Isabel Allende (born in Lima, Peru, on 2 August 1942) is a Chilean American writer. Allende, whose works sometimes contain aspects of the "magic realist" tradition, is famous for novels such as The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus, 1982) and City of the Beasts (La ciudad de las bestias, 2002), which have been commercially successful. Allende has been called "the world's most widely read Spanish-language author". In 2004, Allende was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2010, she received Chile's National Literature Prize. Allende's novels are often based upon her personal experience and pay homage to the lives of women, while weaving together elements of myth and realism. She has lectured and toured many American colleges to teach literature. Fluent in English as a second language, Allende was granted American citizenship in 2003, having lived in California with her American husband since 1989.
Allende was born in Lima, Peru, the daughter of Francisca Llona Barros and Tomás Allende, who was at the time the Chilean ambassador to Peru. Her father was a first cousin of Salvador Allende, President of Chile from 1970 to 1973; so Salvador is her first cousin once removed. Many sources cite Allende as being Salvador Allende's niece (without specifying that the relationship is that Tomas and Salvador are cousins)the confusion stems from Allende herself often referring to Salvador as her "'uncle" (tío) in her private life and public interviews. This is because in Spanish a "first cousin once removed" is translated as "second degree uncle" (tío en segundo grado).
In 1945, after Tomás had disappeared, Isabel's mother relocated with her three children to Santiago, Chile, where they lived until 1953. Between 1953 and 1958, Allende's mother married Ramón Huidobro and moved often. Huidobro was a diplomat appointed to Bolivia and Beirut. In Bolivia, Allende attended a North American private school; and in Beirut, Lebanon she attended an English private school. The family returned to Chile in 1958. Allende was also briefly home-schooled. In her youth, she read widely, particularly the works of William Shakespeare.
While living in Chile, Allende finished her secondary studies and met engineering student Miguel Frías whom she married in 1962. Reportedly, "Allende married early, into an Anglophile family and a kind of double life: at home she was the obedient wife and mother of two; in public she became, after a spell translating Barbara Cartland, a moderately well-known TV personality, a dramatist and a journalist on a feminist magazine."
From 1959 to 1965, Allende worked with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization in Santiago, Chile, then in Brussels, Belgium, and elsewhere in Europe. For a brief while in Chile, she also had a job translating romance novels from English to Spanish. However, she was fired for making unauthorized changes to the dialogue of the heroines to make them sound more intelligent as well as altering the Cinderella endings to let the heroines find more independence and do good in the world.
Allende and Frías' daughter Paula was born in 1963. In 1966, Allende again returned to Chile and her son Nicolás was born there that year.
Reportedly, "the CIA-backed military coup in September 1973 (that brought Augusto Pinochet to power) changed everything" for Allende because "her name meant she was caught up in finding safe passage for those on the wanted lists" (helping until her mother and stepfather, a diplomat in Argentina, narrowly escaped assassination). When she herself was added to the list and began receiving death threats, she fled to Venezuela, where she stayed for 13 years. In Venezuela she was a columnist for El Nacional, a main newspaper. In 1978 she began a temporary separation from Miguel Frías. She lived in Spain for two months, then returned to her marriage.
During a visit to California in 1988, Allende met her second husband, attorney Willie Gordon. In 1994, she was awarded the Gabriela Mistral Order of Merit, the first woman to receive this honor. Allende currently lives in San Rafael, California. Most of her family lives near her, with her son living "with his second wife and her grandchildren just down the hill; her son and his family live in the house she and her second husband, San Francisco lawyer and novelist William Gordon, vacated." In 2006, she was one of the eight flag bearers at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. In 2008, Allende received the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters from San Francisco State University for her "distinguished contributions as a literary artist and humanitarian." Allende started the Isabel Allende Foundation on 9 December 1996 to pay homage to her daughter, Paula Frías Allende who experienced a coma after complications of the disease porphyria led to her hospitalization. Paula was only 28 years old when she died in 1992. The foundation is "dedicated to supporting programs that promote and preserve the fundamental rights of women and children to be empowered and protected."
Beginning in 1967, Allende was on the editorial staff for Paula magazine, and from 1969 to 1974 for the children's magazine Mampato, where she later was the editor. She published two children's stories, La Abuela Panchita (Grandmother Panchita) and Lauchas y Lauchones, as well as a collection of articles, Civilice a Su Troglodita. She also worked in Chilean television production for channels 7 (humorous programs) and 13 from 1970 to 1974. As a journalist, she once sought an interview with Pablo Neruda, a notable Chilean poet. While Neruda accepted the interview, he told her that she had too much imagination to be a journalist and should be a novelist instead. He also advised her to compile her satirical columns in book form. She did so, and this became her first published book. In 1973, Allende's play El Embajador played in Santiago, a few months before she was forced to flee the country due to the coup.
