You know that quiz where you identify which person, living or dead, you most wish you could sit next to on a bus? Or as I like to call it, “who’s your Elvis?” Since I was 18 years old the answer to that question has been the same: Chilean author Isabel Allende. I know what you’re thinking — it makes sense, right? A Latina writer idolizing a Latina writer, but I admired her before I ever dreamed of becoming a writer, before I even referred to myself as Latina. I carried a dog-eared copy of her first novel, The House of Spirits, around with me for over a year. Yes, Allende is my Elvis and two weeks ago I got to meet her.
My dear friend Tara arranged for tickets for us and a beloved teacher Bernice to the event at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Tara is a fellow writer and knowing how much this meant to me, she even managed to get back stage passes. As we walked into the lobby of our hotel that afternoon, wheeling our overnight cases behind us, Tara tapped my arm and pointed towards the front desk.
“Isn’t that her? Isn’t that Isabel Allende?”
I glanced over and immediately noticed the tiny, stylish woman walking away from the reception desk, cell phone in hand, high heels clicking across the marble floor. I acted totally on instinct: I hid behind a pole. Now those of you who know me understand that I am about as far from shy as you can get. Hell, I’ll talk to anyone. And it’s not as if I’ve never met a famous writer before, my job at Vermont College of Fine Arts gives me that honor all the time. No, this was a first. I was starstruck. Tara and Bernice watched as I peeked from behind the lobby’s cement column. I only came out after the elevator doors closed behind her, and I looked back to see them smiling at me.
“What?” I whined.
“Nothing,” Bernice and Tara said simultaneously, grinning from ear to ear.
That night Allende read from her new novel, Island Beneath the Sea. As her richly accented voice floated over the heads of the people in front of us, I tried to remove myself from my teenage idolatry and listen as a writer. Yes, the lush language I so adored was still there. The characters you could practically see in front of you, and the Haitian setting so well-rendered you could almost smell the verdant scents of the Caribbean countryside. But I had to admit, at moments I thought, “Wait, she’s telling, not showing. I wish this were told in scene-form,” and “Oh my, was that a cliché?” I suppose 30 years and my MFA studies had removed the forgiving gauze of worship, but I was still hypnotized by her masterful storytelling.
After the reading they removed the podium (along with the box she had stood on — the woman really is diminutive), brought in new furniture and NHPR correspondent Jon Greenberg interviewed her, including questions from the audience. She was brilliant, irreverent, funny and beyond charming. My favorite was when he asked her about her strong female characters. Her response (I’m paraphrasing here), “People are always talking about how I always write such strong women into my books. Well, do you know any weak ones?” And the story followed of her attempting to learn how to ballroom dance (why do white people always want to know if Latinos dance?) and how the lessons were unsuccessful because she couldn’t let her husband lead and ended up punching the leggy, blonde instructor who her husband was so taken with.
As the lights came up I was surprised to find I felt almost normal, like this had been any other good performance. That lasted until we wound our way through the line backstage and I saw her sitting behind the table, pen in hand, smiling at those who pushed their books towards her to sign. I could feel my quickening pulse behind my face, in my fingertips. As I drew closer, my mother’s hardcover copy of House of Spirits in hand, I felt that “hide behind a pole” temptation again. I seriously considered bolting, but the woman whose job it was to move the line forward, took my book and with a smile, put it on the table. Isabel Allende slid my book in front of her, and began to sign, barely glancing up at me. “Buenas noches,” she said with a tired smile.
I heard my words rather than felt them come from my mouth. “Buenas.”
Her eyes lifted and she really looked at me then. I think she was surprised at the Puerto Rican accent. She said something in Spanish.
I was so nervous I didn’t understand her and said something in English, I don’t even know what.
“I asked ‘where are you from,’” she replied in English.
“Ah, de Vermont, pero mi familia es de Puerto Rico.” Oh, from Vermont, but my family is from Puerto Rico. The words tumbled out of their own accord, thank God.
She nodded then, handed my book to me and turned her attention to the next in line.
I took my book and shuffled away, a bit dazed, embarrassed (my Spanish is so damn rusty!), and awed.
I stood with Bernice sipping Irish coffee beside the black stage curtain and watched the crowd of nicely dressed people wind by as they sipped wine and clutched books. The stage lights dimmed but, still glamorous, and sitting right at the heart of all this flurry was a writer. My favorite writer.
“This is the way it’s supposed to be,” I said to Bernice.
“What do you mean?”
“Writers treated like rock stars, lines of autograph seekers for someone who actually has talent.”
But even though Allende was my Elvis, it was as though I had watched the whole event happen to someone else, and as I thought about it, perhaps I had. From the moment I stepped behind that pole I was that insecure teen once again. As I stood there with Bernice I realized I had only just returned to my 47-year-old self (perhaps it was the whiskey in the Irish coffee). I suppose that if we all had the opportunity to meet them, the idols of our youth would almost always disappoint in some way or another. I think part of my fear that night was that I would be disappointed, that perhaps she would be a diva. But as I tucked that signed book into my bag, I knew that it would be among my most treasured items, and that her words would never fail to enthrall me.
So, has my answer to that bus question changed? Not on your life. But I think I’ll brush up on my Spanish. Just in case.