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literary inklings

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Guest Post: Berenice Parra Honors Isabel Allende on Her 70th Birthday

Today I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to host a guest post from my dear friend, Berenice Parra. Knowing how she counts literary great Isabel Allende among her inspirations I thought it would be thrilling to have her write a guest post here on Literary Inklings in celebration of Allende's birthday today, and she very graciously took on the challenge. Thank you, Bere!

As I travel through life, I gather experiences that lie imprinted on the deepest strata of memory, and there they ferment, are transformed, and sometimes rise to the surface and sprout like strange plants from other worlds. What is the fertile humus of the subconscious composed of? Why are certain images converted into recurrent themes in nightmares or writing?

Isabel Allende, The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir (2008)

How can it be that Isabel Allende turns 70 today? She, with a perpetual adolescent face, her brown eyes that still show a glimpse of hope and happiness even after so much turbulence and a few unimaginable tragedies...Her voice is like that of a friend I always wished I had back when I was a teenager, one trying to grasp the irrationality of a world that promised to be full of surprises, good and bad.

The first time I came in contact with Allende’s work was when I watched The House of The Spirits, a superb film adaptation of her novel of the same title starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. The House of The Spirits was, incidentally, Isabel Allende’s literary debut (!) and remains, to this day, her most famous work. About a year after, I was given the option to read the novel at school. It amazed me how much more complex and personal the novel was when compared to the film – something that I didn’t think possible back then, because the movie had really struck me in many levels. One of the elements I loved the most about The House of The Spirits was how she chronicled the story of the Truebas, putting all events in proper order, turning the narrator into a chronicler of a story that was as real as it was supernatural. Many of these elements brought to mind García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is in no way a bad thing, but what really set Allende’s story apart was the focus on the female characters. From then on, in almost all of her novels, women are the guiding forces behind each story. They are painted by Allende as sorcerers, priestesses, midwives, adventurers, witches, daring pirates, rebels seductresses and/or martyrs who have all the knowledge of life, nature, the ways of the world and the whereabouts of spirits in the underworld. Isabel Allende’s novels are, most of all, stories about women, and for women – if not, at least for the feminine part in each of us, regardless of our gender.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende The House of the Spirits

Almost a decade ago I ventured into teaching for a couple of years. One of the options for my students to read was, of course, Isabel Allende’s The House of The Spirits. This fifteen year old girl asked me if she could read City of the Beasts, which is Allende’s first young-adult novel, a wonderful story filled with adventure and romance, set largely in the Amazon rainforest. How was I supposed to refuse? My student finished the novel with interest and went on to read the following novel of the saga, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon. I’d say that the ultimate test for an author is being able to engage a new audience – Isabel Allende accomplished this in a beautiful way.

There is more to Isabel Allende’s work than make-believe, romance, idealism and beauty, of course. It is impossible not to realize how deeply the political situation in Chile affected her life and her work. Her uncle, Salvador Allende, was the president of Chile and he was murdered in unclear circumstances during the coup that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in the early 1970s. This event altered her whole life and that of her family: she had to seek asylum in Venezuela and later on she moved to the United States. She revisits these turbulent times in many of her works such as the aforementioned The House of The Spirits, as well as Of Love And Shadows. She addresses them at length in her 2003 memoir, My Invented Country.

The other event which marked Allende’s life forever, the most painful one, was the illness and death of her daughter, Paula, due to porphyry. Isabel Allende has written about it many times, most notably in her book Paula, which began as a long letter Allende wrote so that her daughter wouldn’t be confused about what had happened once she woke from the coma. Sadly, she never woke up. The days kept passing, with Paula still asleep, and Isabel kept writing the whole time. This book is a tribute to Paula’s memory, and it reads like an actual conversation, in which Isabel Allende addresses her daughter, only to be greeted by silence, a somber preamble to what is coming next.

'I'm lost, I don't know who I am, I try to remember who I was once but I find only disguises, masks, projections, the confused images of a woman I can't recognize. Am I the feminist I thought I was, or the frivolous girl who appeared on television wearing nothing but ostrich feathers? The obsessive mother, the unfaithful wife, the fearless adventurer, or the cowardly woman? Am I the person who helped political refugees find asylum or the one who ran away because she couldn't handle fear? Too many contradictions ...' 'You're all of them, and also the samurai who is battling death.' 'Was battling, Juan. I've lost.'- Paula

Author Isabel Allende Portrait of the author by Grant Delin

It took many years for Allende to recover from this horrible experience. This is confirmed in the more recent memoir The Sum Of Our Days, in which Isabel Allende also writes about Paula’s passing and how she learned to grasp the notion that Paula had died, while also sharing many other personal events, chronicling how her life has changed course a thousand times, facing chaos in numerous occasions, until Allende comes to the conclusion that the very essence of life is change and that all we can do is to live each one deeply, consciously, whether they are joyful or sad, chaotic or schemed, light or heavy. Her lessons have always helped me through tough times, and isn’t that one of the highest purposes of Literature, and Art for that matter: to lift people higher so they are able to face life head-on?

So today, on Isabel Allende’s 70th birthday, I remind myself that age is only a number, a mere mechanism to keep track of our lives in the simplest, clumsiest way possible. Isabel Allende will always keep that rebellious spirit, the curious voice, the subtle madness of a young girl who writes as the world crumbles around her, and then tries to rebuild each event through words and memories. It’s not a surprise that her beginnings as a writer took place while translating romance novels from English to Spanish – she used to alter the manuscripts so that the heroines had a smarter, more independent voice and she also modified the endings sometimes providing them with a more meaningful, inspiring and feminist tone. She was shortly fired after this was discovered.

Gotta’ love her, right?

About Berenice Parra
Berenice is the author of the blogs The Gourmet Dilettante (formerly ArtFashion) and Songs for Stories. She writes, dreams and works as a social media professional in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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Titles mentioned in this article: The Sum of Our Days | The House of the Spirits | City of the Beasts | Kingdom of the Golden Dragon | Of Love and Shadows | My Invented Country | Paula