In Allende's time in Venezuela, she was a freelance journalist for El Nacional in Caracas from 1976 to 1983 and an administrator of the Marrocco School in Caracas from 1979 to 1983.
When Allende, in exile in 1981, received a phone call that her 99-year-old grandfather was near death, she sat down to write him a letter and thereby "keep him alive, at least in spirit." She started writing him a letter that later evolved into a book manuscript, The House of the Spirits (1982); the intent of this work was to exorcise the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship. The book was rejected by numerous Latin American publishers, but finally the novel was published in Spain. The book soon ran into more than two dozen editions in Spanish, and was translated into a score of languages. The book was a great success; Allende was compared to Gabriel García Márquez as an author of the style known as magical realism.
Allende's books have since become known for their vivid storytelling. Although Allende is often lumped together with the literary style of magical realism, her works often display elements of post-Boom literature, and as such her style cannot be described as purely adhering to magical realism. Allende also holds to a very methodical literary routine. She writes using a computer, working Monday through Saturday, 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. "I always start on 8 January", Allende stated; "a tradition she began in 1981 with a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather that would become the groundwork for her first novel, The House of the Spirits."
Allende's book Paula (1995) is a memoir of her childhood in Santiago, Chile and the following years she spent in exile. It is written as an anguished letter to her daughter, who suffered from porphyria--a metabolic disorder that is rarely fatal. In 1991, an error in medication resulted in severe brain damage and left Paula in a persistent vegetative state. But months passed at Paula's bedside before Allende learned that a hospital mishap had caused irreversible brain damage. Allende had her moved to a hospital in California where she died on 6 December 1992. The book, as much a celebration of Allende's turbulent life as the chronicle of Paula's death, is a best seller in the U.S., Latin America and Europe.
Allende's novels have been translated from Spanish into over 30 languages and sold more than 56 million copies. There are three movies based on her novels currently in production — Aphrodite, Eva Luna and Gift for a Sweetheart. Her 2008 book, The Sum of Our Days is a memoir. It focuses on her recent life with her immediate family, which includes her grown son, Nicolás; second husband, William Gordon; and several grandchildren. A novel set in New Orleans was published in 2010, The Island Beneath the Sea. In 2011 came El Cuaderno de Maya ("Maya's Notebook"), a novel in which the setting alternates between Berkeley, California, and Chiloé in Chile.
Despite her commercial success, Allende has been the subject of biting negative criticism from other authors and literary critics — among them Roberto Bolaño and Giannina Braschi who declared in her novel "Yo-Yo Boing!" that Isabel Allende is "killing García Márquez a little more each day the same way Michael Jackson's sisters are killing Michael Jackson." In an article published in Entre paréntesis, Bolaño writes that Allende's literature is anemic and compares it to a person on his deathbed. Bolaño has been one of her harshest critics, saying that it is to give her credit to call her a writer and that she is rather a "writing machine". Literary critic Harold Bloom concurs with Bolaño that Allende is a bad writer, and adds that she only reflects a determinate period and that afterwards everybody will have forgotten her. Of Bolaño, Allende said to El Clarín that she is honoured to be represented by him as a Chilean, although she remembered Bolaño regarded her as trash. In the same interview, Allende recognises that she has rarely had good criticism in Chile and that Chilean intellectuals "detest" her. Novelist Gonzalo Contreras says that "she commits a grave error, to confuse commercial success with literary quality". Allende disagrees with these assessments of her, and she has also been quoted as saying:
The fact people think that when you sell a lot of books you are not a serious writer is a great insult to the readership. I get a little angry when people try to say such a thing. There was a review of my last book in one American paper by a professor of Latin American studies and he attacked me personally for the sole reason that I sold a lot of books. That is unforgivable.
Alternatively, it has been noted that "Allende's impact not only on Latin American literature but also on world literature cannot be overestimated." The Los Angeles Times has called Allende "a genius," and she has received many international awards, including the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, granted to writers "who have contributed to the beauty of the world." She has recently been called a "literary legend" by Latino Leaders Magazine, which in its 2007 article named Allende as the third most influential Latino leader in the world.