Interview with Isabel Allende - by Kathryn Petruccelli

KP: Ms. Allende has penned a new book entitled My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile . You have a wonderful definition of nostalgia in the book, at least in the English translation, [you call it] a slow dance in a large circle. Maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about what nostalgia is to you, what this project is, what this book means to you.

IA: More than a definition of nostalgia, I think that that is a definition of memory, how memory works. Memory works in circles. My American editor wanted me to divide the book in chapters, very clear chapters with themes. But that's not the way I could write it because it's a book about memory, about nostalgia. And the way that works in the mind is always in circles, like a journey. You really don't know where you are going or why you are going in that direction.

KP: I know you mention several times in the book the untrustworthiness of memory, and sort of warn about memory, and yet in a wonderful passage you talk about going on the train with your family as a young girl to Bolivia with your first journal in your hand and thinking at the time that perhaps you knew it would be only writing that grounded you in reality. Is that a contradiction for you?

IA: No, it is not a contradiction because it is in my writing that I find roots. I have been the daughter of diplomats, when I was young, and then a political refugee after the military coup in Chile, and now an immigrant for 16 years in the United States. So, I don't have roots in a geographical place, I have them in my writing. I started planting those roots very early in my life when I was around nine. My mother remarried, a diplomat, and we started traveling. And the first trip was to Bolivia by train; and I had the feeling that I was leaving behind a part of my life that would never come back. A nd so that's how I started writing.

KP: And just to catch people up we should probably say that you were raised in Chile where your uncle Salvador Allende, was a Socialist President, who was democratically elected, until a violent military coup in 1973, ironically enough on Tuesday, September 11, 1973, brought about Allende's death and the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

One scene from a previous memoir of yours, Paula , that has really stayed with me is the scene of Pablo Neruda's funeral only days after the coup. I would recommend Paula to someone who was interested in more detail about the coup and that time through your eyes. Maybe you could give us an idea of the feeling of that time in 1973 after that September 11th .

IA: In 1973, the country was divided: half the country was the military coup and half the country was being repressed by the military coup. There was a lot of violence going on, the military were in the streets. Pablo Neruda had received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. He died eleven days after the military coup on September 23, 1973. He was a communist. And when he died, few people dared show up to his funeral, at the beginning Then more and more people started to pour in from everywhere. In spite of the fact that the streets were surrounded by the military with machine guns, the people marched, with flowers, reciting the poems of the poet. It was a very moving moment because we were burying not only him but freedom.

I think that was the moment when we realized that it would take years and years to get back to a democracy.

KP: Because, of course, Chile had a long democratic history.

IA: It was so long and solid, our democracy, that we thought that would never happen in Chile. And now I know that it can happen anywhere; it can also happen in this country actually.

KP: What were your feelings about the U.S. and their hand in the coup at the time? Or was that not really even in the picture, was there too much else going on?

IA: There was a lot going on, but the U.S. was in the picture because the coup was financed and supported by the CIA, Kissinger and Nixon at the time. The CIA has supported the wrong governments everywhere in the world. The CIA has helped remove democratically elected governments and replaced them with brutal dictatorships. Most people in the United States do not know that, but to be called an agent of the CIA abroad is the worst possible insult.

KP: Since most of us won't know of government or a coup as personally as you have, how has that influenced how you participate in politics today?

IA: Well, I was never interested in politics before the military coup. When we had the coup, life as we knew it changed. First of all, there was censorship. So the press - all the media - was censored; and therefore we only knew what was going on because rumors were going around. But while you were watching on TV cartoons and clowns, people were being tortured next door. There was repression and people disappeared from their workplace or their homes, and they were never found again. We knew that some people who had been arrested had been tortured and then released so that they could tell what had happened, so that it would make people afraid. Many, many people left the country. Some just escaped, other people were able to leave legally, and found a homeland somewhere else, always thinking that we could go back soon. But it lasted seventeen years. So, it changed the lives of many people; it changed my life - my children are not Chilean. They are Venezuelans, or Americans, or whatever, but not Chileans. My grandchildren have never been in Chile.

KP: You didn't leave right away in '73. Why?

IA: I didn't leave right away because I never thought that the military would stay

in power. I thought that, given our long tradition in democracy, that in a week or two the military would go back to their barracks and we would call elections again. And so waiting for that moment I stayed and stayed until it was impossible to stay any longer because I felt that the circle of repression was closing around my neck. And the moment I crossed the cordillera in the plane, and I left to go into exile, I started inventing a country. The memory of the country that was in the seventies, or the country I thought it was, maybe it never was.

 

And so this book, written 30 years later, is about the memories of that time and the country that, in these 30 years, has stayed in my heart. And the book, although it is nostalgic, it's not about the sad things. It's not about our sad history, although there is some of that in it. But it's mainly about who we are as people. And it's a rather sarcastic book. We have a self-deprecating humor. We love to pull each other down. And so, that's the tone in which the book is written. I thought that I would be lynched in Chile. Actually, I haven't! I went back to Chile and people love it! It's pirated and you can buy it in the streets.

