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"A Long Petal of the Sea," a new historical novel by renowned writer Isabel Allende, draws upon events spanning from the Spanish civil war to the 1973 coup in her native Chile -- and with resonance for the experience of refugees today. Allende sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss how she drew on facts to tell her story, and why her last three books have dealt with the fates of displaced people.
Finally tonight: Jeffrey Brown has a conversation with a much honored writer, Isabel Allende, whose new novel, "A Long Petal of the Sea," draws upon historical events spanning — spanning from the Spanish Civil War to the 1973 coup in her native Chile as inspiration.
It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.
In 1939, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, then serving as a diplomat, commissioned a ship to help 2,000 Spanish War refugees make their way to Chile.
That and other historical episodes and figures over the next 50 years formed the backdrop of the new novel "A Long Petal of the Sea."
Author Isabel Allende experienced some of that history herself. An internationally renowned writer, her books have sold more than 70 million copies. In 2014, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
And she joins me now.
Nice to talk to you again.
Hi. Nice to talk to you.
You're writing a big, sweeping, multi-character story. You have done this before. That's not new.
But this one is grounded in a very particular history, right?
In one event.
And this is the journey of a ship called Winnipeg, a cargo ship that transported 2,200 refugees from the civil war in Spain to Chile.
And what drew you to this story? What grabbed you?
I heard the story when I was a young kid.
I was born in 1942, and this happened in 1939. But some of those people were friends of my family. So I knew vaguely about it. But I really heard the story from one of the passengers when I was living in Venezuela.
So, there were real people involved.
Real people, yes.
And then you created the characters?
I created the fiction.
But the historical facts are so perfect for a novel that I didn't have to invent anything. It was a book easy to write. Everything was there. It wrote itself. I typed.
That's how it felt? Oh, you typed?
Yes. I just typed.
So, the two main characters are refugees from the civil war. Franco takes over. They're forced to leave to make their way to Chile, right?
Tell me a little bit about what happens to them.
Well, when they cross the border into France as refugees, they end up us as prisoners, practically, in a concentration camp.
The day that Franco attacked Barcelona — and that was the last bastion of the republica — half-a-million people walked to the border of France in a terrible winter day.
And what would France do with half-a-million refugees at the border? Eventually, they let them in, and they put them in concentration camps. It seems like a familiar story.
It does seem like one. And one can't read this without thinking about echoes even to today.
The narrative against the immigrants is now the same as it was 80 years ago.
And then they come to Chile. In Chile, they have a life. And then, in 1970, we had a government, a democratically-elected government, center-left, which was with a socialist president, Salvador Allende.
Three years later, the right wing, helped by the CIA, topple the government. And many people went again into exile as refugees, and among them, some of the ones that had come in the ship many years before.
So, life goes in a circle, you know? And from a historical point of view, it's fascinating.
How much did you rely on research, and how much of this is your imagination?
I have written several historical novels. And I researched the facts very much. So I want to be absolutely sure that that part is true, because that's the foundation.
If I have a solid foundation, I can create the fictional story on top of it, and it is believable. And my first responsibility as a fiction writer is for you, as a reader, to believe my story. So that's where facts come in. And they are real facts, not alternative facts.
And so you were telling me earlier that this book almost wrote itself, right?
Yes, because the story stands for itself.
But did — in a sense, are the characters writing themselves here, or are you creating the characters?
I think they write themselves, and they are pushed by their events.
They need to get on the ship. So I need to marry them. And those things happen in the process, that the events around their lives, that most of them are out of their control, decide what they do, in a way.
And I feel that that's my life. In my life, all the crossroads, all the moments when everything has changed has been completely out of my control, and my only choice has been to how I feel about it.
For me, it's easy to understand the feelings of all — of displacement, of leaving everything behind, of starting from scratch, or always looking back, thinking that you will go back someday.
There is a another real character in this book. And that's the poet Pablo Neruda, right, a very socially engaged and committed writer.
You use lines from his poetry at the beginning of each chapter. And it made me wonder how you feel — or do you feel a kind of responsibility as a writer, as an artist, to look at our times and address it?
It comes naturally. I don't want to deliver a message. I'm not a sociologist or a politician.
I just want to tell a story. But, sometimes, the story are in the air. We hear so much about refugees and migrants and displaced people, that my three last books deal with that in one way or another, because it's there. It's in the collective consciousness right now.
All right. The novel is "A Long Petal of the Sea."
Isabel Allende, thank you very much.
Thank you, Jeff.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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