Allende Examines the Caribbean’s Chaotic History Through New Novel

May 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with best-selling author Isabelle Allende about colonialism and slavery in the 19th century Caribbean, and the links between New Orleans and Haiti.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a new novel about the New World from a veteran storyteller.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with writer Isabel Allende. Here’s our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the early 19th century, amid colonial powers and slavery in a chaotic period of Caribbean history. It also involves two places very much in the news in our own time, Haiti and New Orleans.

Author Isabel Allende has been an international bestselling writer since the 1982 publication of “The House of the Spirits.” And she joins me now.

Welcome to you.

ISABEL ALLENDE, Author, “Island Beneath the Sea”: Thank you for having me, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why did you want to return to historical fiction in this particular story?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I like historical fiction. I fell in love with New Orleans the first time I visited it. And I wanted to place a story in New Orleans.

Never imagined that half of the book would happen in what is today Haiti. The flavor, the French flavor of New Orleans comes from 10,000 refugees that escaped from the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue and went to New Orleans. And so the two places are joined historically.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you start something like this, how much research goes into it? How long does that take? What is the process?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Four years of research, but before I have the voice of the protagonist in my head, I can’t write the book.

And the idea of writing a historical novel is to have the research and don’t show it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Don’t show it.


JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t want people just reading this as though it is a historical text.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes. You don’t want to show the knots.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how do you that?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I’m interested in how people lived, because the historical events are in the history books. Everybody knows about (INAUDIBLE) but how did people live in the plantations? What did they eat? How many slaves were there? How were they treated? What was the code black, the black code? All that is interesting.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, then, you take the research and you create these vibrant characters, in particular in this one most of all is Zarite, called Tete.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right? Tell us about her.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I think she existed, because I had a dream about her. I think I saw her. I can describe her to you exactly, this tall African woman with very short hair.

JEFFREY BROWN: Came to you in a dream?

ISABEL ALLENDE: She came in a dream, long hands, elongated eyelids, beautiful, self-contained. I just know who she is. She came with a voice and a name. And I Googled Zarite to see. Doesn’t exist. So, she came with her name.

JEFFREY BROWN: But where was this in the process? Now I’m really curious about the process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was this after you had started the research into the period?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I had the research. I had the research.


ISABEL ALLENDE: But I didn’t have her. Without her, I couldn’t write the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then what happens? You build up…

ISABEL ALLENDE: As soon as she appeared, then she started talking. I could hear her voice. I could see her story. And the story just went, flowing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she and others in this book fit into something you have long done, which is sort of put women into a more central place than they usually have in history books.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I’m interested in people who have to overcome obstacles, people who are not sheltered by the umbrella of the establishment, marginals.

Women are usually in that position. They are the poorest of the poor, the ones that suffer the most in terms of war, of repression, of poverty. And so they interest me. And they are much more interesting then men in general.


JEFFREY BROWN: Well — well, I won’t go there.

JEFFREY BROWN: But now, of course, you have this resonance with what happened in Haiti, something you clearly couldn’t have known about when you started.

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. It’s an eerie coincidence, because, really, the book was published a year ago in other languages. So now that it’s coming out in English, Haiti is in the news, because of this earthquake, this catastrophe.

And now New Orleans is in the news because of the oil spill.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So, what layers does that add for you to the story that you set out to tell of history?

ISABEL ALLENDE: It gives me a bad feeling, because maybe I — it’s bad luck that I bring to the places. Who knows.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what does it tell you about, I mean, the long — we look at what happened in Haiti, and we have a general sense of the centuries that are behind it. But you actually did the research and looked hard at that place.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, so I know more of the past, but I can’t explain how poor Haiti is today. It was the richest colony that France had. One-third of the income of France came from Haiti at a certain point. It was a rich land.

And now it’s — erosion has taken care of it. It’s poor. It has no infrastructure. And yet it’s the same people, wonderful, creative, resilient, courageous people. So, what happens in a place? I can’t explain it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were also just telling me before we started about this theme of slavery, which is where you are starting here and exploring, is very much alive today as well.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, yes, but nobody talks about it, because no country admits that there is slavery in the country. And there is slavery everywhere, including in the United States.

And I’m not talking about sex slaves trafficking in Southeast Asia. I’m talking about whole villages that live in debt bondage, for example, a million people in Pakistan that live like slaves in what is — they don’t call it slavery, but it is the same thing. Children that are sold — in Haiti today, there are 300,000 children that are domestic slaves given by the families or sold by the families, because they cannot feed them. And these children 5, 6 years old do all the domestic work, treated terribly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of listening to you talk about these current issues reminds me that you started as a journalist.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, like you.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now, is it true that — and I read this, and it seems incredible to me — Pablo Neruda, you were interviewing him, and he told you, you would make a better novelist than a journalist?

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. He said, “You are a lousy journalist.”

JEFFREY BROWN: He said, “You are a lousy journalist”?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Because you make up things. You lie all the time. You can never be objective. Why don’t you switch to literature, where all these things are assets?

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? And the rest is history.


JEFFREY BROWN: Wow, and quite history — quite a history.

Isabel Allende’s new book is “Island Beneath the Sea.”

Thanks very much.