KP: Well, isn't that the highest form of flattery…piracy?

IA: (Laughs.)

KP: I think that love and that honest observation of the Chilean people and of your country definitely comes out in the book. Tell me about the women. You say in the book most are "martyrs by vocation."

IA: Yeah. We love to complain. We raise our boys to be male chauvinist pigs, and we raise our women to serve these pigs. So it's our fault. Male chauvinism is women's fault. We're very strong and organized, and we are always serving everybody. We have this vocation for being unhappy and being in love and suffering for love. Everybody is always in love, and we suffer a lot! (Laughs.)

KP: Well, that's the wonderful ingredient for writing as well, isn't it?

IA: It is.

KP: I'm thinking of a particular section [of My Invented Country ]: "Of Vice and Virtues," and you talk about Chileans' love of things legalistic and bureaucratic.

IA: We love authority and order, and we have this German idea of how things should be. We are very bureaucratic. It's pathological in Chile.

The point of moving papers with seals and stamps from one perusal to the next is not to resolve problems, but to obstruct solutions. If the problems were resolved, the bureaucracy would lose power and many honest people would be left without employment; on the other hand, if things get worse, the state increases the budget and hires more people, and thus low­ers the index of the unemployed. Everyone is happy. The official abuses every smidgen of his power, starting from the premise that the public is his enemy, a sentiment that is fully reciprocated.

It was a shock to find that in the United States all that's needed to move about the country is a driver's license, and that most transactions can be accomplished by mail. In Chile, the clerk on duty demands that the poor petitioner produce proof that he was born, that he isn't a criminal, that he paid his taxes, that he registered to vote, and that he's still alive, because even if he throws a tantrum to prove that he hasn't died, he is obliged to present a "cer­tificate of survival." The problem has reached such propor­tions that the government itself has created an office to combat bureaucracy. Citizens may now complain of being shabbily treated and may file charges against incompetent officials . . . on a form requiring a seal and three copies, of course. Recently, a busload of us tourists crossing the bor­der between Chile and Argentina had to wait an hour and a half while our documents were checked. Getting through the Berlin wall was easier. Kafka was Chilean. From My Invented Country.

KP: So do you find that people in the U.S. are generally interested in hearing about their vices and virtues?

IA: Yes, but not in the mouth of a foreigner. I mean, me, because I'm Chilean, I can say all these things about Chile. If anyone who was not Chilean tried to write a book like this they would kill him, or her. I think the same happens in the United States. People are open to criticism and they're willing to hear the criticism as long as it doesn't come from a foreigner.

KP: How has your mom taken the book? I know she's your first line of editing.

IA: My mother is taking it well. And I'm grateful for that because she's the worst critic. She never likes anything I do.

KP: Luckily you have lots and lots of fans who very much do like it. Were you surprised to find yourself living in the United States of all places?

IA: Yes, I was, because I never planned to come. I was not following the American dream, I was following a man. I had fallen in lust with a guy and I came to spend a week with and get him out of my system. That was sixteen years ago and that's the you met at the door - we're still together! (Laughs.)

KP: Are you bucking the trend by being happy? I know you mention in the book "in my family happiness was irrelevant." Can you explain that a little bit?

IA: I think that in most of the world happiness is irrelevant. Nobody expects to be happy all the time. Only in the United States you have the "right" to pursue happiness and you have the "right" to be entertained all the time. In the rest of the world, life is boring, and most of the time very difficult. If you survive it's fine. You don't expect to be happy. I mean, my family would be horrified to learn that people pay money in therapy to get over their unhappiness. What's that about?! (Laughs.)

KP: Now I may be taking you into dangerous territory again… tell me something about any comments or parallels with what's going on in the United States now [and what went on in Chile]. You do use the framework somewhat in the book - there is that September 11 to September 11 tragic connection. Anything you see, lessons that have not been learned in that time?

IA: Well, for me this is a very scary moment because in the name of national security, for safety, people are willing to compromise their rights. Today it's hard to dissent because there's no space for people to dissent. And that is very dangerous in any situation. And if it gets worse, we can very easily end up in an ultra-nationalistic country where a lot of abuses can be committed in the name of whatever, in the name of the nation, or "us." defending "us."

And I saw all that in Chile before and I am very scared. Because it's like something that starts to grow uncontrollably and people get used to it at the beginning. They say, "Well, okay, in the name of safety I'll compromise this. Okay, they can get in my e-mail. All right, it's not that bad if they tap the telephone. Well, it's not that bad if the media is censored. I can live with that…" And then one thing added to another thing, to another thing, and we lose a lot. And by the time we react, it's too late.

KP: Maybe history like memory goes unfortunately in circles.

IA: Yes.

