Berkeley Talks transcript: Chilean novelist Isabel Allende on war, loss and healing

Shannon Jackson: Hello, everyone, welcome. Welcome to the last public day of this course as students are looking ahead to reading week. Welcome to community members who have routinely gathered or sometimes less routinely gathered to join this series. My name is Shannon Jackson. I’m associate vice chancellor for Arts and Design here at UC Berkeley and also a professor in rhetoric and a professor in theater, dance and performance studies. Students here and community members may or may not know that the Office of Arts and Design is behind this public course, both as a backstage coordinator and a front stage promoter. And it is conceived originally and has progressed in many forms in order to introduce students to a range of creative practices from around the campus across visual arts, across performing arts, literature, design, film, always unified by a central theme. This year’s theme has of course, focused on issues of migration and transformation.

This course also allows stellar faculty and visiting artists like Peter Glazer and in absentia, Stan Lai, to serve as masters of ceremonies over a series of events and dialogues, both the course itself that is sometimes closed to the public, and then also opens once a week to the public. I’m excited to be here for the very last of this lecture series and to thank Peter and his partner Stan for being such luminous and hardworking faculty, to thank RGSI’s Christian and Painting, to thank BAMPFA and their staff, and also to thank my staff, A + D staff, and especially the person who has functioned as thought leader, stage manager dramaturge behind this course, Les Gorske.

Finally, none of this would have been possible without the philanthropic generosity of a range of institutions and individuals, especially the Mellon Foundation and its support of cow performances educational programs, and most especially the incredible generosity of Charles and Lillian Huang, who have supported every dimension of Stan Lai’s residency, both the production of a brand new work, which is sold out, but I’ll tell you, it opens this weekend, and also this public course. So, having been reminding you all, as I’ve reminded students sometimes that things like this take a village, help me thank this village, A + D’s village, thank you.

It’s on behalf of this team that I also want to thank all of you who have been joining this Thursday lecture series, and especially those of you who are here for house of the spirits, a conversation with Isabel Allende carded speech and moderated by Michael Moran. As you know, throughout the semester, Stan and Peter have convened you weekly to think about issues of creativity and migration, and we’re going to get deeply inside those themes, thinking about the work of Isabella Allende and Michael Moran and Caridad Svich’s engagement with it.

I’m going to let Peter do the introduction of this incredibly luminous team that we have gathered here. In doing that, I’ll get to ask you to thank Peter one more time as we change over. Thank him for his hard work and welcome him to the stage to introduce the last conversation in the series, Peter.

Peter Glazer: It’s nature of these events that you have to hear all the people talking about the event before you get to actually experience the event. We’ll try to get to that as quickly as possible. But thank you, Shannon. And just to say that it’s Shannon’s vision that has allowed this kind of a conversation to happen, has brought students into this classroom and has brought you into this event, and has brought our amazing guests into this room. So, two very quick things before I introduce our guests, this is a class, and I will remind painting students in the 4 o’clock section that you need to check your email or check with painting because you might have to move to another space. So if you’re in that section, please do. Anyone who wants to attend painting section come along, why not? Enjoy it.

I will also say that The House of the Spirits, which is the center of this conversation, opens tomorrow night here on the UC Berkeley campus, directed by Michael Moran. And you’ll hear more about that. There will be cards if anyone is interested in the possibility of attending the performance this weekend or next weekend. It is not sold out unlike Stan’s play, and you would have that opportunity. Okay, so it is this series and this production that has been the instigation for bringing this amazing panel together to talk to you today. They will engage in a conversation for 50 minutes and then give you the opportunity to ask questions.

Our moderator, Michael Socrates Moran grew up in Richmond, California before attending Boston University, where he pursued a BFA. He has worked as a professional actor in regional theaters around the country. He’s a graduate of UC San Diego’s world renowned MFA directing program, where he founded the award-winning Ubuntu Theater Project, one of the most exciting new theater companies in the Bay Area. A professional theatre company based in Oakland dedicated to inspiring compassion across socioeconomic and racial barriers.

He now serves as Ubuntu’s executive and artistic director. He has directed over 15 productions. Favorites include Dance of the Holy Ghost by Marcus Gardley, Othello by William Shakespeare, Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, the West Coast Premiere of TO THE BONE and EXIT CUCKOO (a nanny in motherland) by Lisa Ramirez and world premier of Rashomon by Philip Kan Gotanda, who’s in the audience today. Michael is the recipient of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle Award for Best Director in the East Bay.

Caridad Svich, who is here today received the 2012 Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theater, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award and rolling world premiere for Guapa, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on Isabel Allende’s novel. She has won the National Latino Playwriting Award twice, including the year 2013 for her place Spark. She has been short-listed for the PEN Award in Drama four times, including in the year 2012 for her play Magnificent Waste.

