I Am a Collector of Experiences
“I am a collector of experiences. I draw from other people’s lives, especially the strong and passionate women I meet everywhere”. Isabel Allende’s words, as she received the 2018 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (DCAL), resonated deeply with me.
Our personal journey has many things in common; we both come from South America, started our careers as journalists and made the United States our new home. But the most important connection we share is our passion to write stories that bring people together and help us overcome our differences and understand what unites us as human beings.
“I write to preserve memory against the ocean of oblivion, to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories”, she said. It is the power of human stories what truly touches our soul as readers.
Allende’s body of work, with more than two dozen works of fiction, memoir and essay, gives us a small glimpse into her soul as a writer and a woman. Her 1982 debut novel The House of the Spirits propelled her into the literary limelight and the public consciousness.
Written in her native Spanish, Allende’s work has been translated into 35 languages and has sold nearly 70 million copies across the globe, a testament to her work’s broad, global significance. Allende is the recipient of many distinguished honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to her by Barack Obama in 2014.
Prior to becoming a novelist, Allende spent many years as a journalist in Chile. Her family was forced to flee to Venezuela following the 1973 coup that deposed her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, and installed Augusto Pinochet as dictator, an experience that would inform her groundbreaking first novel, which established Allende as a significant talent. Critically acclaimed in South America and beyond, The House of the Spirits is a multigenerational story of a family’s history in Chile from the 1920s to ’70s, and heralded a new voice in the male-dominated canon of Latin-American literature.
“Through expertly crafted and propulsive narratives, Allende elevates the stories and lives of women, never condescending to her readers or cheapening the experiences of her characters,” said Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “Allende’s work is proof that artistic excellence and commercial viability are not exclusive concepts, and that stories about women written with women in mind are not only good business, but also represent crucial contributions to the literary landscape.”
Allende immigrated to the United States in 1987. Her experiences as an immigrant, journalist, and former political refugee continue to inform much of her work, which concerns itself with issues of human rights, social justice, and the struggles women face in achieving parity of power. While many of her stories are imbued with notes of magic realism, Allende writes broadly across subjects, speaking to greater truths about power, identity, love, family, displacement, and loss.
Allende became a U.S. citizen in 1993, but lives, she says, with one foot in California and the other in Chile. Allende is the first female Hispanic and 31st recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include Annie Proulx, Robert A. Caro, John Ashbery, Judy Blume, Don DeLillo, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Eudora Welty, and Tom Wolfe.