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9 Quick Questions for Isabel Allende

Chilean American author has new novel, ‘The Wind Knows My Name’

spinner image isabel allende wearing a blue jean jacket and smiling against a pink background
Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Lori Barra)

A new novel by author Isabel Allende, 80, is always cause for celebration by literary fiction fans. Her latest, The Wind Knows My Name, is an absorbing story centered on 7-year-old Anita Díaz, whose mother disappears after they escape violence in El Salvador for the U.S. The author spoke to AARP about the novel and her remarkable life, which includes fleeing Chile for Venezuela after General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup and publishing her first of many acclaimed books, The House of the Spirits, in 1982 at age 40. 

You’ve said, “I can only write about what I’m passionate about.” What makes you passionate about Anita’s story?

First, I have been a political refugee and an immigrant, so I know what it is to be displaced. I have a foundation [The Isabel Allende Foundation] that works with organizations that are doing work on the border, not only here in the United States, but we work with refugees also in Europe, for example, from Syria, from Ukraine, from Africa. So I know the plight of refugees, and I am passionate about it, because I know so many, so many stories. We tend to think in numbers — so many millions of refugees. That doesn't mean anything until you meet a person, know the name, see the face, hear the story. And that’s my job — to build a story. So I heard about a girl like Anita through my foundation, and it just broke my heart.

spinner image cover of isabel allende's book the wind knows my name, showing a woman from the back with a blue butterfly in her braided black hair
Allende's new novel, ‘The Wind Knows My Name,’ was inspired by a true story about a young refugee.
Penguin Random House

If you hadn’t become a novelist, what do you think you would have done?

Well, I was a journalist and a very happy one until the military coup. And then I had to get out of my country and I couldn’t work as a journalist anymore. And I did all sorts of odd jobs in Venezuela to make a living until I started writing. But that was much, much later. I was almost 40. I think that without the need to get out, and the years of exile and silence and hardship, I don’t think I would have had the need to write my first novel. So I would be in Chile. Probably a journalist — by now a retired journalist, I suppose.

When you think of “home,” is there a specific place that comes to mind?

It’s my house in California. But my place is really in my roots, and really in my books. And in the few people I love, in memories. I’m surrounded by the photographs of the people I have lost and that I love — my roots are with them, too. Home is not so much a place. If my son moved to Kenya, for example, I would move with him. I would never be separated from him. So that will be my home — where my loved ones are.

What kinds of books do you like to read?

I read in a very disorganized way. I read a lot for research, so that takes most of my time. And then I read fiction for pleasure — usually audiobooks in the car or on my Kindle when I travel. And I enjoy many different books. I enjoy a lighthearted novel like Lessons in Chemistry [by Bonnie Garmus], and I enjoy reading again [Albert] Camus’ work, because it’s so inspiring. And, of course, I read a lot in Spanish — books from Latin America.

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Are there any TV shows you are currently loving?

Every night after dinner, my husband and I watch TV — we try to find a movie. We try to avoid the miniseries or series because we get totally attached and wait for the next week with such impatience that our lives become very hard. If the series is an old one, then you can binge on several episodes and that’s fine. But when you have to wait — ugh, that’s so anxiety producing! We were watching Marie Antoinette, a BBC production, and it was great, but now we are stuck because we have to wait — they have not done another season yet. She will meet the guillotine sooner or later, but we’re waiting for that moment.

Did you do anything special to celebrate turning 80 last year?

I don’t like to celebrate my birthday. I've never liked it. I don’t know. I just don’t like to be the center of attention at a party. I find that ridiculous [laughs].

What do you think is the best thing about growing older?

Freedom. That I really don’t have to worry about what other people think about me. Because, first of all, I have learned that nobody’s thinking about me to begin with. So, all my life, worrying about that? … And the fact that I don’t have to take care of anybody anymore. I am with my husband [Roger Cukras], and we take care of each other for as long as love lasts. And that’s it. But we have also the freedom of separating if we want to. My only real responsibility now is our two dogs, two mutts. That’s all I have to worry about.

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Is there any advice you would give your 20-year-old self?

Take your time. You don't have to be running around and trying to do everything perfect — always busy. You know, when I look back at my life, there are so many things that I missed because I was working too hard. I was scared that I couldn’t make a living to support my kids. … Just relax. I never relaxed.

What do you feel grateful for today?

Well, first of all, that I wake up in a warm bed, protected, safe, with a cup of coffee, two dogs and a husband — everybody in the same bed. That makes me incredibly happy and grateful. And then I open the window and I see the water, because I live close to a lagoon, and I see the flowers in my garden and the ducks, and how can I not be grateful? I’m healthy, nothing hurts. I know that I will get up at 6 in the morning or even before, and I have a job to do. I’m not idle. I’m not alone. I have a purpose and a community. And for an old person, those are the three things that are most important: basic resources and health, community and a purpose.


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