Why Isabel Allende, at 75, tries to make a difference every day | Books | DW | 02.08.2017
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Why Isabel Allende, at 75, tries to make a difference every day

At 75, Isabel Allende, one of the world's most widely read Spanish-language authors, continues to fight for the empowerment of women - and is releasing a new novel this fall.

She has written 23 books, which have been sold some 70 million times and translated into 35 languages. She has received 60 awards in 15 countries for her work, and two international film productions have been based on her novels.

Those are some of the hard facts about Isabel Allende, Chile's most internationally successful writer. But, as she writes on her own website, they don't tell the whole story.

"It is very strange to write one's biography because it is just a list of dates, events, and achievements," she writes. "In reality, the most important things about my life happened in the secret chambers of my heart and have no place in a biography."

In fact, she doesn't even consider her books to be her biggest success, but rather the love she shares with her family and the opportunities she's had to help others. She did just that, for example, during August Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile when she spoke out for those who were politically persecuted, and continues to help others with her Isabel Allende Foundation, which seeks to empower women.

Isabel Allende in 1985 (VICTOR ROJAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Isabel Allende in her house in Caracas in 1985

Allende, who turns 75 on August 2, continues to be politically active. A US citizen and long-time resident of California, she has been critical of the new US president.

"I don't know whether the American institutions are strong enough to withstand the influence of this wild bull who doesn't know how to govern," she said in an interview with DW, adding that Donald Trump is the worst thing that could have happened to the US.

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An unforgettable first novel

Nevertheless, it is the Chilean author's books that have made her world-famous - in particular, her 1982 debut novel, "The House of the Spirits." The partially autobiographical drama is about the upper-middle class family Trueba, which suffers under the thumb of violent patriarch Esteban Trueba.

When a military coup removes the socialist president from power, Trueba puts his hopes in the new government - but is quickly disappointed. Terror and persecution sweep across the country, and the Trueba family is not spared.

Former Chilean President Salvador Allende (picture-alliance/dpa)

Former Chilean President Salvador Allende was ousted by a military coup

When Isabel Allende wrote her family drama in 1982, she had already left Chile and was living in exile in Venezuela. Her great-uncle, Salvador Allende, was the president of Chile, but was ousted by Pinochet's military dictatorship in 1973 and subsequently committed suicide.

At that point, Isabel Allende no longer felt safe in Chile.

Empowering women

Allende was born on August 2, 1942 in Lima as the oldest daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her parents separated and she spent a good part of her childhood living with her grandfather.

She later lived in Bolivia and Lebanon before returning to Chile, where she worked as a journalist, got married, and had two children, daughter Paula and son Nicolás.

Her daughter Paula died of a metabolic disorder in 1992 at the young age of 29. In 1994, she dealt with her death in a very personal novel, called "Paula." In 1996, she established her Isabel Allende Foundation in Paula's honor, dedicated to empowering women and girls.

Allende has actively supported women's rights for many years. In 1968, she was one of founding editors of the feminist magazine "Paula" with the support of her great-uncle Salvador Allende.

Meryl Streep (right) starred in the film version of Allende's The House of the Spirits (Imago/United Archives)

Meryl Streep (right) starred in the film version of Allende's "The House of the Spirits"

She also wrote stage plays and made a name for herself as a television presenter before immigrating to Venezuela.

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Life in exile

While in exile, she began writing an imaginary letter to her deceased grandfather. She later developed the text into her novel "The House of the Spirits," which was filmed in 1993, starring Meryl Streep and Winona Ryder.

Right from the beginning, Allende's unique way of weaving together fiction and reality became apparent - a style called magical realism. She mixed the horrors of reality with a fantasy world full of magic that was always full of hope.

Critics have accused her of copying the works of Columbian Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, who developed magical realism. Nevertheless, her epic tales of strong women won her the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2010. 

Allende is seen presenting her new book, In the Midst of Winter, in Spain in June (Getty Images/AFP/P.-P. Marcou)

Allende is seen presenting her new book, "In the Midst of Winter," in Spain in June

'I still feel like a Chilean'

Allende has lived in the United States for over two decades now, where she married for the second time. But, as she told DW, Chile remains her home. "I still feel like a Chilean. My parents are Chilean, my family is Chilean and I spent the first years of my life - important, shaping years - in Chile."

Her most most recent novel, "In the Midst of Winter," to be released in October, is about an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who makes her way to the US and a courageous, optimistic Chilean journalist who reflects the author herself.

"When I was young, I often felt desperate," she writes on her website. "So much pain in the world and so little I could do to alleviate it! But now I look back at my life and feel satisfied because few days went by without me at least trying to make a difference."

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