Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru. She is the author of twenty-three books in her native Spanish, which have been translated into thirty-five languages. Her award-winning works include The House of the Spirits, City of the Beasts and the international bestseller, Paula.
Allende has received numerous awards, including the 2010 Chilean National Prize for Literature and the 2014 United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1996 – in memory of her daughter, Paula – Allende established the Isabel Allende Foundation to support initiatives aimed at preserving the rights of women and children.
‘People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything.’
Q. What really matters to you?
It’s people – women especially. I have been a feminist – a feminine feminist – all my life, and my main mission has been to care for women; I have a foundation that works for the empowerment of women and girls. Justice matters to me. And stories – I love to listen to people’s stories.
Q. What brings you happiness?
Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
On a universal level – speaking outwardly – I would say that there are many depths of misery, but the worst is probably slavery. When you are a victim of absolute power and are living in constant fear, that is the worst.
On a personal level, I would say that the lowest depth of misery is when something happens to your child and you have absolutely no power to control it. It is when your child is behind a door and you don’t know what someone is doing to her – when you have no say, when you can’t be there and when you can’t even touch her.
My daughter, Paula, had a rare genetic condition called porphyria, which my son and my grandchildren also have. It is manageable and should not be lethal at all. Paula took very good care of herself but, when she was newly married and living in Madrid, she had a porphyria crisis. She went to the hospital, and they f**ked up the whole thing: they gave her the wrong drugs so she fell into a coma, then they didn’t monitor the coma, then they tried to hide their negligence.
For five months, I lived in the corridors of the hospital waiting for them to bring my daughter back to me, and everybody kept promising that she would open her eyes and recover. She suffered severe brain damage. By the time they admitted this and gave me back my daughter, I decided to bring her back to the United States. She was married, but her husband was a young man who couldn’t take care of her. I told him that, in her condition, she was like a newborn baby. I said, ‘Give her back to me.’ He did – that’s something that I will always be grateful for. I was able to bring her back to California on a commercial flight – today that would be impossible, but this was before 9/11. I sectioned off a part of the plane, and we flew with a nurse and all the necessary equipment.
But how do you come into a country with a person who can’t apply for a visa? We came to Washington, DC, where Senator Ted Kennedy sent two people from his staff to wait for me at the airport – I don’t know how, but they got us in. When we got to California, we went directly to the hospital. After a month, it was absolutely certain that Paula wasn’t going to react to anything. She was in a vegetative state, so I brought her home and decided that I would take care of her – because that’s what mothers do. I created a little hospital in the house, and I trained myself – we had her there until she died.
That experience, culminating in Paula’s death, changed me completely. It happened when I turned fifty, which is the end of youth. Menopause followed, so it hit me at a moment when I was ready to change, to finally mature. Up to that point, I had been an internal adolescent. It made me throw everything that was not essential in my life overboard. I let go of everything. With Paula, for example, I let go of her voice, of her charm, of her humour. I cut her hair short, then, eventually, I let go of her body and her spirit, then everything was gone. I learned the lesson that I am not in control.
People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything. When we go, we have nothing and we can take nothing with us. Paula gave me many gifts: the gift of generosity, the gift of patience and the gift of letting go – of acceptance.
Because there are things you can’t change: I couldn’t change the military coup in Chile or the terror brought about by Pinochet; I can’t change Trump; I can’t change the fate of my grandchildren; I can’t change Paula’s death; I can’t even change my dog!
Now, no matter what happens, it is nothing by comparison to the experience of Paula’s death. I loved my husband intensely, for many, many years, but two years ago we separated. When people wanted to commiserate, I thought, ‘This is not even 10 per cent of what I went through with Paula.’ Nothing could be so brutal, to me, at least. It gave me freedom, in a way. It gave me strength and an incredible resilience I never had before.
Prior to that, many things could have wiped me out. ‘Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.’
Q. What would you change if you could?
I would change the patriarchy – end it! All my life, I have worked towards a more egalitarian world, one in which both men and women are managing our global society – a place in which feminine values are as important as masculine values.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with? Generosity. Years ago, my therapist said that I had very low self-esteem. He told me to go to ten people and ask them to write five things about me – whatever they wanted. It was a very difficult thing to request from people; it seemed like an exercise in vanity and narcissism, but I did it. Everybody mentioned generosity as my first trait, so maybe there is something true in that. The mantra of my foundation is, ‘What is the most generous thing to do?’ This is because of my daughter. She was a very special person and a psychologist. Whenever I was going through something trying, she would ask me what the most generous action I could take was. She used to say, ‘You only have what you give.’