Isabel Allende went into exile after her uncle, Chilean president Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a CIA-assisted coup in 1973. She traveled, worked as a journalist, and wrote her books, “The House of the Spirits,” “Of Love and Shadows,” “Eva Luna,” and “The Stories of Eva Luna.” Her latest novel, “The Infinite Plan,” is set, as is she, in Northern California.
Q: You’ve lived all over the world and traveled extensively. Now that you’ve married an American and you live here, what do you find surprising about the United States?
A: I realize that there is much more to it than I ever thought. It is a very complex society–multiracial, multicultural, with many languages. Americans have a warrior’s mentality, most of them. That’s how this society was built. The fact that you own a gun and shoot to defend your life is a very American way of thinking.
There is also all this spiritual quest, mainly among women. You can afford that, because that’s something you can do when you have passed the stages of survival. In other cultures, women are that the stage of feeding their children. There are many people in this country who also have that as their first prioirity, but there are many who don’t. And those people can afford the luxury of searching for the god or goddess, and worrying about the body, and vitamins, and organic chicken, and the perfect cappuccino.
Q: Given the power of your feeling for women in your writing, especially for the connections they sustain over generations, what do you make of tendencies here for generations–families–to drift apart, to become disconnected?
A: One of the characteristics of North American culture is that you can always start again. You can always move forward, cross a border of a state or a city or a county, and move West, most of the time West. You leave behind guilt, past traditions, memories. You are as if born again, in the sense of the snake: You leave your skin behind and you begin again. For most people in the world, that is totally impossible. We carry with us the sense that we belong to a group, a clan, a tribe, an extended family, especially a country. Whatever happens to you happens to the collective group, and you can never leave behind the past. What you have done in your life will always be with you. So, for us, we have the burden of this sort of fate, of destiny, that you don’t.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both situations. In the United States, the fact that you can start again gives a lot of energy and strength and youth to this country. That is why it’s so powerful in many ways, and so creative. However, it has the disadvantage of loneliness, of individuality carried to an extreme, where you don’t belong to the group and where you can just do whatever you want and never think of other people. I think it’s a great disadvantage–a moral and spiritual and ethical disadvantage.
Q: So how do you see the future for this country, with its separate, isolated peoples and cultures?
A: I’m very optimistic because I think that the real strength of a nation like the United States comes from blending cultures. There’s no way that you can close the frontiers, anywhere. The borders are there to be violated permanently. That is what humankind has been doing, at least during the last century. We are living in an era of communications, of masses of refugees that go back and forth crossing all lands. We see these dark–and what they call brown–people all over, and you can’t stop them, why would you?
I live in Marin County, where a part of the community is fighting against the Latin American immigrants. People are terrified because they see these dark men standing in groups waiting for someone to offer a job. That’s very threatening. Because they don’t know them and don’t understand their ways or their language, they feel that these men are criminals, that they don’t pay their share in this society and yet they benefit. That is not true. They don’t pay taxes, but they don’t benefit.
They come here to do the kind of work that no American will ever do. You will not be able to stop them. They will integrate. Sooner or later, their children will be with the white children in the schools. It’s unavoidable: In 20 years they will be part of this society, just as the Jews are, the Irish, everybody.
Q: How do you work against this fear that people have of foreigners, of threats to their way of life? How do you prevent fear from interfering with growth and expression and learning?
A: The biggest straitjacket is all the prejudices that we carry around, and all the fears. But what if we just surrender to the fear? There are things greater than fear. The great, wonderful quality of human beings is that we can overcome even absolute terror, and we do.
In Venezuela, when I was living there, crime was growing. You couldn’t feel safe anywhere. You couldn’t leave your car in the street because it would be stolen. You coun’t live in your house if you didn’t have a high-security alarm system, because you would be burglarized seven times a week.
Well, all the family got together after they had broken into the house for the seventeenth time and everything had been stolen. And we said, well, how are we going to live? Are we going to put bars on the windows and install an electric alarm system? Are we going to buy guns? We decided we were going to leave the house open and let people come in and steal everything, because we couldn’t live inside our own prison.
Fear is like a black cavern that is terrifying. Once you enter the cavern and explore it, you realize that you can get out of it, go through it and get out of it. Then there’s another cavern that is just as big and terrifying, and you just go in and dwell in it and see what is the worst that can happen.
Last year was a very, very difficult year for me because my daughter was very sick. She was in a coma. If you had told me the day before she fell into the coma that such a thing was going to happen, I would have killed myself. If I had known the amount of pain I would have to endure, I would have killed myself because I would have thought I would never be able to survive this thing –and I wouldn’t have wanted to survive, I would have wanted to die before.
But then, one day at a time, you take it. You go through one week, and the next week; the whole year goes by. And things happen that are so horrible, and they get worse and worse. You think you are going to die at every step, but you don’t die. You survive. Then one day, you are holding your daughter because she’s dying. You hold her, and you hug her, you spend the day and the night with her, and she dies, very peacefully, and you realize that you have not died, that you are there. And the fear is gone, the fear of pain, and the fear of death.
Q: Is your view of the millenium, then, generally positive? What do you envision?
A: I see a more feminine world, a world where feminine values will be validated, the same as masculine values are. A more integrated world.
I see that in the future, things that we have lost in the past will be recovered. There’s a search for those things, a search for spirituality, for nature, for the goddess religions, for family and human bonding. All that has been lost in this industrial era. People are in desperate need of those things. I don’t think the world will destroy itself in a nuclear cataclysm. On the contrary, we have the capacity to save ourselves and save the planet, and we will use it.
From an interview by Bob Baldock and Dennis Bernstein for “Skirting the Brink: America’s Leading Thinkers and Activists Confide Their Views of Our Predicament,” a public radio project in progress.