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October 2023 Literary Gem: Isabel Allende


This post is dedicated to my mother, who first introduced me to the works of Isabel Allende.


This month’s literary gem does not go to a single work, but to a single writer whose collection of works has spanned decades. Isabel Allende is a literary gem. National Hispanic Heritage Month spans from September 15th to October 15th, but I do not recognize her because she happens to be a Hispanic writer or a Chilean-American. She was my first literary inspiration and continues to inspire me as I build my own literary collection.


It is impossible to discuss Isabel Allende’s work without addressing the circumstances of her life. The mythos that surrounds living through dramatic and unprecedented times is a combination of too much yet not enough information to truly know anything so fact becomes overlaid with rumor, emotion, and trauma. This was certainly the case for any family living in Chile on September 11th, 1973, when General Pinochet overthrew President Salvador Allende in a violent coup, never mind the period of fear that followed with countless assassinations and disappearances of political dissenters. Much like the dates of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, September 11th, 2011, and January 6th, 2021, these dates are engraved in the collective tragedies of American memories. Being half Chilean, over the years I have heard my own family mythos of this tragic period in Chilean history, mostly from my mother, a 13-year-old girl living in Santiago, Chile.


Isabel Allende’s debut novel, The House of the Spirits, originated as a series of letters to her dying grandfather. These political events were not just the current events of her time in Chile; they were her family history. The deposed president, Salvador Allende, was her father’s first cousin. As a journalist, Isabel Allende’s name was among the names of wanted dissenters and she lived in exile in Venezuela to avoid capture. So in her letters to her dying grandfather, The House of the Spirits was born. Allende wrote a masterpiece of magical realism in an effort to make sense of the past and bring light to the universal themes of oppression, liberation, patriarchy, classism, and generational trauma.


I first picked up The House of the Spirits when I was 12 or 13. I found a well-read copy on my mother’s nightstand and was immediately drawn into Allende’s prose and the poverty of protagonist Esteban Trueba’s childhood. Being a kid in the 1990s, I was fortunate that my parents had better things to do than monitor my reading habits. Rife with heavy adult themes including rape, teenage pregnancy, government overthrows, and brutality, it isn’t a book that I imagine would be easily found in school libraries these days. Reading it during these formative years, I remember thinking for the first time that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. It is my first literary inspiration and I remember studying it for the craft of magical realism and the development of its characters, especially Esteban. Reading it was also the first time that I became truly aware of my Chilean heritage. I grew up in Miami, Florida, and I am half Cuban and half Chilean, which means I was already inundated by Cuban culture; in Miami, Chilean culture is a diamond in the rough. My mother was ecstatic that I had emerged from reading the book with a curiosity about her homeland and I can recall many conversations in a small Chilean cafe down the street from Florida International University about Chilean history and culture. For me, The House of the Spirits firmly placed Chile on the map of my mind and became ingrained within my heart as an integral part of my Latina identity.


The House of the Spirits also placed Chile on the map of the world’s attention. Chile is a long and skinny country in South America that borders the Pacific Ocean, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. The events of 1973 are mostly forgotten by the rest of the world. Outside of the export of produce and minerals, Chile doesn’t garner much international attention these days. The drama of the 1970s seems to have faded and when I explored Chile in my early 20s, all that I could find to mark such a momentous historical event was a few plaques of recognition in Santiago’s city square. What makes this period of history so worthy of remembrance is its value as a cautionary tale of the disruption of the democratic process by dissenters. It is a lesson that is still timely today to those who wish to defend democracy.


Beyond The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende’s catalog of books includes 26 titles, has been translated into over 40 languages, and sold over 77 million copies worldwide. She didn’t publish The House of the Spirits until she was forty and once she did, she didn’t stop writing, a fact that inspires me more these days. Her literary prowess is no one-hit wonder. I have continued to read her works over the years and she still draws me into worlds real and imagined. Her memoir, Paula, about her daughter’s treatment and complications with porphyria (a liver disorder) that ultimately resulted in her death, is painfully relatable given my daughter’s medical complications and hospitalizations from Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome; it revealed to me the universality of a mother’s grief at her child’s bedside, which I read decades before I could even imagine myself as a mother. Still, The House of the Spirits is my personal favorite of her collection.


In The House of the Spirits, Esteban’s granddaughter, Alba, discovered the countless notebooks of her grandmother Clara. “At times I feel as if I had lived all this before and that I have already written these very words, but I know it was not I: it was another woman, who kept her notebooks so that one day I could use them. I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously. ... That's why my Grandmother Clara wrote in her notebooks, in order to see things in their true dimension and to defy her own poor memory.” This line is one of my favorites because it describes the compulsion of writers to simply write and observe instead of just live and experience the moments as they are. This line also inspired me to start journaling in middle school and today, I have boxes upon boxes of notebooks filled cover to cover about truly anything.


Today, Allende is 81 and still writing with the same fervor as she did when she started. She always starts her next book on January 8th, and she writes with the diligence of habit and dedication to art. Just as her start in her 40s inspires me to persevere, her continuation to write is also a great inspiration and contribution to the literary arts.


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Guest
Oct 05, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Beautifully written! She is a personal favorite of mine, as well. And not just because my father was born and raised in Santiago. Allende’s writing is magical and transformative. Thank you for sharing your blog with me. Excited to read more! ~Danielle (Leia’s Mom)

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Vanessa Forisha
Vanessa Forisha
Oct 06, 2023
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Thank you!

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