Her works in English and Spanish have been seen at venues across the U.S. and abroad, among them Arena Stage, Denver Theatre Center, 59E59, The Women’s Project, Repertorio Espanol, Ensemble Studio Theatre and theaters in the UK, Chile, Germany, Uzbekistan, Costa Rica, Wales and Canada. Key works in her repertoire include 12 Ophelias, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart, the Booth Variations and JARMAN (all this maddening beauty). She has also adapted for the stage novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Julia Alvarez and Jose Leon Sanchez, and has radically reconfigured works from Wedekind Euripides, Sophocles and Shakespeare.

And in keeping with our other guests, she has had a great deal of work in the areas of social justice in the arts, a founder of theatre alliance & press NoPassport. Her work has intersected with communities of multiple diversities with works responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the U.S. Gulf region, veterans and their families, survivors of trauma and those committed to artistic expression of precarity, advocacy for U.S. Latina X writing voices, and engagement with representations of the “fragile shores” in our lives.

Finally, of course, Isabella Allende, novelist, feminist and philanthropist, is one of the most widely read authors in the world having sold more than 74 million books. Born in Peru. Yes. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel one worldwide acclaim in 1982, with the publication of her very first one novel The House of the Spirits, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. Since then, she has authored more than 23 best selling and critically acclaimed books, including of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune, Island Beneath the Sea, Paula and the Japanese Lover Land in the Midst of Winter.

Translated into more than 42 languages, Allende’s works entertain and educate readers by interweaving imaginative stories with significant historical events. In addition to her work as a writer, Allende devotes much of her time to humans rights causes. In 1996, following the death of her daughter, Paula, she established a charitable foundation in her honor, which has awarded grants to more than 100 nonprofits worldwide, delivering life changing care to hundreds of thousands of women and girls. More than 8 million have watched her TED Talks on leading a passionate life. She has received 15 honorary doctorates, including one from Harvard University, was inducted in the California Hall of Fame, received the PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and in 2018, she received the Medal for Distinguished contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. She lives right here in California. Please welcome Michael Moran, Caridad Svich and Isabella Allende to the stage.

Michael Moran: Hello. To begin, we were talking a little bit out there before we came in, and since this class is focused on migration is one of its themes, we wanted to begin with talking about beginning the novel as you were living in exile and what that meant then and how that you reflect upon that now.

Isabel Allende: Well, originally I was a lousy journalist. And then, after the military coup in Chile in 1973, I ended up in Venezuela where of course, I couldn’t find a job as a lousy journalist. And I did all sorts of odd jobs to make a living. But I was sick with nostalgia for my country. Being a political refugee is different from being an immigrant because you are forced out of your country and you don’t have many choices and you can’t go back. So you’re always looking back, not looking forward as an immigrant usually is. So in that state of mind, my grandfather started to get very ill and then died in Chile and I started a letter for him that became my first novel.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I, in a way, was capitalizing on my experience as an immigrant, as being uprooted, having lost what I thought was everything. I didn’t know that I was gaining other things while I was losing the past. That’s how The House of the Spirits began. And it is the story of family, is the micro world of a family that is reflected or paralleled by the macro world of the country. So both stories intertwine and that’s the book. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just writing and writing without a script or without an …. even not knowing if this was a novel or a memoir of my family or a chronicle of Chile. I didn’t know what it was, but I was lucky, really lucky.

Michael Moran: Caridad, can you speak a little bit about how you came to the novel and how you decided to adapt it?

Caridad Svich: Yes. I’ve written a lot of plays and a lot of them have been reconfigurations of the classic, so working with Euripides, and working Wedekind and working with Shakespeare and particularly European Shakespeare mainly when I decide to have those interactions as a writer. So, and so Repertoire Repertorio Espanol is a company in New York that’s been around for 50 years. Has a tradition of doing adaptations of novels on stage and they’d never done one from a female author. So, it’s about bloody time that they did. So, they approached me kind of out of the blue. And they said, “Oh, will you be interested?” And I was like, “Well, of course, Isabel, this novel like has to happen on stage.”

I knew it had a production in London some years before and underwritten sort of longer form durational production.

Isabel Allende: It was so boring. So boring. It lasted like six hours. You had to watch one day, three hours, then go for dinner, and then the next day come back. There were more people on the stage than in the audience. I hope it’s not the case with yours, Caridad.

Caridad Svich: Oh, it’s not the case with mine. So, I knew of that one and I sort of had a hunch that I wanted to do something that was compact that felt like it was in one breath. It’s one of my favorite books and it’s also … this was during the Bush administration, remember? I was thinking a lot about Abu Ghraib, which somehow we don’t seem to be talking about anymore. Sometimes when you’re a playwright, people will ask you, “What are you writing about the now? What’s happening now? Write the play about now.” And I was like, “Well, actually this story is happening now.”

I felt like a synergy between, you have to come with a passion exposivity for why do you want to make something as an artist? Also, and I’m feeling really angry, and I tend to write a lot out of creative outrage and try to channel that outrage into something positive, which is making art and healing, hopefully from that art. This sort of happened sort of at the same time. And then, I was just lucky. Repertorio said yes. They said yes, and they were like, “Go forward.” And then it just became a conversation to make it happen. I’m very grateful that … I think when you make art, because I know this is part of your class, art making, it’s a leap of faith.

