Few authors have had as global an impact as Isabel Allende, a writer with over 20 works published in 30 languages. Not only do Allende’s works reach a global audience, but they also appeal to universal human experiences and emotions. A distinguished writer and speaker, she made a perfect addition to Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures’ Ten Evenings, a series of author lectures meant to “create community through the literary arts.” As in her writing, Allende shared valuable and heartfelt lessons during her talk at Carnegie Music Hall. These lessons covered how to be a better writer, American citizen, and person overall. Through dialogue, Allende honestly divulged her thoughts on political controversies, the refugee experience, the necessity of grief, and the joy of falling in love no matter one’s age. Intelligent, charming, and bitingly funny, Allende is the elegant mentor we’ve all been looking for.
While Allende spoke on many subjects, this particular visit to Pittsburgh was in support of her new novel, In the Midst of Winter. The novel follows a group of three individuals who, through a chance encounter, are brought out of their personal traumas and into the light. After undergoing a divorce and a series of tragedies herself, including the deaths of various friends, her agent, and her beloved dog, Allende found herself feeling as though “nothing good was ever going to happen.” In the midst of that sorrowful period, she discovered a quote by Albert Camus that reads, “in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” And thus, Allende began to write in hopes that she and her characters would make it through the long, cold winter to their invincible summers.
The characters are clearly informed by Allende’s own experiences, in particular, the story of Evelyn Ortega, a Guatemalan immigrant fleeing a violent past. Allende is deeply familiar with the political turmoil of Latin America and its impact on daily life. She herself fled Chile following the coup in 1973 and has a deep understanding of life as an immigrant. She is also involved in the work of the Isabel Allende Foundation, an organization that strives to end violence towards and exploitation of women and girls. Many women who receive aid from the foundation have shared their stories with Allende, and one such story became the inspiration for Evelyn’s journey.
As for the other two characters, Lucia and Richard, their story depicts the experience of falling in love at an older age. A romance between older characters is rare in popular literature, but the idea of finding love and expressing one’s sexuality later in life is very important to Allende. New love has recently made its way into Allende’s life, in the form of an email correspondence with a man who reached out to the author after hearing her on a radio show. On their first date, (which happened after five months of emailing each other every day) Allende didn’t hold back in asking, “What are your intentions? I’m 74 years old, I don’t have time to waste!”
It was with this same frankness and intensity that Allende approached audience questions submitted later in the night. Questions ranged from, “How do you stay so beautiful?” (to which Allende laughingly replied, “money”) to more serious questions such as, “How can we solve the refugee crises going on all over the world?” While Allende openly admitted she did not have a final answer for such a complex problem, she offered what insight she could. She urged audience members to look at each statistic related to immigration and refugees not as a number but as a person with a name and a story. Allende believes we need to make an effort to understand the reasons people have for leaving and recognize both how difficult it is to leave one’s home and how perilous that journey to a new place can be. “It’s not about building a wall,“ said Allende. “It’s about supporting efforts to improve conditions in countries of origin. It’s about understanding that no one wants to leave their home and that we are all people.”
Allende then went on to share her writing wisdom. The question, “Does everyone have a story?” led to some interesting truths about both fiction and real life. While the author admitted that some people are in fact, boring, it’s all about the way you tell that person’s story. On the other end of the spectrum, Allende admitted that sometimes you have to water down reality instead of building it up. According to Allende, “the first duty of a fiction writer is to trap the reader,” but sometimes reality is too horrific to keep a reader invested and the truth must be diluted into something more manageable.
Allende is no stranger to hard times and hard truths. She has experienced two divorces, the loss of her daughter, years of displacement and many other trials. Through her work, she has encountered individuals with truly heartbreaking stories and unimaginable losses, and as a writer, she carries those stories with her always. Allende speaks with the kind of confidence and omniscience that can only come from knowing the pain and making it through to the other side. When the audience addressed Allende’s life experiences, she was not afraid to acknowledge them. In fact, she announced that each negative and painful event in our lives must be acknowledged and they must be lived in order for times of joy to be so powerful. Our sorrows and pains are just a part of the narrative, but they’re not who the characters are. That attitude is what tied the entire night together.
The final question of the night asked, “With all that’s going on in the world, what gives you hope?”
Allende’s response: “Everything. Everything gives me hope.”
And there lies the power of Isabel Allende and her stories, to push through the pain to find the joy, to acknowledge loss to find new love, and to wait out the winter until the dawn of that invincible summer.