It happened mid-conversation which was somehow even more embarrassing. This is how I screwed up.
There is a scene in the novel where one of the main characters, Lucía Maraz, recalls the violent military coup of 1973 that resulted in the overthrow of then Chilean president Salvador Allende. I asked Isabel Allende if it was still difficult for her to relive that moment of her past, and I referred specifically to the death of her father.
“He wasn’t my father, he was my uncle,” she clarified politely, and I have never been more eager for the ground to swallow me whole.
You may not believe I did my research, but the truth is that I did know full well that Salvador Allende was her uncle (her father’s first cousin, actually) because it was a question in my final exam of Latin American literature in college about The House of Spirits. I started answering the question well enough, but at one point I mistyped and wrote that Salvador Allende was the author’s father, and it just stuck.
My professor marked the whole question wrong, bringing my whole grade down to a C.
This rather nefarious episode of my academic life must have stuck in my head in the worst possible way, only to blurt it out in conversation with Isabel Allende herself more than twenty years later. But my admiration for her grew twofold when she continued the interview without missing a beat, talking about a moment which she still vividly remembers.
“It’s a story I know by heart. It would be impossible to write about that time in Chile and not mention it, because it was such a decisive moment in the history of my country and my life,” Allende said. “Without the military coup, I would have been a journalist in Chile, as I was, and a very happy one. But the political circumstances forced me to leave Chile and find refuge in Venezuela where I eventually became a writer. My whole life, and that of my children changed because we had to leave Chile. I was just one of the millions of people affected by the coup.”
Being born in Venezuela, I was particularly interested that In the Midst of Winter Allende makes a point of reference to it being a haven of refuge for many Chileans who were escaping the military dictatorship after the fall of Salvador Allende’s government. Now it seems to have become the reverse, with many Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic and political downfall.
“I love Venezuela, I have family and friends there. We now see thousands of Venezuelans arriving in Chile, trying to get away from the chaos happening in their own country, which makes me very sad,” Allende said. “But Chile is a refuge for many other countries like Haiti, Peru, Colombia. Migrants are moving from one place to another in Latin America, much more than they used to. “
Titled after a quote by the French philosopher and author Albert Camus, In the Midst of Winter details the lives of three very different people intersecting because of a random event. Lucía is an academic lecturer from Chile in her sixties, living in Brooklyn as a guest professor and feeling every bit her age. Richard Bowmaster, Lucía’s colleague, is a lonely man who survives in the company of his three cats and eludes human companionship as much as possible, including Lucia’s for whom he feels a begrudging attraction and undeniable admiration.
One night during a violent snow storm, Richard is involved in a car accident with Evelyn Ortega, a young undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who turns up at Richard’s doorstep later that night pleading for help. Realizing that Evelyn doesn’t speak much English and is visibly frightened, he calls on Lucía for help.
As Evelyn’s tragic story unfolds, being forced to leave her native Guatemala after enduring a violent assault by local gangs, Richard and Lucía find themselves confiding their own stories and past tragedies to Evelyn (and to each other) so they can put her at ease.
Out of all the characters, Allende felt a deep connection with Lucía. “I felt very close to her, because her story and mine are similar. I understand how she feels about turning sixty, and feeling older, looking at herself in the mirror and seeing a person that is aging,” Allende said. “Evelyn I felt I knew well because through my foundation (the Isabel Allende Foundation, which promotes fundamental rights for women and children), I’ve seen cases like hers and met people in her situation.
With Richard, it was so difficult to make him likeable, because I wanted him to be impossible, to be the kind of guy that is single, has cats, a hypochondriac who protects his secluded life. And yet, I had to make him somehow charming. That wasn’t easy because he really was a total jerk!”
Allende tackles the difficult and very much debated topic of immigration and the refugee crisis, and I asked her if the current political climate had inspired her to write her new novel. “No,” she stated firmly. “I started the book on Jan. 8 of last year (2016) when Donald Trump was not even a candidate, and he wasn’t president yet by the time I had finished it.” Allende said “But the issues that Trump picked up on, were already there, he didn’t invent anything. Anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia, misogyny, all that was already there. Working with immigrants and refugees I see cases like those of Evelyn Ortega constantly.”
She continued to say that the writing process is more or less the same for all her novels, regardless of the topic. “I research as much as I need to. In this case, I didn’t need to research that much because the story is a very contemporary one,” Allende explained. “I always try to imagine the lives of each one of the characters and the story that links them.”
Allende is also methodical about the time of day when she sits down to write and the structure within the narrative. “I write in the morning because I’m usually better working during the day, not so much at night,” Allende said. “I try to write as fluid and loosely as possible because I want things to move so I don’t force (the writing) too much. When I tell a story, I try to be as free as if I were dancing.”
Allende’s earlier works were known for the narrative device of magical realism, so often associated with Latin American literature through the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Romulo Gallegos and Isabel Allende herself. Works like The House of Spirits and The Stories of Eva Luna kept her, as least in my mind, as a staple of what magical realism signifies. When I asked her if she was stepping away from it, her reply was swift and to the point.
“Absolutely not. But you know, magical realism is not like salt and pepper that you can sprinkle on everything. It fits in some stories and it just doesn’t fit others. For example, in this novel, there is only one scene which could be perhaps defined as magical realism, but even that has another explanation.”
I wondered if there was a message Isabel Allende wanted to leave readers with In the Midst of Winter, something to think about after they’ve finished it.
“I want readers to mostly think about the stories because that’s what brings people together. I think that if you talk immigration without thinking of the stories, it’s just numbers. “
She continued to say that many people tend to conveniently forget that their own grandparents were immigrants, who left everything behind looking for a better life. “Immigration has become a political issue, a national issue that’s totally abstract. But when you hear one story, you see one face and that face has a name, then everything changes,” Allende said firmly. “There is a moment in the book when an immigration officer says to Evelyn Ortega: ‘You’ll have to tell this story to the judge, and judges have heard this same story many times. Some of them believe it, and some don’t.’
“But why have judges heard this story many times?” Allende continues, “Because it happens time and time again. There is a reason why these people leave their countries. There were no Syrian refugees in Europe before the horror in Syria started, forcing millions of people out. Why do we get people from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras? Because that is the Triangle of the North, the most violent place on Earth that is not at war.
These countries have been taken over by narcos, gangs, police and military corruption, by inefficient governments that have a history of genocide against poor and indigenous citizens.”
Isabel Allende ends our conversation with a final thought about the novel. “If any of my readers, the next time they think or read about immigration, remember that these are real people and that each of them have a story, then maybe we can start having a real conversation about it.”