And the leap of faith sometimes comes from you as the artist, but it also comes from all these people. It takes a village, as Shannon said, people around you who just say, “Okay, yeah. Let’s try to help keep that leap of faith going.” So, yeah, that’s how it happened.

Michael Moran: Maybe both of you talk a little bit more about what you just said about it being healing coming from the outrage and the art being healing in some way?

Isabel Allende: At the time when I was living in Venezuela, I think that I was sort of sick with nostalgia for my country and for the past and for the family. And I also was in pain because people were dying in Chile, not only friends, but also people from my family and my grandfather. There was this feeling of being wounded, of having lost a lot. Writing The House of the Spirits was like an attempt to recover what I had lost, to bring it back to me. The idea of putting it in paper and writing the story is a way, of making it permanent, of saving it from oblivion. In that sense, it was very healing.

I had another experience like that in which a work of creativity can heal. In 1992, my daughter, Paula, died a premature death, very young. I was really paralyzed with sorrow and pain. My daughter died on Dec. 6, 1992, and I started all my books on Jan. 8. So, a month later, I still could not recover from what had happened. And my mother said, “What are you going to write on Jan. 8?” And I said, “Nothing. How could I write?” And she said, “If you don’t write, you’ll die. You have to write.” And so, I locked myself in a room and I started writing. I would say that that’s a book written with tears.

I wrote the story of my daughter, my country, my family, everything is in there. During that year of writing, I wouldn’t say that I healed from the pain, but I understood it and I could accept it and I could deal with it. And since then, I have found out that often in my life by writing about something, even if it’s fiction and it doesn’t appear to be related to what’s happening to me, I am healing something. Something is happening. Because I chose that story and no other story. I chose those characters to talk for me to experience what I was experiencing. I get letters, messages, people who come to me all the time saying, “I have this wonderful life. I want you to tell it. You only have to give me half of the royalties and I’ll tell you my story. Because you know, you can write. I live the story, so you write it and you just give me half.” I said, “Fine, but I can’t write like that. I can only write what is related to my own experience.”

Michael Moran: Can you speak at all about healing?

Caridad Svich: It’s a hard one. I can only … I’m like only, but I’m sure in the middle of a project right now and I can express it through the idea of facing the page. I think that one of the things that happens is the more you write, Sam Shepard used to have this phrase, oh, the way Sam Shepherd. He said this phrase where he used to say, “The more you write, the harder it gets in a weird way because you know more.” You know more about, not just life, but you know more about technique and craft and what is possible and what is not and what works and what doesn’t. And so, sometimes your writerly brain interferes with that pure moment of just, ah, this has to happen. This has to get out, what I call the urgency in writing.

The urgency that’s transmitted on the page that when, as a reader or an audience, you feel that, you feel the spirit of that, even if the writer has long passed, you feel that you feel it in the vibrations of the text. And so, what I think I have to keep reminding myself is that … sometimes it’s obviously I’m going through something and it’s like I have to write. But sometimes the technique is sort of looking at me and not letting me meet that pure space. And so, I have to kind of reconnect to that. Often what I do is I free write a great deal until I let the, sometimes characters or voices, depending on what mode I’m working in as a writer, it’s like they take over.

When that process of taking over happens, actually I think is when you’re opening a gateway inside of yourself as an artist and whether you call it, you know, it can be healing, it can be … not all writing comes from trauma. I have friends that’s perfectly fine, but then their writing expresses trauma. But I think that there’s trauma in the world and I think that one of the things that we do is kind of reflect that in the work, whether it’s directly or indirectly. And so, meeting that when I call that pure space to let the characters take over.

Isabel Allende: Well, my foundation has been working for some time with refugees, refugees in many places in the world. Now, I call them refugees, people who are running away for their lives and they’re stuck waiting for asylum in the border. So, we work with them. What you were saying is how I feel about a theme that is in the world, a trauma that is in the world. In one way or another, it comes in the writing, so my last three books, The Japanese Lover In The Midst of Winter, and now another book that is coming out in English in January, they are all about that. They are about these trauma of the world, that is not only for us here, but it’s in Europe, it’s in Africa, it’s in Asia. In so many parts, masses of people that are uprooted and are looking for a place to be safe for them and their children.

That trauma is there like in our collective unconscious, in our collective soul. And we all have to deal with that in one way or another. Some people deal with it by ignoring it and they don’t want to hear about it. And other people, just like myself, and I’m sure it’s your case and probably yours too, Michael, we just cannot ignore it because it keeps knocking at your head all the time. So, in a way, we try to heal the world. Maybe it’s very ambitious.

Michael Moran: Can you talk a little bit about the phrase “the truth beyond truth and the greater story”?

