back to Chile now and it seems like a foreign country in many ways, because I’ve lived abroad for more than 40 years. So that’s what my life has been.

I write in Spanish, only.  I can write a speech or something like that in English, but I can only write fiction in my own language.  I keep going back to my roots, always. All my books have some of Latin America, some part of Chile in them.  I never wrote fiction whilst living in Chile, so I don’t know if my writing would have been different if I’d stayed in my country and become a writer there. All my work has been written either in exile or as an immigrant.

I wrote my first novel when I was living as a refugee in Venezuela. While I was there, I did all sorts of odd jobs to make a living and support my kids; I couldn’t find a job as a journalist. Then in 1981 I got a phone call that my grandfather was dying in Chile. I couldn’t return to bid him farewell so I started writing him a letter and it ended up being my novel: The House of the Spirits. I wrote at night for a year and at the end of that year I had 500 pages and that was my first book. And that sort of launched me in a literary career; I didn’t even expect to be published or anything. But that book hit a chord, was successful, and it paved the way for all the other 23 books that I’ve written since.

I have the habit of letter writing, Most of my life I’ve been separated from my mother, and we have been writing to each other every single day for decades. Now we email each other, but I print all of the emails and put them in boxes at the end of the year. Each box has between 600 & 700 letters. When I started writing The House of the Spirits, for me it was a conversation with my grandfather just like the conversations I have with my mother in our daily correspondence.

I was a very lucky author.  It hardly ever happens that you get published with a first novel, and it becomes successful.  I wrote two other books in Venezuela, and when I was on a book tour in the United States, I met a guy, fell in lust or in love or whatever you call it, and moved  to be with him. We married and were together for 28 years.  I’ve been living in the US for 30 years now, and I’ve written all my books in California. Most of my books have a Latin America flavor, but they have been written in the US.

In all my books - because I feel that very powerfully in my life - there is an acute sense of place and time. I usually start a book thinking where it happened and when, and that gives me the beginning of the research. That will give me the stage where my characters move. That’s very important for me.

Magic realism, which my work and the work of many Latin American writers has been labelled as, is an understanding that there are many dimensions of reality, and many of them we can’t even explain; we can just perceive them, or experience them. It’s definitely a Latin American thing, but you can find that in books written by many authors all over the world who feel they are in touch with a spiritual dimension. That’s how I feel constantly. I feel that I’m as in touch with my grandmother who died many many years ago, and with my daughter who died 25 years ago, as I am with mother who lives very very far away. I mean death is a terrible inconvenience, but it’s not an obstacle for communication and love.

When it comes to displacement,  I’ve been  lucky. I am not the kind of refugee that leaves in a boat risking her life and the lives of her children. I have been lucky in all the different beginnings in my life in different places. I have been displaced but not horribly. I just finished a book that will be published in November in English and the book has the story of a Guatemalan immigrant who is undocumented in the United States. She’s a young woman who’s been the victim of gang violence in Guatemala and I followed her story. That kind of horrible situation; I have not lived.

We need to understand that people leave their home out of absolute necessity; nobody does that just for the heck of it. We need to ask; why do people become refugees? Why would they become undocumented immigrants? Why do they go into exile? Usually it’s because they’re running away from extreme violence or extreme poverty. And when we understand the reasons why a person leaves everything that is familiar: their homes, their family, their language, their customs and habits and traditions, to go to a place that is usually hostile and doesn’t welcome them; where they have to start from scratch, and nothing they’ve done before is of any value, and they can’t use any of those skills. They have to start again from zero and make a life for themselves; that’s very hard.

And in order to make it in a new place you have to be strong  and very courageous, so that wave of immigration that comes into a country is young, healthy, courageous blood that is invigorating for any society. But often immigrants are seen as a burden. In the United States, which is a country made of immigrants, there is now this extraordinary xenophobic attitude towards Latinos mostly, and there are millions of Latino immigrants here that do all the work no one else wants to do.  Now - with Trump especially, in a nationalistic and populist environment - Latinos have become scape goats, someone to blame.

There is always a role for storytelling. When you listen to the stories of people who have experienced terrible things, you become more sympathetic, more open; you can feel as they feel.  You could be one of them; I mean we could all become one of them. It’s not the other, it’s us also. So I keep writing about people who don’t fit in, people who are not sheltered by the big umbrella of the establishment. People that are marginals, either because they are foreigners or they have some disability, or they don’t fit in for some reason, or they are poor. Because that’s how I feel inside; I feel that I don’t fit in, so I can connect with my characters.  Literature, art in general, storytelling, movies, can give you that experience person to person. When we think of numbers, and we think of 11 million undocumented Latinos in the United States, that doesn’t mean anything. If you look at one person’s experience, one family, one girl that has been raped and brutalized, and escapes and comes to the US, and works here; ithen you can relate one to one. You can’t relate to statistics. It’s very easy to create a sense of hatred when you talk numbers, but when you see the faces of people, when you look at them in the eye one by one, then the whole thing changes, and that’s what art and literature can do. I can tell the story of one girl from Guatemala, and the numbers don’t matter; it’s just one.’

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is out in November, published by Simon & Schuster