There are many satisfying things in this world, but perhaps one of the most rewarding is when you see a writer speak and they talk exactly as they write. This resemblance goes to show no matter what fictional character an author takes on, their authenticity and passion will always shine through. Isabel Allende, an award-winning Latin novelist, demonstrated this skill with ease. On Thursday, January 30, in an event produced by Elliott Bay Book Company, Allende made an appearance at Town Hall Seattle to discuss her newest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, with Seattle journalist Florangela Davila.
Before Allende came into the spotlight, Davila introduced her as a woman with many accomplishments: she was born in Peru, raised in Chile, and has sold over 56 million books which have been translated from Spanish into more than 35 languages. Other impressive achievements include fifteen honorary doctorates throughout her life and a Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Obama. Allende also fosters an interest in sponsoring philanthropic foundations that specifically work with women’s rights, reproductive rights, education, youth, and global healthcare.
Despite this lengthy list of distinguished undertakings, Allende appeared to be as down-to-earth and witty as she is in her writing. Her quips had the audience laughing at regular intervals. For example, in response to the inquiry, “When are you going to write an erotic novel?” from an anonymous audience member, she replied, “I was waiting until after my mother died... It took her too long!” Allende is someone who is open about everything; she is 77 years old and unafraid to talk about her sex life. Apparently, nothing makes her blush. Maybe this is one of the reasons why she has many devoted fans; she’s audacious and level-headed, which is an endearing quality, especially in a famous person. She also openly discussed her relationship with her mother, who only recently passed away. Today, Allende still has all 2,000 letters from her mother archived in files.
Enigmatic and quick on her feet, Allende also presented a vast knowledge about the histories in which she writes about, including the plight of refugees and the displaced during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. However, Allende admitted that these topics weren’t her original intention for the novel. Throughout her 77 years of life, Allende has moved from country to country, from living in exile in Venezuela to protecting herself from violence elsewhere. Because of this, she reasoned that she always self-identified as a “foreigner,” so writing about the circumstances of refugees during the Spanish Civil War just came naturally to her.
Allende confessed that she feels like a foreigner everywhere. She’s moved around all her life, and even in her birthplace or the country she grew up in, she feels that she doesn’t quite fit in. Because of this, Allende said she’s “always observing and listening.” She doesn’t take anything for granted because she doesn’t want to be too comfortable anywhere. She actually embraces this mindset, as she feels it is helpful when telling stories. This really does go to show how positive and innovative Allende really is.
Allende stated that her latest book’s rhetoric against Spanish immigrants in Chile is the same as the rhetoric against US immigrants today. Because of current political controversy, Allende was influenced by present-day anti-immigration sentiments. In her own words, “history repeats itself.” She’s written historical novels and lived through history herself, so she definitely knows what she’s talking about. As Victor Dalmau, one of the characters from A Long Petal of the Sea, says, “If you live long enough, you see all the circles closing.” We as a people need to be aware of this pattern, because surely if we’re conscious of impending violence and if it seems like the circle is about to close again, we might do something to cease it.
Additionally, the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has a special place in Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea. Since Neruda was the person in charge of choosing everyone who was to be sent from Europe to Chile on the SS Winnipeg ship to escape the trauma of the war, the Chilean government told Neruda not to bring “anyone with ideas,” as they wanted people like builders and lawyers. Nevertheless, Neruda dismissed this notion, and a majority of the people on the Winnipeg were artists, writers, poets, and musicians and their families. Allende would have undoubtedly been one of those creatives on that boat. Her ideas flow effortlessly and her exuberance and passion for her vocation and the world is endless. Towards the end of her talk, she read the first few verses of a Neruda poem to the crowd: once in Spanish, and once in English. Her voice rang out through the high ceilings of Town Hall, moving and evocative, leaving a contemplative silence when she finished.
There is no doubt that Allende captivated her audience for the hour she was on stage. Throughout the conversation, there were people calling out questions from the crowd in Spanish as well as someone waving a Mapuche flag (Mapuche are the indigenous people of Chile and Argentina) above our heads.
The talk ended with Allende answering questions that the audience had written on index cards. Many asked her for advice. Two excerpts from her response that really stood out to me were “You have to plunge and take whatever comes” and “There’s time. You don’t need to hurry so much. Don’t be so hyper. You have nothing to be afraid of.” As a teenager, hearing Allende’s advice gave me a sense of comfort. I’m in the midst of applying to colleges and figuring out what I want to do with my life, so hearing these words of wisdom from a woman who is 60 years older than me—who’s been through life and experienced so many ups and downs—was uplifting. At the close of the talk, Allende received a standing ovation.
Allende boldly grabbed us all and filled us with emotion, until we were hanging onto her, even after her very last word.
Isabel Allende's book discussion was presented by Elliott Bay Book Company at Town Hall Seattle on January 30. For event information see here.