I think I copied this from some Jewish saying, what is truer than truth? And the answer is the story. Sometimes fiction can touch their heart with a kind of truth that a documentary cannot. I can give you an example. Many years ago, there was famine in Ethiopia and the press was reporting everywhere. And so, there was a point of saturation when people didn’t want to hear about it. You would see this masses of people starving to death and people would not react. And a journalist in France followed the case of one woman. One woman who walked through the desert to try to get to Red Cross tent with children and a baby and how she barely survive on the children died.

The woman had a name, and the children had names and they had faces. One story of one person touched people in ways that nothing else had. And then it was discovered that she had sort of made it up. She didn’t make up the tragedy, but she sort of created a fiction with this particular woman because in a way, how can you move people if you cannot relate to one human being. That’s what I do with my books. Try to connect to the emotion. I don’t try to give facts or preach about anything, just connect to one story. You all remember the photograph of that little boy that was washed out in the beach in Turkey, the little Syrian toddler, his name was Alan Kurdi.

We all remember the image of that little boy with his sneakers on his t-shirt. That’s the face of refugees for many people. But if you talk about refugees in general, you may say there are 68 million refugees at this point, and it doesn’t mean anything, but we think of Alan Kurdi and then we can connect. So, in that case, the story sometimes is truer than truth.
Michael Moran: One of the things is that these are very different forms, the novel and the play. And so, to begin to talk about that, I’d love to hear what you look for in the other form. So what you look for in a novel, either to adapt or just for joy and pleasure and what you look for in the theater.

Caridad Svich: Gosh. In a novel, I look for … I don’t know if I’m looking for something. Whenever I’m just the reader, I want to be entranced by it. I want to be seduced by it. The same thing that happens to me when I’m writing where the writing takes over, I want that to happen to me as a reader. I just want it to take over me so that, that sometimes I’m walking around and I’m dreaming of the characters in the novel and I’m walking around with them in my head during the day. When that happens, it’s a delicious experience. Also, can happen in other forums. I’m currently reading Ilya Kaminsky’s extraordinary poetry collection, Deaf Republic, which is in the form of a theater piece in a way. And in that piece, I’m thinking about that village on the Ukraine that he’s writing about.

Do you know what I mean? The voices that he’s describing are in my head. I’m looking for that feeling of intimacy and I’m also looking for that feeling of directness, something to engage the imagination, and sometimes to take me, make me see the world a new, but also take me out of, out of the world that I’m in so that I can see it again. It’s an interesting process that happens when you’re a reader. I think when I’m adapting, when I’m looking or when I’m having that conversation of, is that opportunity going to come through again to engage with another form? It comes, first as the reader’s experience, and secondly, usually as as a theater makers experience. That sort of hat enters into the ballpark later.

Isabel Allende: Well, I can’t be very objective about this because many years ago when I was living in Chile, I worked in the theater. I wrote some theater plays and I was very lucky because there was a theater company that was willing to put them on stage. I worked behind the behind the stage, seeing how the actors got together, how they would each one embody the character and become the character and how every performance changed the play. Sometimes the emotion was totally different for the audience with the same play. So, when I go to the theater, I just can’t be objective and say, “This is a good play or bad play.” They are all good plays to me. They’re all excellent. I love it. I love the smell of the theater. I love the curtain. I love the actors.

And I believe everything they say. They can be talking bullshit, I don’t care. I just want to be there, sitting in the theater and experiencing that wonderful moment when you are not you anymore. You are one of them on stage. It’s fascinating. Unfortunately, I have never been able to repeat that in my life, to go back to the theater. You need a team. And in my work, I don’t need anybody. I just needed a computer and a cup of tea. That’s it. It’s cheap.

Caridad Svich: Yeah.

Isabel Allende: Really cheap.

Michael Moran: Caridad, can you talk about how you went about adapting it, what you selected, how you formed it. And then, I’d also love to hear, there’s been a number of adaptations of your work and anything about seeing it all of a sudden jump to a new form, either in a film or a play.

Isabel Allende: Well, there have been the movie of The House of the Spirits and the theater plays that Caridad and other people have put on stage a ballet somewhere and they have done an opera with one of my stories and other things. I always feel very flattered that other creators feel inspired by anything I have done. So people ask me, “How do you feel about the movie?” I feel great about the movie. Even if it’s a bad movie, who cares? It’s better than having nothing. And if it’s a bad movie, they will say, “Oh, the book was better.” If it’s a good movie, they will say, “Oh, I have to read the book,” so I can’t lose. I can’t lose. It’s great.

Caridad Svich: Yeah, choices around what to keep, what to take out, those are sort of technical. For me, when an opportunity to adapt something comes my way or if I’m instigating it, then the first thing that I ask myself is what’s the running time? Like in my head. Just as a practical concern as a writer. I knew I wanted to have to about 215, two and a half, no more than. That sort of was my goal. Well, the novel’s huge, and it has many stories within stories. And so, I knew fairly early on that obviously not all of it could be told, not if I wanted to keep the strong narrative engine alive that the novel has inside of it.

