Author Q&A:
Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea
(Bloomsbury, £16.99) 

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The celebrated Chilean author’s latest book is a work of historical fiction inspired by the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda that arrived in Chile in 1939 with 2,200 Spanish immigrants aboard. It follows Victor Dalmau, a young doctor caught up in the Spanish Civil War. He travels with his sister-in-law and together they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations.

Pablo Neruda sought to effect change with his poetry but he also had an important political career as a diplomat. He famously told you to write fiction instead of journalism, but does his influence extend beyond literature and into your human rights work?
I met Pablo Neruda only a couple of times but his poetry has accompanied me always. I live in English, but write in Spanish. A couple of weeks before I start a new book I read as much as possible of Neruda to get inspiration and the proper use of my language. However, Neruda has not influenced my activism. My foundation started as an homage to my late daughter Paula and my work is inspired by a lifetime of feminism and my concern for social justice.

You write that “in Chile poets flourished like weeds”. What is it about the country that has inspired so much poetry?
Chile is a gorgeous country. It has the most diverse and beautiful landscapes, from the driest desert of the world in the north to the forests, lakes, rivers and volcanoes in the south. It’s a long petal stretched between the impressive Andean mountains and the Pacific Ocean. For centuries it was remote and insular, so Chileans tend to ignore the world outside its borders and look inward. I suppose that makes us a bit melancholic, nostalgic and poetic.

A Long Petal of the Sea is dedicated to Victor Pey Casdo. Who was he and why did his story inspire you more than your own grandfather’s account of the SS Winnipeg?
I first heard about the Winnipeg when I was a child. It was one of the many stories my grandfather used to tell. But it was not until 1976, when I heard the story from a passenger of the ship, that I learned the details of that fascinating odyssey. Víctor Pey Casado planted the seed of the book in my mind and it took 40 years for me to write it.

You write in your mother tongue but, given you live in California and have excellent English, do you take some control in the translation process?
I read the translation into English very carefully and when needed I make the necessary suggestions. Margaret Sawyer Peden translated most of my books until she retired. We had an almost psychic connection, so working with her was very easy. Since Maya’s Notebook I have had different translators and fortunately they have all been excellent.

You are considered a product of the Latin American Boom in literature. Have you been conscious of being part of a literary movement throughout your career and is it being carried forward with a new generation of writers?
Actually, I am supposed to be post-Boom. Unfortunately, the Boom was an all-male event. I am not concerned at all about literary criticism of my books and I don’t pretend to inspire younger writers. I know that my work is studied by critics and professors but that happens in another dimension of reality. Writers write. Others dissect the books.

At the heart of the story is a couple exiled from their country whose hope of returning home carries them through their various traumas. Do you harbour the same hope, and have your books provided a sense of belonging and rootedness for you?
Nostalgia for the country I had lost inspired my first book, The House of the Spirits, but since 1989, when the dictatorship of Pinochet ended and Chile recovered its democracy, I have been back several times a year. I have a foot in Chile and another in California. I don’t have to choose – I can have the best of both places. However, my roots are not in either place. They are in the people I love and the books I write.

What can be done to avert the growth in right-wing populism when it seems to be gaining global critical mass?
Political tendencies come and go. This is a very interesting time. On one hand we have the emergence of authoritarian right-wing nationalist leaders and on the other we have global protests led by young people who don’t like the world they will inherit. They are concerned about inclusion, diversity, climate change, gender parity and economic justice –  exactly the opposite of what these pseudo-fascist leaders propose. I am optimistic about the future because I think the new generation of leaders will be very different from Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro or Erdogan.

How do you view the current protests in Chile and will a new constitution bring about meaningful change?
Chile had the reputation of being the only country in Latin America with social, political and economic stability. The statistics show economic progress but they don’t show the distribution of wealth and opportunities. Most of the wealth is in the hands of 1 per cent of the population, which also controls politics and the media, while 40 per cent of Chileans live on credit and many live in poverty. Everything has been privatised – water, electricity, gas, education, healthcare, transportation, etc, and people can’t afford basic services. Old people who rely on their meagre pensions can’t even afford food, because the pension system was also privatised and most of the savings were badly invested. The protests have been a huge awakening for the government, the politicians and the financial establishment. The so-called neoliberal model has not worked for the great majority. Supposedly the new constitution will impose drastic economic and political measures but unless it is enforced it will not bring the meaningful change that 90 per cent of Chileans demand.

Isabel Allende is talking about her book at a special Manchester Literature Festival Event on 11 Feb (mlf.co.uk)

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