Isabel Allende, winner of the National Book Foundation´s Medal

SANTIAGO – Isabel Allende was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on November 14, 2018. She is the first Spanish-language writer to receive the award and only the second to be born outside the United States. As an advocate for feminism and passion, Allende dedicated her award to immigration with a political and inspiring speech.

On November 14, 2018, Allende was honored by the National Book Foundation. The foundation awarded her the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for her “expansive body of work – made up of nearly two dozen works of fiction, memoir, and essay – and her role as a critical figure of Latin American literature, as well as a wildly successful writer of titles in translation in the United States, Allende’s adopted country.”

Allende has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in California since 1987 and became a U.S. citizen in 1993. With this award, she is now the first Spanish-language author to be honored and only the second to be born outside the United States.

The medal was presented by Pulitzer prize finalist and Mexican-US writer Luis Alberto Urrea. Allende was acclaimed for having “profoundly emotional connections with readers around the world” by David Steinberger, chair of the foundation’s board. Executive director Lisa Lucas also spoke about Allende’s female-empowering writing and how it “elevates the stories and lives of women, never condescending to her readers or cheapening the experiences of her characters.”

Upon receiving the medal, Allende oriented her speech politically, dedicating it to “millions of people like myself who have come to this country in search of a new life.” She, herself an immigrant in various countries around the world, understands what it means to be a “foreigner.” Nevertheless, she mentioned how proud she was to be a US-American citizen and expressed her thoughts about finally feeling ready to settle down.

Allende also took the opportunity to speak about the political situation now in the United States as it relates to immigrants. As reported in The Guardian, she emphasized, “This is a dark time, my friends. It’s a time of war in many places, and potential war everywhere. A time of nationalism and racism; of cruelty and fanaticism. A time when the values and principles that sustain our civilization are under siege. It’s a time of violence and poverty for many; masses of people, who are forced to leave everything that is familiar to them and undertake dangerous journeys to save their lives.”

According to the National Book Foundation, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters “recognizes individuals who have made an exceptional impact on this country’s literary heritage”; and Allende’s impact on U.S. literary heritage is a direct result of her “experiences as an immigrant, journalist, and former political refugee,” which “inform much of her work.”

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Early Life

Allende’s early life was spent in and out of Chile. She was born on August 2, 1942, in Peru, where her father, a Chilean diplomat, was posted. Three years later, her parents’ marriage was annulled, and her mother moved her and two siblings to Santiago, Chile. Then, in the 1950s, she attended a North American school in Bolivia and an English school in Lebanon. She ultimately returned to Santiago in 1958 to complete her studies and begin her professional life.

During the 1960s, Allende joined the United Nations to work in the Food and Agriculture Organization in Santiago. Apart from political endeavors, Allende also worked as TV show host ; co-founded the magazine Paula, the first feminist magazine in Chile; became editor-in-chief of a popular children’s magazine named Mampato; and published children’s stories.

She was not to stay in Chile, however. Two years after Augusto Pinochet took over the government through a coup d’état in 1973, Allende was forced to seek protection in Venezuela.

In Allende’s own words, she was in danger not because she was a relative of the overthrown ex-president, Salvador Allende (her father’s first cousin), but because she was a journalist: “I was on a blacklist. I was threatened, but also I was helped because someone who had information … told me to get out. To get out immediately.” She remained in Venezuela for 13 years writing a column in the Venezuelan newspaper, El Nacional.

International Writer

In a TED talk, Allende says she lived in anonymity until the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, when she was a flag-bearer (one of five women, representing five continents, together with three Olympic gold medalists): “[t]hat made me a celebrity. Now people recognize me in Macy’s [a U.S. department store], and my grandchildren think that I’m cool.”

Sophia Loren and Isabel Allende at the opening ceremony of the Olympics at Turin 2006

As reported elsewhere, the 5-foot tall author has also joked about her placement in the procession behind statuesque Sophia Loren: “Everyone was staring at Sophia … Fortunately, I was right behind her. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been in any of the pictures. As it was, I kind of appear between her legs.

Although small in stature and anonymous in public immediately prior to the 2006 Winter Olympics, Allende was nevertheless a literary giant and world-famous author long before the Olympics. Among other things she had already written her most famous work, Casa de los Espíritus (The House of the Spirits), which was a worldwide bestseller.

The book was born out of a goodbye letter Allende wrote to her grandfather when she was notified that he was dying. It was published in 1982 in Spanish, and in 1985 in English. It was named “One of the best 60 books of the past 60 years” by the London Times in 2009.  

To date, Allende has published over 22 books, including a memoir about her daughter Paula, who died in 1992. Allende is well-known for her “multigenerational narratives and ‘magical realism’ style of writing that speak to greater truths about power, identity, love, family, displacement, and loss.”

Over the years, she has sold more than 60 million copies of her books, and they have been translated into 42 different languages. Other famous works of hers include De Amor y de Sombra, La Isla Bajo el Mar, Ciudad de Bestias, and Historia de Eva Luna. Most of her books revolve around strong women and their journeys, which Allende is very passionate about .

Internationally Allende has won many prizes for her work, not only as a writer but as an advocate for women and children’s lives. Chile has given her the Gabriela Mistral Inter-American Prize for Culture and the National Prize for Literature – this latter being the most prestigious literary award Chile has to offer. Spain, Denmark, the United States, and other countries have also lauded her work. San José State University in California even had an “Isabel Allende Day” in 2012.  

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Advocate for Women

Allende has been honored all around the world for her stance on women’s rights. One of her accomplishments is establishing the Isabel Allende Foundation in 1996 in honor of her deceased daughter Paula. She explains that the foundation is “dedicated to supporting programs that promote and preserve the fundamental rights of women and children to be empowered and protected.”

Two years later, she was granted the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize which is awarded each year to “a man or a woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

During her Ted Talk, Allende also speaks about her search for truth in passion and how it has inspired her own writing. She mentions other powerful and influential women around the world who have made her want to fight for women’s rights and relates trips around the world to poor villages. In these places, she encountered women who one way or another had been abused by the power of men. She then concluded, “The poorest and most backwards societies are always those who put women down. Yet this obvious truth is ignored by government and also by philanthropy.” Allende also reveals that she herself comes from a very orthodox family, where she never felt comfortable thinking differently.

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Next Novel

Allende has been working on a new novel since January expected to be released in 2019. According to Culto, the book is about poet/diplomat Pablo Neruda’s heroic acts during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s: he helped numerous Spanish families emigrate to Chile. The novel will mark the 80th anniversary of the arrival of 2,200 of these Spanish immigrants to Chile.

Allende says that the book was easy to write, because there is a wealth of information about the event, including survivors whom she interviewed. It is a story about people who shaped much of what Chilean society looks like today, alongside some of Neruda’s own poems.

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