So, I made a map of the entire novel and sort of put it on my wall with just a different storylines and the timelines and trying to just hold it in my hand. I think that when you’re a theater maker, you’re trying to hold it in your hand because you want the audience eventually, when they encounter the work and have that beautiful encounter to feel as if they’re holding it in their hands. And I love that. I love that experience when I’m in the audience. I’m trying to replicate that as a theater maker. So, I was trying to figure out, how do I hold this in my hands? I was really, really daunted, but I was also feeling strangely happy. I mean that because the subject matter of the novel is quite … there was a lot of violence. It’s very it’s written in a space of political violence and trauma.

So, I knew I had to walk into those waters as a writer, but I also felt strangely liberated. It’s a very strange thing to describe my goal and Isabel, but the feeling of … I was sitting at the computer and I felt like different theater ghosts were speaking to me. I’d be working on a scene, and and then suddenly the ghost of Lorca would appear in my head or the ghost of Calderon. These are all people that I’ve translated in the past. It was very strange sensation of having other kind of theater makers from the past, my imaginary friends that I worked with before step into my writing space and actually informed decisions that I was making.

I’ve never had that happen before in my work. And it was exhilarating. And so I think that that delight meant that I couldn’t wait to write the next scene, which meant that as I was looking at the big map of the piece, I was trying to figure out, “Oh, if I go here, next, how would the audience react?” I was really thinking a lot about juxtapositions and thinking about using the framing device of Alba from the novel and using that in the play in a very strong way and a very direct way.

Michael Moran: The novel exists and, and we can pick it up, just as these different forms, you can pick it up and read it anytime. And if we read it in 2019, it might have a different context than if you read it 10, 15 years ago. Same with the play. And with the play, there are some producers somewhere that’s like, “We’re doing this now because it hopefully relates to now.” Is there anything worth saying about how you think the story, the novel and the adaptation relates to America in 2019?

Isabel Allende: Well, I think this is the story of a country, my country, Chile. There was a solid democracy, the most solid democracy in the continent for many, many years in South America, in Latin America. We elected a socialist precedent in 1970. Three years later, we had a military coup supported by the CIA. This was in the frame of the Cold War when they would not allow a socialist government to succeed in Latin America. So, the country changed in 24 hours. We thought, as a democracy, that our institutions were strong enough to withstand the assault of anything, that our strong democratic tradition would uphill whatever happened and we would be able to defend that democracy with its institutions and the democratic spirit of the Chileans, of us. It didn’t happen.

In 24 hours, everything disappeared. No freedom of the press, the congress was eliminated, the judiciary system was suppressed. There were no political parties, that you couldn’t even gather more than six people in a room without permission from the police. All this, which was unthinkable, happened in Chile in 24 hours. In 24 hours, we had concentration camps and torture centers. People disappeared. There was no habeas corpus. They could arrest you for an indefinite time and you could disappear and there was no explanation for the fact that your body was never found. To this day, they have not been found.

All this that happened to us was so surprising, so unexpected, so unbelievable that it took us quite some time to realize that it was happening. The day of the military coup, Mexico sent a plane to offer the asylum to Allende’s, Salvador Allende was the president, Salvador Allende’s family and closest staff. I was from his family, so I was called. And I thought, what, this is crazy. Why would I leave my country? This is the sort of historical accident, this is going to pass in 24 more hours or 48 more hours. The military will go back to their barracks and they will call an election. I was completely ignorant and naive about what was going on and so was the rest of the country. So, by the time we reacted, a year had passed and by then, the system had been consolidated and it took 17 years to get rid of the dictatorship.

So, when we think of terms of what happens today in the world and we see the world turning toward populist nationalist and authoritarian governments all over, turning to the right and to strong men, there seems to be a fascination with that. That is explainable because we live in a world that is changing. Globalization has changed the world and the technology. It is like what happened with the industrial era, when all of a sudden the world turned industrial and the agricultural society that had been the way of living in the world ended. So, it took a long time to adapt. And that’s what’s happening now. So we turn to toward what seems safer, and I see this and I get panicky because I’ve lived it before.

When people say, “Oh no, the institutions in the United States can support anything. We are safe.” No, beware. Nothing is safe. Nothing is forever. Everything can change. We have to be aware of that and be therefore very alert. I wouldn’t say vigilant because the word vigilant has a double meaning, but alert.

Michael Moran: Svich.

Caridad Svich: Yeah. What can I add to that? Just why now, why now. These kinds of stories about defending human rights, standing up for human rights at all costs, looking at systems of oppression and how they are built. And sometimes can seduce us by false means. I would like to say these kinds of stories should never happen again, but unfortunately, they keep happening in the wheel of history. So, I feel like as writers and theater makers illuminating those stories helps us remind … when Taylor Mac says theater is a reminder, so it just reminds us. I’m sure he was quoting somebody else. But we’re here to remind ourselves. We’re here to remind ourselves, oh, these things happen. Don’t forget, don’t forget.

