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Women Bisnow
November 19, 2007


by Karin Tanabe, for Bisnow on Business

“It really started very early, around five. I wanted to be like my grandfather, not my mother. I wanted to be the boss, not the victim,” said Chilean author Isabel Allende to a roaring DC crowd last week.

Allende, whose career took off and never landed after the publication of The House of the Spirits in 1981, was the spotlight of a very colorful Q&A at the OAS with Washington Post Book World Editor Marie Arana, a 2001 National Book Award finalist. The event was part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Isabel Allende on stage last week.

Allende worked as a book translator and journalist before making her foray into fiction. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, called Allende the worst journalist in the country. “He said to me, you lie all the time, you put yourself in every article. I bet if you don’t have a story you make one up,” said the charismatic Allende before a sold-out house.  Neruda suggested to her that she go into fiction where her faults in journalism would become assets. Seems one should always heed the advice of Nobel Prize winning poets. Allende’s 16 books have been translated into 27 languages and have sold 51 million copies around the world.

From left, Mary Mochary, NMWA Board President, Susan Fisher Sterling NMWA Chief Curator and Deputy Director, and Deborah Carstens, a museum member and one of the underwriters of the evening. “I’m a fan of the museum because it is a great intersection of first class art and feminism,” said Carstens.

“I’m blessed to have a dysfunctional family,” said Allende when asked about the inspiration her family brings to her works. “I never really met my father. He disappeared when I was very young leaving my mother stranded in Peru with three babies.” Allende, born in Peru and raised in Chile, fled to Venezuela with her family when Augusto Pinochet came to power in 1973. She remained in Venezuela for 13 years.

Signing books for Efrén Cocios Jaramillo, Ecuadoran ambassador to the OAS.

“In Venezuela I really changed. It gave me color, flavor, and strength. When you go to a different country as a political refugee or an immigrant you need to use all your strength to survive,” said Isabel, first cousin once removed of Salvador Allende, the President of Chile from 1970 to 1973. “I was in Venezuela in 1981 and I learned that my grandfather was very ill. I sat down and wrote him a letter and that letter became The House of the Spirits.”

Chilean Ambassador Mariano Fernández who has known Isabel and her family for many years.   

 “All my body gets into the writing. It’s like giving birth. The hormones. I forget the names of my grandchildren, it’s just the book,” said Allende. As for Washington, we won’t be forgetting Allende anytime soon. Who else could bring up tantric sex, literary luminaries, political turmoil, and a Venezuelan woman’s posterior all within a few minutes?

“When I met Willy he was introduced to me as the last heterosexual bachelor in San Francisco,” said Allende about her husband author William Gordon. The good-humored Mr. Gordon is pictured with Winton Holladay, daughter-in-law of museum founder Wilhelmina Holladay. Holladay said the museum was honored to have Allende for part of its 20th anniversary celebration.

Allende, whose works are known for their smoldering sensuality, was asked by Arana the question that everyone wanted to know: “How do you write about love and making love as well as you do?”

Allende told a story of speaking at a conference of librarians and being asked if her love scenes were inspired by experience. She said, “No, no they are all from my imagination, you haven’t missed anything.” A collective sigh of relief emanated from the librarians. “Most of my love scenes are wishful thinking,” said Allende. “My husband says I would need a platoon to fulfill my sexual fantasies. He doesn’t have to worry – I do it all in my books.”

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