In her latest novel, "The Island Beneath the Sea," writer Isabel Allende explores the history behind two places that have dominated the news recently: Haiti and New Orleans. While she did not know that earthquakes and oil spills would eventually devastate those places when she wrote the novel, her historical research gave her unique insight into the stories of their people.
In planning her novel, Allende first conducted several years of intensive historical research about the places she would write about, discovering their link through 10,000 slaves who escaped what is now Haiti during a revolt and fled to what would become modern-day New Orleans. Allende says the main character in her novel, a slave woman named Zarite, came to her in a dream, complete with a name. Allende placed a woman at the center of her story because, she says, "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."
Allende's novel also highlights a problem that she says is still present in today's world: slavery. She cites examples of child bondage in Haiti and other impoverished nations, where families cannot feed their children and sell them into slavery.
"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." - Novelist Isabel Allende
"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." - Novelist Isabel Allende
"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...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." - - Novelist Isabel Allende
1. What do you know about the history of Haiti?
2. What do you know about the history of New Orleans?
3. What disasters happened in Haiti and New Orleans recently?
4. What is historical fiction? How is it different from fiction or history books?
1. What did you learn about Haiti and New Orleans from this conversation?
2. What did you learn about the process of writing historical fiction?
3. Have you ever tried to write a short story or another work of fiction? If so, how did the characters come to you? What was the process of inventing characters like?
4. Do you agree with Allende's statement that women are usually in the position of being marginalized and "not sheltered by the umbrella of the establishment”? Why or why not? Can you give examples?
5. What do you think happened to Haiti to change it from one of the richest colonies to one of the poorest places on the planet?
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