I feel like that’s one of the beautiful things that that theater can do because it is alive form and because it is civic engagement, that through these acts of storytelling and being with one another and the human encounter that we can be reminded and hopefully carry inside of us the spirit of, if it’s not there already to take action, to be more alert and to not … I would say I’ve been having this discussion with a friend recently, but to not rest on this idea of hope as a kind of a tangible thing that will just happen by its own means. Do you know what I mean? But hope as a thing that’s actionable and that we need to sort of as a society, in defending democracy and democratic principles, strive for in and care for in terms of our fellow humans.

Isabel Allende: What is also interesting is that the great stories, I’m not talking about myself, but the great stories that we keep seeing in different forms in the theater, in movies, in play, in whatever, those are eternal. They were written 500 years ago or whatever. And we can have them actualized today, modernize or even in the original form and they still work. Why do they work? Because they target the basic human emotions that we all feel everywhere. I’ve traveled the world and people feel the same everywhere. We all feel hatred, love, hope, fear, friendship, anger, hope in the same way, everywhere. We all have liver, we all have heart, we all have kidneys. We are not different.

That’s why those stories work because they are eternal. We keep making the same mistakes and we repeat the same stupid errors that we’ve done 500 years ago. We do it again and again. So the story’s still work, unfortunately.

Michael Moran: Can you both talk about being a Latin American and female writer in your respective industries and fields?

Isabel Allende: Being a Latin American writer is not a good thing. Is good in Latin America, but in the United States, people are not used to translation. There are great books written today in France, in Italy, in Germany, and we have never heard of them because there is a reluctancy to publish books in translation because there is this idea that the American readership is simple minded. To give you an example, I’m lucky because I’m translated into English and I have very good publishers. Often, the editor says to me, “You know what? We will just move this paragraph here so that the Americans will understand.” “The what.”

So, the idea is that you all have the mentality of a 14 year-old kid and we have to make it simple so that you will understand. No, why? Why that idea? Is the same with movies. How many movies that are created in Europe or in Asia or in Africa, do you get to see? Only in festivals. But commercial movies, you don’t see because there’s also this idea that we cannot read subtitles. What is this? So, for a Latin American writer, female or male, it’s hard if we write in Spanish.

Caridad Svich: I would say that as a theater maker that sort of works in both Latin American and the States and in Europe, I find that sort of conundrum when I’m working with material where the subject matter is, it’s either its origin or if I’m writing it originally in Spanish and then I’m translating myself into English as I did with house, where I wrote two versions of the play, one in Spanish and one in English for different audiences. Oh gosh, I can give you a small anecdote, which is when I did it at Denver Center, beautiful production, the head of the theater at the time walked up to me after the opening night, everybody was very proud and he said, “Oh, Chile. I forgot that the two exists.”

It was just like a thing like it just never was not in his world view. And I was just like a story from Chile, but of course, why couldn’t that be on a US stage? I think it’s unfortunate. I think maybe it’s changing slightly.

Isabel Allende: I think television is changing.

Caridad Svich: Television.

Isabel Allende: Yes, because now television is doing what the movies never did.

Caridad Svich: Yeah. I think in theater, often it’s like the people are saying, “Oh, how can we sell this story? And it’s like, stories are … stories we all feel the same thing.

Isabel Allende: It’s very easy to sell a story, sex and violence, a lot of violence.

Caridad Svich: Exactly.

Isabel Allende: I wrote a trilogy for young adults, and another book that is also for young adults called Sorrow. And I get all the time, messages from teachers or parents saying, “Is there any sex in these books?” Nobody asks about the violence. Nobody. I mean, kids, toddlers can have a lot of violence, but no sex. No, not that. So, I always tell them, “No, there’s no sex at all. Let them be surprised.”

Caridad Svich: Oh my Lord.

Michael Moran: Can you both talk about engaging your audience? It’s something we spoke about before in terms of the value of entertainment and engagement.

Isabel Allende: In an novel, it’s easy. Dickens said it. Make them laugh, make them cry, but above all, make them wait. What you hold back, what you don’t say, what you suggest. The tension is essential. I think in the theater’s the same.

Caridad Svich: It’s the same. We’re storytellers, so this is sort of our medium. The medium is the play, the waiting game, the withholding game. I think the holding game in the theater is interesting because it’s nominally about where do you leave this space for the audience to be inside of it. When I’m working with students, I always tell them, there’s always a gap when you’re writing plays. The gap is that the audience is your collaborator. And so you just keep reminding yourself of that, that if it’s all there, there’s no work for the audience to do. So you better make sure that the audience has work to do and work, meaning it could be joyful work, it could be passionate work, but it’s work that they’re kind of invited into the experience and you need to create those place spaces of invitation.

Isabel Allende: I think we should get the audience now. Yeah. Over there.

