Isabel Allende has published 19 novels that mined her own life for inspiration as well as four haunting memoirs that make her (and her family’s) pain real and palpable for readers. Allende’s life — to the millions of people who have read her books — feels like a radical exercise in transparency. And her impact has been so great that next week she will receive the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters.
So it’s a bit surprising that there’s still so much to be learned from the 76-year-old bestselling author. At the 5th Annual Women in the World Texas Salon at the Dallas Museum of Art on Monday night, Allende spoke about telling an honest story, the pain of refugees, and how the seeds of the #MeToo movement will germinate. She also touched on aspects of her personal life, like her divorce after 27 years of marriage and online dating at the age of 73.
Listing Allende’s literary accomplishments is enough to make one feel inadequate, no matter the career stage. In 2014, her success culminated when then-President Barack Obama awarded her the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But Allende’s rise took a winding and unusual path and her candor about her beginnings makes her personal narrative that much more humbling to experience. “I didn’t have any confidence, I was just desperate. Just out of despair I tried to get out of there, and do something different,” Allende told Women in the World founder Tina Brown in a one-on-one interview. “As a kid I had this anger inside that I couldn’t explain why I had it or what it was until I stumbled upon feminism.”
“I realized I wasn’t totally crazy,” she added.
But the stories of independent women were never enough. These days, for Allende, stories of refugees and immigrants are urgent, necessary narratives and she believes that fiction can bridge the gap of understanding to those whose never dreamed of needing to leave the place they call home. Her latest novel In the Midst of Winter, published in 2017, features a young undocumented woman from Guatemala as one of the central characters.
“The tragedy [of her character’s life] is so difficult to describe without going overboard. In fiction, the first duty of a writer is to make a story believable, but sometimes reality is not,” she said, because some readers can have a hard time grasping the magnitude of violence, poverty and devastation experienced by some refugees.
These kind of stories are also deeply personal. Allende took her own experience as a political exile to produce her first novel, The House of the Spirits, published in 1982. She was born in Peru, lived in Chile as a child and then fled to Venezuela amid tremendous political turmoil, which her family was involved in, before eventually arriving in California. Brown asked if experience of being banished from her homeland has been a pivotal force her in life. “There are moments in my life where things have happened that have been completely out my control that have moved my life in an unexpected direction. I wouldn’t be a writer today if I had not gone through the experience of being an exile and political refugee,” she said.
Allende emphasized that leaving is never the first choice. “I had to run away from everything that familiar and dear to me. No one does that just because; they do it because they’re running for their lives,” she said.
Because of this, the work of her foundation has started to focus on refugees. The foundation began in the wake of her daughter Paula’s death, with the money she earned through her memoir Paula, to empower women and girls in Latin America. “People don’t put themselves in this position. Someone who is running away from everything they love because they’re desperate, because they’re running for their lives,” she said.
Exile did bring her one benefit. “The House of the Spirits made me a writer, gave me a voice and changed my life completely, so it wasn’t all bad,” she said. “Then I became an immigrant and the experience was completely different.”
As an immigrant, Allende fell in love with a man she happily divorced after 27 years. In 2015, she told The Guardian that the long-term marriage “died a natural death.” And at the art museum on Monday, she described the process of divorce as “a joyful experience.”
For the reporter covering this interview, it was extraordinary to watch an older woman talking about the joyful ends of long-term relationships and knowing when it’s time to move on. There was also visceral comfort in learning that online dating was a less-than-great experience for someone as accomplished as Allende, too.
After the divorce, when she wanted to try dating again, Allende said she joined Match.com. “What did I write in my profile? ‘Seventy-three-year-old, short, Latino grandmother looking for a partner’? It didn’t work. I didn’t get one reply,” she said to roars of laughter from the audience gathered at the museum.
The evening wouldn’t have been complete without returning to the central feminist conversation of 2018: the #MeToo movement and if it will see success in helping bring about equality. Allende credited professor Anita Hill as an important force, even if her story wasn’t believed by people in power when she came forward.
“Whatever is achieved is a seed that is planted and will happen and germinate in time,” Allende said. “What she planted — that seed — has been essential to support this movement.”
Allende also talked about the art of storytelling, something she has mastered, and discussed what the secret of story-telling is, and moved on to other personal topics, like the death of her mother and the loss of her daughter, and getting plastic surgery. Watch the video above to see her full discussion with Tina Brown along with shorter highlights from the interview.
Caitlin Cruz is a reporter based in Dallas who covers reproductive rights, women, and politics. She’s written for Pacific Standard, Glamour, Rolling Stone, Jezebel, and newspapers around the country. Follow her on Twitter here.
More from the 2018 Dallas salon