Isabel Allende talks about migration, life, aging and love

NEW YORK (AP) — Over the last year, Isabel Allende has been coping with loss and grief after the passing of her mother, a stepfather whom she “adored”, and an ex-husband. But not everything was bad, she says: “On the other hand, I also got married last year.”

At 77, the Chilean author still believes in love. “I am not afraid of it,” she says laughing when mentioning her third nuptials, to New York lawyer Roger Cukras.

She also published her 17th novel and 24th book, “A Long Petal of the Sea.”

It follows Victor and Roser, a couple fleeing the Spanish Civil War. The writer places them among the 2,000 refugees aboard the real-life SS Winnipeg, an old cargo ship arranged by the poet Pablo Neruda to bring Spanish exiles to Chile.

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It is the third novel about refugees, displacement and migration by Allende, who was born in Peru, raised in Chile and lived in exile in Venezuela before settling down in California about 30 years ago.

In an interview with the AP, Allende spoke enthusiastically about her life, work and her own unconventional loves.

AP: “A Long Petal of the Sea” presents what Neruda did to save 2,000 Spanish refugees in the Winnipeg to a new generation. You have said that Neruda advised you to quit journalism and pursue literature. Did you want to honor him in some way with this novel?

ALLENDE: It was impossible not to honor him, because all the Winnipeg odyssey was the workmanship of Neruda. Neruda followed the Spanish Civil War closely because he loved Spain, he had friends among the intellectuals and the artists of Republican Spain, and when the drama of half a million refugees at the frontier with France erupted, he convinced the Chilean government to let him bring immigrants to Chile, Spaniards who were in concentration camps in France. In Chile, the right wing and the Catholic Church opposed their coming because they were all leftists, many of them atheists, known for allegedly burning churches and raping nuns. … The narrative, the anti-immigration rhetoric in 1939 Chile, was exactly the same as the one we are seeing right now in the United States. So, Neruda not only convinced the government, he also went to Paris, raised the money, bought a cargo ship that was somewhat dilapidated, transformed it in a passenger’s ship and transported 2,000 people.

AP: In the notes of the book, it says that you first heard about Neruda’s “ship of hope” as a kid. How did it affect you?

ALLENDE: I heard about the arrival of Spanish republicans in Chile because, even though it happened before I was born, it was shortly before I was born, and some of those people were friends of my family. I would see them coming for lunch, or for dinner… It didn’t make a big impression on me back then… But when I was in Venezuela, among the thousands of exiles was a Chilean man named Victor Pey Casado, who was one of the passengers of the Winnipeg and was living in his second exile. He told me everything that he went through. He was the one who really consolidated the story for me. It took 40 years before I wrote it.

AP: You have been an immigrant for most of your life. Where have you found the biggest sense of belonging?

ALLENDE: California is where I’ve lived the longest, but when you ask me where I am from, I tell you I am from Chile. And I wasn’t even born in Chile! I spent only part of my childhood there, but apparently those years marked me so much that I feel Chilean. But, if you ask me about my roots, I would say that my roots are in my memories, in the books that I’ve written, in the people that I love.

AP: Speaking of Chile, it seemed one of the most stable countries in Latin America. Suddenly we’ve seen its streets covered in flames and tear gas. How do you explain this?

ALLENDE: I think the Chilean situation, that seems so unexpected, could bring very positive transformation. Over the years, the indignation of the people has grown, and it exploded with the rise of the Metro by the equivalent of 15 cents of a dollar, more or less. But people were outraged, and they expressed it. What is going to happen? Vary good things can come out of this, or a terrible leader can rise and lead the country into chaos.

AP: What do you miss most about the Chile of your childhood and youth?

ALLENDE: Look, the Chile of my childhood doesn’t exist. I wrote a book titled “My Invented Country” precisely because the country of my memory doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t miss anything because I did not have a happy childhood by any means. But the years I worked as a journalist in Chile were the years when I had my two children, was just married, those were happy years in which I felt that I was participating, that I belonged. All that ended the day of the military coup (in 1973). In 24 hours the country changed. Forces that always existed but that we didn’t see coming emerged, and it became a fascist dictatorship. How did that happen without us noticing? I don’t know. That’s why today’s situation in Chile scares me, because it can go either way.

AP: The love story in “A Long Petal of the Sea” is somewhat unconventional, starting with a marriage arranged for survival reasons. What has been your most unconventional love?

ALLENDE: I have had three husbands, but maybe my most unconventional relationship was when I fell in love with an Argentine musician and I left my family, I left my children, my husband, and went after him to Spain. I mean, that was absolutely crazy and I regret it very much. I regret it because I inflicted a lot of pain in my children. It took a lot for them to forgive me. That was my least conventional love, but now I am also in an unconventional situation having fallen in love at 74 and marrying at 77.

AP: What do you feel when you see all your achievements and love from your readers?

ALLENDE: I am very moved by the affection from the readers, and the way they write to me fills me with emotion and warmth. But when I’m told that I have sold 75 million copies, that happens in another circle, in a different dimension that doesn’t touch my private life. … I live in a tiny, one-bedroom house, I drive a small car, I have two ordinary dogs, (rescued) from the Humane Society, of course. My life is still the same.

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