Audience 1: I was wondering, working with translations and working with putting Latin American stories on stage or even through literature. I was wondering how you translated, not the language per se, but the culture and the identities that come with the culture. And if, when you do that in literature or in stage, you take into account your audience or you keep your authenticity about your culture identity, who you are and the very real stories that you lived, and if you should take into account your audience. And sort of like how you do that for the American stage. Still keeping pride in your Latin American identity. Thank you.

Caridad Svich: Oh my, this was like a long question. No, I’m sorry. No, that’s great. You can only tell the truth of the story you’re telling. So, if you’re open and responsible as a writer to your character’s flaws, their contradictions, their passions, their frailties as humans, if you’re speaking that truth, it will broaden out. And of course it depends on whether you’re working in historical material. There are so many layers to this in terms of the act of writing, but that core act of truth telling is key. And if you don’t have that, then in a way, it won’t actually touch that audience. Remember, because you don’t, especially in the theater, God knows, I have no idea who’s going to be in the audience.

Do you know what I mean? Which is beautiful. It’s beautiful and it’s scary and it’s vulnerable. So, that vulnerability of like join me in the story and my job as a writer is, hopefully I’m going to take care of you. Trust me, I know what I’m doing a little bit and I’m going to take care of you through this. You may not always know exactly where it’s going to go, but hey, you’re invited along for the ride. Eventually, trust me, I’ll get you there. I feel like that’s my job. I think that writing theater is also being a labor, is being like a worker. Yeah?

Isabel Allende: Well, in my case, I never think of the audience because I don’t know who the readers are and the readers might be in 42 languages. So, who knows how the book is translated in Vietnamese or in Cambodian. I have no idea. But to me, what is important is to tell the story as you said, from a place of truth. Something that is very important for me, I’m not cheating to myself. I am really writing about what I care for, what I believe. I think that the reader, no matter where the reader might be and in which language, will or will not connect to my feelings. I cannot cater to the feelings or the culture of each reader. That would be impossible.

Caridad Svich: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Isabel Allende: Here’s another question.

Audience 2: All right. Thank you. I have a question about magical realism because you’ve talked about sort of the political and familial origins of your story, but there’s really something very fantastical about the world that the characters inhabit and the things that happen there. I’m curious if that is part of the family story or a reaction to the political or where that comes from for you.

Isabel Allende: Well, first of all, there’s nothing fantastical in my book. There are things that may be unexplainable, but there is a difference between magic realism in the Latin American style and fantasy. Fantasy is Harry Potter and magic realism is founded in some experience that you can … in a manifestation. There’s no invisibility cloak, but there are invisible Indians in the Amazon because they paint their bodies in the colors of nature and they walk so swiftly that you don’t see them. They’re three yards away and you don’t see them. That would be like the difference. Something that may be totally magical has some kind of explanation.

Garcia Marquez once said that the fishermen were fishing out of the sea elephants and monkeys and clowns. And what was that about? And that’s not fantasy. There was a hurricane that picked up a circus and threw it in the middle of the Pacific, so that’s what happened. There’s always an explanation of some kind. In my case, I come from a family of weird people. My grandmother was a lunatic, thank God. So, with a family like mine, you don’t have to invent anything. I grew up, well, not for a long time, but in my early childhood when I was living with my grandmother, there were seances to call the spirits every Thursday and there was a table where they would call the spirits, and according to a very heavy Spanish table that I now have in my house.

According to the legend, the table would jump. Yes, two jumps fir yes, one jump for no and the spirits would reply whatever questions you had. It never works quite well, but it somehow worked. I have the table in my house and because maybe I don’t quite believe in this thing, it has never moved. Not at all, but it did move to my grandmother. So what is magic realism really? Is accepting that the world is a very mysterious place and that not everything that we can explain control or sell is the only thing that exists. There are many things that happen to us all the time. Coincidences, prophetic dreams, that feeling that we’ve been in a place, that we’ve met this person before, this connections that we have with something that seems to be like a spirit world, faith, prayer, crystals, astrology, all those things that we believe in and we practice and we cannot explain.

That’s what we accept in our lives and in literature in most of the world. What is systematically ignored or denied in industrialized nations because you want to have an explanation for everything and there is none sometimes. Now, to translate that into theater or a screen, it’s almost impossible because I remember when they did the movie of The House of the Spirits, Danish director Bille August said to me, “I cannot have a person with green hair in the movie. Because in the book, this woman with green hair can be imagined by the reader, any shade of grade, any kind of hair, but in a movie, it’s a green wig and it will always look like a green wig.

I mean, there are some movies that have that are extraordinary in that sense. But it’s difficult.

Audience 3: Good? Okay, yeah, so my name is Ruben. I come from a family that experienced global migration and also from an undocumented family. My mom was undocumented, but I have citizenship both in Mexico and in the US. So, coming to college, I was the first one in my family to go to college and I work with students who are the first ones to go to college themselves. Many times the conversations that we have is about imposter syndrome and survivors guilt and how do you navigate the world once you leave college because you’re going to have the experiences that your families weren’t able to have and how do you bring your full authentic self to that. So I’m curious about your experience because you have so many of those similar experiences and how you’ve been able to move in a way that allows you to be healthy and be generative and how that influences the art because you’re having experiences that maybe the families that you come from never got a chance to experience.

