For those of you who don’t know her, Isabel Allende is a pint sized power house Latin American writer credited with works in magical realism featuring strong female characters, so uniquely executed that the late Gabriel García Marquez recognized her body of work as excellent representations of the genre. (He should know because he invented the concept.) Born to Chilean parents in Peru, Isabel lived through the rise and government of Dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who killed her uncle (second cousin once removed) and democratically elected President Salvador Allende to take over the country. Her family fled to Venezuela where they lived for thirteen years in exile.
Her break out hit “La casa de los espíritus, 1982”, was written during the convalescence of her grandfather, a time of introspection and strife that prompter her to chronicle her life’s experiences in honor of her heritage, embedding in her story supernatural elements that permeate Latin American culture. The book appealed to millions of Hispanic readers and launched her career during a period of her life where she thought no one would care about her musings, or at least they wouldn’t provide for her and her loved ones. Boy, was she wrong! It is the earnings from those books that enable her to operate her foundation, changing the world of millions of people through her printed and social work. Who knew?
I had the pleasure of meeting Allende, and by meeting her I mean seeing her from a second story balcony, when a friend invited me to Elliot Bay Book’s one-on-one event in downtown Seattle. My friend is a fan of her writing, and having read a few of her books, I couldn’t resist the chance to hear Isabel talk about her latest creation “The Japanese Lover”. Going in, I had very little knowledge about the book and even less insight into who the author was and how she operated, but I had an inclination that the experience was going to blow me away, and that it did. Isabel is the quintessential feminist, a woman rebelling against a patriarchal hegemony by writing about female characters who like sex and independence and not ashamed of it. She is a role model for all the women in the Americas fighting to make it on their own terms; a relentless spirit with an affable and optimistic attitude. Even after the loss of her daughter Paula she remained hopeful and inspiring, letting the readers in on her journey just like she had done during the passing of her grandfather.
Her storytelling is very compelling, a gift she credits to her journalism experience which taught her how to redact an article and to research the subject matter to fill in the gaps that her imagination can’t tame. She creates stories imbued with historical relevance, romance and human connections in a way no one has been able to do in Spanish and with no qualms or regrets. Holding nothing back, she pours her heart and soul into her narrative creating a sensual experience that is not only provocative but passionate. The love she showcases has a purpose and profound meaning, a very intellectually seductive entity that entices all the senses. Her prose makes people blush, especially her mother who to this day emails and writes to her daughter everyday to tell her to be more prudent with her work. (A classic conservative Latina mom move by the way.)
In person, Isabel knows what to say and how to say it, stringing together beautiful sentences that were sassy yet powerful, beautiful, elegant, but delivered with raw emotion and assertiveness. Her inner peace and calm demeanor is truly alluring, and comes from a place in her soul filled with extreme confidence. She made a statement every time she opened her mouth to speak, commanding the room with her charismatic persona, joking and getting very serious fluently and flawlessly. When someone was passed over to ask her a question, she would make sure the hosts got a microphone to the overlooked attendee. She answered each concern and addressed each compliment with enviable grace and charm. I could tell and feel she saw her readers as friends, a familiarity that allows her to intimately share her thoughts without hesitation, making her accessible, and enabling her to be upfront about her fears and points of view unapologetically. Her demeanor and need to be the center of attention makes you want to become one of the many interesting people she has sat down with and has gotten to know; one of the people who have inspired her latest characters.
Allende, at 73 years of age, is still finding her own place in the universe, using love as a torch to blaze her path through the darkness. She faces every day with a smile, challenging herself to write about those things that help her cope with the realities of life and the demands of being a grandma. Her best seller trilogy “La ciudad de las bestias” was a tribute to her grand kids and according to her they were the most difficult books to write because they had no sex in them. He-he. Once her work is finished and her characters embark on a journey that entices and enthralls her readers, she puts the pen aside and begins to look for the next tome, the next chapters. The process starts on January 8th each year, and to this date has resulted in a beautiful collection of fiction and non fiction books that spans over three decades.
This session taught me a few things about writing that I wasn’t expecting to learn; to accept that good prose comes from thin air and that sometimes a piece of work is finished when we decide to give up on it. Perfection to a writer is impossible to achieve, as the story would change daily if we allowed ourselves to continue to add and delete pages to our masterpiece. Becoming frustrated with the blog or the latest email draft is only natural since I have to decide when to quit, when to move on to the next writing task. Until you reach a certain level of comfort and have found out not only your voice but how to replicate it and evolve into a more sophisticated and enlightened human being, you will never be content with the thoughts you have put down on paper. Like life, our writing style constantly matures and improves; we need to embrace the suffering and pain of that growth process and find subjects that we can not only relate to but can also present to others in a meaningful and thoughtful manner.
Although I was a full story up and a few feet to her right, I felt like that day I had met the real Isabel Allende, my long lost friend. I recognized that in her I had found a missing member of my tribe. She made me realize life is too short to not live it, to eloquently write our own story. Some of us will do it in paper, some of us will do it through the stories we tell our own children. In essence, the best chapters of our lives are ahead of us; don’t edit your story to make it look better. Turn the page and type in a new story. Become the person you want to read about. 🙂
November 7th, 2015 @ Seattle’s First Baptist Church