Allende, Isabel - On ghosts, grief, Chile, Ayahuasca and whether wisdom comes with age
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Isabel Allende on ghosts, grief, Chile, Ayahuasca and whether wisdom comes with age
Published on January 4th, 2015 | by Curious Anima
Many of your books involve magic and the supernatural. Are you a believer?
Yes. I don’t see ghosts. I wish I did, but I don’t. I feel the presence of my daughter Paula who died and my grandparents and people who I’ve lost, but I am far away and I don’t see them. For me, it’s an exercise in memory and an exercise in love.
“When I was younger, I thought I knew how the world worked. I was a raging feminist and I thought I could change the world.”
You’ve written, “Dying is like being born: just a change.”
I do feel that. I recently had a conversation with my stepfather who’s 97 and relatively lucid. I asked him, “What do you think is going to happen after you die?” He said, “I think it’s going to be like before being born. I will have no memory, no personality, no ego, no body, but I will be.”
It doesn’t sound too bad.
Yes, that’s true.
You’ve written books about Paula and other tragedies in your life. How hard are those books to write?
They’re very cathartic. Paula died in December 1992. I started writing the book, Paula, on January 8, 1993, right after her death. It helped me go through the first year of great sadness. I wasn’t depressed but I was very, very sad. I was also very confused and angry because of the negligence at the hospital that was meant to be looking after her. Writing the book helped me heal.
When you write personal books about family members, are there privacy issues?
Of course. But I always show them the manuscript before I publish. And, amazingly, most people think that I haven’t written enough about them. They’re bothered that they’re not the main characters.
You’ve also written about your experiences with the hallucinogenic drug Ayahuasca. What effect did it have on you?
I took Ayahuasca because I was thinking of writing a trilogy for young adults. I wanted it to be set in the Amazon and to look at the Amazonian Indians who live in a magical world, a world of dreams, and one of their processes for this is Ayahuasca. I did it and it was fascinating. It hit me like a rock. I couldn’t lift my head for a couple of days. I was really ill. But it opened something in my brain and I could write the book with thoughts of freedom because I really understood what it is to become an animal, to connect with a star, to connect with nature, to hear the voices of the trees. All that I would not have been able to imagine without have the experience of that world.
People talk about Ayahuasca being cathartic, that it can help people purge feelings of sadness, regret or depression.
Yes. When I took it, I sort of understood that there is much more than what we know. I’ve always thought that, but it was like it was proven to me, that there’s much more to life and the world that we can’t explain and control. In that mystery of Ayahuasca and in the mystery of life and death, I felt that there is space for everything, space for my daughter to be, for her spirit to be alive and touching people, space for my grandparents to come and inspire me for what I need to write. There is space for everything.
I heard that your new book, Ripper, was going to be your last and that you planned to retire. Is that still likely?
I’m feeling better now. In 2012 and 2013, we had very bad years in my family. We were under a lot of stress. My husband was deeply depressed. He lost his son, the second child of his that died, so he was really down. And I felt that I was just too tired. But now I am ready to get started again. I started something on January 8 this year.
Does it have a title?
It does have a working title but I’m not going to give it to you. I never talk about what I am writing because it’s bad luck. I’m very superstitious about that. When you just start talking and talking, you never have the energy to write.
Ripper is your first crime novel. What made you move into crime writing?
I start all my books on January 8. I was initially going to write a book together with my husband. But on January 7, 2012, I realized the book I planned to write with my husband would never work. So the next day, on January 8, I didn’t have anything to write about. That night my granddaughter was playing a game in the kitchen alone with cards and dice. I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I’m not alone. I’m playing online with some friends.” They were playing a role-playing game called Ripper. That really exists and they were playing it. That gave me the idea for the book. Crime writing is something very new for me. I decided I would explore it by coincidence.
The book also looks at how the Internet and technology has come to dominate our lives, which writers like Jonathan Franzen have been critical of. What are your thoughts?
I’m not scared at all. There are very positive things about this kind of spontaneous connection and information that the world has today. I think it’s wonderful.
In your book City Of The Beasts, you write: “The longer I live, the more uninformed I feel. Only the young have an explanation for everything.” Do you feel wiser with age or less so?
No, I don’t feel wiser. I never was wise. With age you become more what you are. You don’t suddenly become athletic or beautiful or wise. I was never any of those things, so why would I become that now that I’m old? No, I am not wiser at all. All I know is that I know very little, so I research more.
What does the older Isabel Allende know that the younger Isabel didn’t?
That I don’t know anything at all. When I was younger, I thought I knew how the world worked and that I could defeat the patriarchy. I was a raging feminist when I was young and I thought I could change the world and I could change people’s minds. Now I know that I can’t.
You don’t think your books make a difference?
Few people read, my dear. A movie reaches millions more people in one minute than a book does in a century. What I can do is contribute to the change. I’m not going to make a difference alone.
Many people will have also learned about Chile’s turbulent history through your books.
That’s not my intention when I write. I’m not trying to instruct people or deliver a message. I just want to deliver a story that feels absolutely true to me. If I don’t feel deeply connected to something, then I can’t write it. It has to feel connected to me. When I wrote The House Of Spirits or Of Love And Shadows or any book with Chile as the protagonist, it’s because I lived there and I want to tell that experience. I will never convince anyone who’s a conservative to change their minds. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but I’m not preaching, so it doesn’t matter.
There are still calls for equality and better education in Chile, as there were decades ago before and during the Pinochet dictatorship. As someone who suffered personally and whose family suffered because of Pinochet, what do you make of what’s happening in the country today?
Chile is a country that appears to be very prosperous, that has a stable economy and is also stable politically. However, there’s great inequality. We have a legacy from the dictatorship. One of the things the dictatorship did was the neoliberal, Chicago Boy’s economy that privatised everything. That allowed a few people to become extremely rich. Health and education, that previously the state had provided, that ended. Everybody has known this had to change since we had democracy 30 years ago. We still have these issues because nobody tackled the problem as they should have tackled it.
In The House Of The Spirits you talk about the importance of justice. What would justice be for the people of Chile?
Distribution of wealth, distribution of resources and of opportunities. Chile is a country that’s apparently doing great. But you have this incredible gap between what some people earn. It’s the same thing that’s happening in the United States today. You have a middle class that’s impoverished and disempowered, and some poverty. Everybody lives on credit. The same situation that you see in the United States, you have in Chile, but because Chile’s a much smaller country it’s much more visible.