Isabel Allende: Well, I think that’s the fate of humanity. We evolve. Each generation experiences what the previous generation did not. I have never experienced that imposter syndrome, that feeling that you shouldn’t be there. Look, I didn’t even finish high school, barely finish high school, and I have a doctorate from Harvard. When I was receiving the doctorate, I said, what the heck? These people are totally nuts. But I didn’t feel like an imposter. I felt that they were wrong. Not me. And the guilt because other people stating children suffer terribly. Many of my, not many, but some of my friends disappeared. Some of my relatives were killed. I don’t feel guilty because I saved myself and my children.

I don’t feel guilty about that. I feel furious that I had to experience that and that other people had to suffer what they suffered. But I feel that by being where I am now and writing from this safe place, I have been able to do a lot to let people know what happened. If I had stayed in Chile, I wouldn’t be here today. I would be dead. So, I don’t feel guilty about that. I think that what you have to tell the students, your students that feel that way is that, for God’s sake, be grateful that you can do this and go back to your parents and give them the gift of what you have and what you have achieved.

I’m asked all the time by Latinos and immigrants, many undocumented. They say that they feel that they have to choose between this culture and what they brought with them. I say, “Why do you have to choose? You can have both. You don’t have to choose. You can be bi-cultural, which is …” you can be richer. You can have more. More is more, that this thing that more is less or less is more. What’s that crap? More is more, less is less and we want more of everything.

Audience 4: You said that things are being done in television that had never been done in film before. If you can, could you elaborate on that and also specify if you’re talking about just like a broadcast television or TV shows like in short-form episodes that might have many seasons that could appear on streaming services as well since those are very popular now.

Isabel Allende: Yeah. Well, many books that would be impossible to do, almost impossible to do in a movie they do now in mini-series and they’re really very, very successful. Let me give you just one example, The Handmaid’s Tale, that was so successful that now they’re creating a second season third season with a book that they thought they could do in one season of eight episodes. That’s happening more and more. And they are looking also for books from Latin America or from Spain because there is a large Spanish speaking audience that watches TV all the time.

We have this culture in Latin America of the teleseries. Of course, the teleseries is just something … I mean long, long, like a dragon tail. But, for the American audience, it’s working very well to do the mini series, which we couldn’t be able to do in movies. They would not be interested in the movies. So now they’re going to do a mini-series with The House of the Spirits, which I think would work better than the movie because there’s more time.

Audience 5: There’s a novel by Paulo Freya, a Brazilian writer that talks about, it’s called the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s a system of teaching against like the system of oppression and the main theme of it is that to break a system of oppression, what you need to do is not try to balance the people. What you have to do is break the system itself and recreate it. So, my question is on the value of fantasy since in both the theater and in both writing, what you do is create essentially a set of fantasy for the reader to like immerse themselves in. My question is on the value and how you manage that fantasy so that the reader can, I guess immerse themselves to the fullest and really achieve whatever goal you’re trying to achieve.

Isabel Allende: I don’t think that what we create is fantasy that is not grounded on something. There are many ways of interpreting, understanding reality and breaking the system. An art has always been very important to the point that every time that you have an authoritarian regime, the first to perish are the artists and the journalists. People who can move the public opinion. And Art has an very important role in that. So that’s why in Chile, during the dictatorship, almost all artists including musicians and visual artists left. They couldn’t work in Chile because nothing was allowed and everything was felt by the authoritarian regime as threatening because it is threatening. It makes people think, what would you say?

Caridad Svich: Yeah. No, I agree and I also feel like art is free, and I think that’s why it’s attacked often. There’s the freedom of the imagination. It can go anywhere. I think you can’t contain it and I think that’s what is it’s greatest … in a way for authoritarian regimes, or for systems of oppression is its greatest threat.

Isabel Allende: Well, and sometimes art in one image or in one sentence can summarize an event, can summarize a feeling that nothing else could do in that way. Let’s think for example of the painting by Picasso Guernica. Guernica is a painting about the bombing of the city of Guernica in the Basque Country during the civil war in Spain in 1936. He created this painting that is today in a museum, and in a way it summarizes the whole civil war. If we think of the civil war in Spain, is Guernica. If we think of Vietnam, it could be summarizing the photograph of that little girl that is running with napalm exploding behind her and she’s all burned running naked.

That picture summarized the whole war. That’s what our art can do and we have to therefore allow art to express itself abundantly, because for that picture of the little girl, millions of pictures were taken in the war to create that image that would strike a chord in every human being. So, I think art needs money, audience and freedom, very important.

Peter Glazer: There couldn’t be a better place to bring this to a close. Thank you both, all of you very, very much. Michael, Isabel and Caridad. And thank you all for coming, thanks very much.