Isabel Allende charms FIU crowd with honesty, humor, wit

As word spread that beloved Latin American author Isabel Allende would be speaking at FIU, the phones lit up in the English Department. Emails streamed in to Marta Lee, who was taking RSVPS for the Creative Writing Program.

Person after person said the same thing: I am Isabel Allende’s most ardent fan. I am her biggest admirer. I LOVE Isabel Allende.

That’s how it is with some rare artists, Creative Writing professor Debra Dean said as she introduced Allende on March 5 to a crowd of more than 500 in the BBC Ballroom.

Isabel Allende signed copies of her books for hundreds of people following her talk at the Biscayne Bay Campus.

“They reveal themselves to us so open heartedly that we come to think of them as intimates,” Dean said. “We have shared moments of joy and moments of sorrow with them and they have told us all their secrets. Isabel is such a writer…As a consequence, the world is full of her friends and readers.”

In a candid and funny hour-long chat with Dean on stage, Allende revealed even more to her fans. She spoke of how her feminism was born of rage. She shared the story of how, after her daughter Paula died, a visit to India motivated her to establish a foundation in Paula’s honor to protect women and children. There was talk of writing and sex and regrets and loss.

“The person I am is the summary of everything else that has happened, the good and the bad,” Allende said. “Now that I’m 70 years old, I look back and say, ‘What would I change?’ I don’t think I would change anything. Of course, I’d want my daughter to be alive but I am very happy she lived 28 years…The joyful moments don’t teach you anything. It’s the suffering, the stress, the losses that make you the person you are.”

And regrets? “I regret the men I didn’t sleep with out of virtue,” Allende said to raucous laughter and applause. “Virtue is a stupid thing.”

Allende came to FIU to be honored with the Creative Writing Program’s Lawrence Sanders Award, which recognizes fiction writers whose work combines literary excellence with popular appeal. Past recipients are bestselling writers Scott Turow and Pat Conroy.

The award aligns with the Creative Writing program’s emphasis on helping writers connect with the audience they want to reach.

“As I often remind my students, the only place people read books they are not interested in is in college,” said Creative Writing Director Les Standiford during the award presentation. “Given her stellar critical reputation and her enormous world wide appeal Ms. Allende is the very model of the writer we had in mind when this award was conceived.”

The Chilean author’s 19 books — fiction, nonfiction, memoir — have sold more than 57 million copies. Writing memoirs gets her into trouble with her family, Allende said.

“I like to write fiction better than nonfiction because I am a born liar,” she said. “Whatever I write as a memoir is packed with lies. I’m not even aware they are lies. Really I am not. If you think of memory and what you remember, are you sure it happened that way? Memory is very similar to fiction. You highlight certain things. You keep other things in the darkness.”

She writes all her novels in Spanish and has them professionally translated. Dean, whose bestselling novel The Madonnas of Leningrad bears a glowing blurb from Allende, talked with her about translations.

“I’m sadly monolingual and I always have this paranoid assumption that my books in translation are just really, really dreadful,” Dean said.

“Let go of that,” Allende advised. “Because they are awful. And it doesn’t matter. You can’t read them. It’s a blessing. I get copies of my books in languages I didn’t know existed from continents I didn’t know existed.”

So when I read your books in translation, Dean asked, what am I missing?

“Language is like blood. It’s very personal,” Allende said. “More than the language, it’s the culture. When Pablo Neruda writes a poem, An Ode to Bread, it’s untranslatable. Bread in some cultures is life; it’s what gives life. Here it’s white bread. It doesn’t have the same meaning.”

Plot and characters can be translated, Allende said, “But there is always something that is different. I don’t think it’s missed. It’s just different.”

The authors spoke of how writing requires time and private space to create. Allende writes in a pool house in the back of her garden, disconnected from her phone and email. She starts all of her books on January 8. “People think it’s just superstition. It is, partly,” she said. “But it is also discipline.”

The research required before writing can take more time than the actual writing, she explained. Her novel Island beneath the Sea, set in colonial Haiti, took four years to research. “I always think of research as foreplay,” Allende said. “Writing the novel won’t take that long. It’s like intercourse, 11 minutes.”

Without missing a beat, Dean quipped, “I love researching.”

Both Allende and Dean are married to writers. However, Allende pointed out, Dean’s husband Clifford Paul Fetters was a poet when they met. Allende’s husband, William Gordon, was not.

“When I met my husband he was a lawyer. And then he retires and decides to write books to compete with me? What he is thinking?” she said. “I said ‘When I retire I will be a lawyer.’ Now he is writing these shitty novels and getting a lot of good reviews and he’s selling them. I’m really angry at him.”

Allende said they don’t edit each other’s books, largely because hers are in Spanish and his are in English. They do, however, talk about their stories.

“He wrote his first novel when he retired, and it was just awful. It was the story of an oversexed dwarf,” Allende said. “I said, ‘Willy, this is politically incorrect. Who is going to publish this book? Why don’t you start writing what you know about? That is mysteries. Because you’ve been a lawyer, you know about crime, you’re almost a criminal.’ ”

Allende spoke of how her life has been dedicated to empowering women. “I have been a feminist since before the word was invented,” she said. “Chile in the ’40s was the most conservative, most Catholic, patriarchal, authoritarian society and family in which you could ever be born. “

Even as a child, she knew something was wrong. “Why was it my mother was a victim and the men around me had all the power? I was enraged very young and nobody knew what the heck was wrong with me. They took me to the doctors to see if they could give me some pills to calm me down. But it didn’t calm me down. By age 15, I was a raging feminist, but before feminism reached Chile.”

Being feminist, she added, does not mean she doesn’t like men. “I love men,” she said. “Men have been very, very clever to make feminists look like hairy bitches. Very clever. Let me tell you ladies, there is nothing more sexy than being a feminist.”

After Allende’s daughter Paula died in 1992, she published Paula, a memoir that she began as a letter to her daughter. The book was a critically acclaimed bestseller. Allende wasn’t sure what to do with the proceeds from the book so she set them aside. “I didn’t want to touch that money,” she said. “It wasn’t the idea to make money on something like that.”

She took a trip to India with her husband and a friend. In Rajasthan, their car overheated. Allende and her friend took a walk and approached a group of Indian women. “We didn’t share a language but we could still touch. We had bought bracelets in the market and gave the bracelets to the women. It was just lovely.”

As Allende was leaving, one of the women handed her a bundle of rags. “I opened the rags and there was a newborn baby. I blessed the baby and tried to give it back and she backed off.”

Allende’s driver handed the infant back to the mother. She asked him, Why would she give me her baby?

The driver told her: “It was a girl. Who wants a girl?”

That was the moment, Allende said, when she knew that she would use the proceeds from Paula to establish a foundation to protect women and girls.

“That sentence was everything I tried to say all my life – I have tried to say how we don’t value the feminine, how we don’t value women, the violence against women, the exploitation, the abuse,” she said. “I couldn’t save that little girl but at least I could help some other girls.”