KP: I'm wondering -- just returning to memory for a moment -- you do mention that you don't think you would have written, at least not the way that you have, without exile. Being a journalist already in Chile…

IA: I would not be a fiction writer because I think that my writing comes from the fact that I've left everything behind so many times and I have started anew several times. So in my writing, I try to get back what I have lost, and make sense of the confusion, and make sense of the journey of life. And maybe I would never have had that need if I had stayed in Chile, and I would be a very happy journalist.

KP: Do you have any examples of family stories that have reached mythic proportions? Wonderful pieces that you've heard along the way that you are not sure if they are real anymore?

IA: For example, I grew up the first few years of my life with my maternal grandmother. Every Thursday they had séances and she would talk to the ghosts, or the souls of the dead. And she had a very large Spanish table that you need three men to move. I know because I have it in my house now. And they say that the table could dance around the room because the spirits moved the table, and that she could move the sugar bowl on the table without touching it, and so forth. I don't remember if I ever saw that, or if I heard it so many times that it became a reality, or if I have made it up. I don't know. And the thing is that as I have written about it, it has become so real that most people who knew my grandmother (my grandmother has been dead for many years) are totally convinced that that is true. And so now it has become real, because fiction made it real.

KP: I can't let you go without asking you something about your writing rituals. Any favorites? Any that you wouldn't dare be without?

IA: Well I wouldn't start a book any other day than January 8. I start all my books on January 8. That means that I prepare my life for January 8. And the first few months of the year I'm totally dedicated to the writing. I write only in the mornings. I start in the morning and I can write all day. I always start in the morning; I'm not a night person. And I write five or six days a week, always with a candle. And I write for as long as the candle is burning. Sometimes the candle is not a very big candle…

KP: I'm glad I'm not alone in tricking myself into things (Laughs.) Where is the reader in that time? Is he/she in the picture yet? Are you thinking of an audience?

IA: I don't think of an audience. I just write because I need to tell the story. I have the feeling that every story exists in a dark place, and my job is to go into that dark place, with a candle, and show up every day and go to my computer. And word by word, page after page, the story starts to unfold. And it reveals itself to me; and then the characters walk out of the woodwork and become people. I don't control the situation I don't know what I'm writing or why I am writing it, and, of course, I don't know for whom. You know when they caught General Noriega in Panama, he had two books: the Bible and The House of the Spirits , my first novel. You never know for whom you write. I wasn't thinking of Noriega when I wrote the book, of course.

KP: And that's OK - that he's part of that audience?

IA: Of course! I'm very, very flattered, actually.

KP: Any time when you can envision writing in English? Or will you always write in Spanish?

IA: I can write a speech in English, but I cannot write fiction. Fiction is something that happens at a very organic level. I don't think when I write; it just flows. If I had to do that in English, it would be almost impossible.

KP: Other projects on the horizon? Other things that we can expect from you?

IA: Well, I have written a trilogy for young adults the first one is called The City of the Beasts; it's out already in the English. The second one is called The Kingdom of the Golden Dragon , also out in English. And the third one that I just finished is called The Forest of the Pygmies. And I'm done with kids. I don't like kids!

KP: Oh, but your grandchildren?

IA: I used to like my grandchildren, but now they're hitting puberty and I'm beginning to hate them. (Laughs.)

KP: You refer to yourself in My Invented Country a few times as difficult at that age as well.

IA: I was a very difficult child. Very introverted, and shy, and very angry at everything. I think that I rebelled against all forms of authority, but particularly against male authority. So I rebelled against my grandfather, my stepfather, the police, the government, the church… Everything that was this male authority trying to direct my life. I rebelled when I was very young, but I didn't know that that had a name. I didn't know that that was called "feminism" until I was in my twenties.

KP: You mention a group called “Women for Life” in the book that actually had a hand in ousting Pinochet.

IA: That was a large group of women from the opposition to the military dictatorship that got together and they fought for the rights of the victims. They had children or relatives that had been tortured or arrested. And they call themselves "Women for Life." They were a very strong political movement that was organized at a time when political parties were forbidden. They were in the first lines protesting in the streets. And they got a lot of aggression and many of them were arrested, or many disappeared, or some were tortured. And yet, they kept on doing it for seventeen years, until finally the dictatorship was defeated. And then, when the time came to share power, the movement dissolved and the women went back to their homes.

KP: Was that disappointing?

IA: It is always disappointing to me to see how women hit that glass ceiling. Eventually they are part of the problem because they're willing to fight and risk their lives and then they're not willing to stay there and be in politics and do the work. And understand that - because I couldn't do it. I have been asked many times to participate in politics, to run for office at some point, and I can't do that.

KP: It's just not in your nature?

IA: It's not in my nature. I think that I have too much imagination and I couldn't do that.

KP: Certainly, although there are examples of writers in politics, we want you to keep writing.

IA: Thank you.

This interview originally aired on KUSP radio 88.9FM, Santa Cruz, California.