Isabel Allende: "I have lived the horror of drugs"

The Books Interview.

The narrator of your new novel is a 19- year-old American who knows next to nothing about her grandmother’s past in Chile. What do your grandchildren know of your Chilean past?
I have taken them to Chile but they don’t speak Spanish. I don’t think they know very much about Chile. They don’t quite understand what a military dictatorship is – they can’t envisage it. It’s hard to explain this. I’ve written books about it and I hope some day they’ll read them with attention.

They’re growing up as Americans. Do you talk to them about the role the US played in overthrowing the government of Salvador Allende?
Yes, all the time. And not only to my grandchildren. I live in the US and I think it is my duty, every time I speak in public, to tell Americans what their foreign policy has been, the awful things that have been done in the name of democracy.

We get a glimpse of Chile’s past in this book. Was this a way of reaching back to a pre-Pinochet Chile?
I’ve always been interested not so much in the pre-Pinochet period as in the time during which we had the dictatorship – 17 years in which the country changed completely. It became very polarised and divided.

Even today, nearly 25 years after the dictatorship ended, there are people who deny the atrocities that were committed during the time the military was in power; or else they will justify them – they will say, “It was either that or become a communist dictatorship.” And there are other people who suffered during that time, who were in prison or tortured or had to leave and live in exile – such people can see nothing positive in the years of dictatorship.

In the novel, there is a secret in the narrator Maya’s family, which she discovers at the very end of the book. There’s a secret in the family and there’s a secret in the country. So, in a way, the micro-melodrama of that family is amplified by the macro-melodrama of the country.

Maya flees to the island of Chiloé, where she listens to the islanders’ stories. Have the stories of Chile’s indigenous peoples influenced you as a writer?
I grew up in my grandfather’s house and my grandfather was a great storyteller. At that time, there was no television in Chile and the radio was forbidden at home – my grandfather considered it an instrument of vulgar ideas. So we would listen to his stories. There was a mythological, epic quality to even the most banal story.

Maya has been brought up in Berkeley, California, which occupies a special place in the American imagination, doesn’t it?
Yes. It’s known as the “Independent Popular Republic of Berkeley”! It’s very liberal. The last remaining old hippies all live in Berkeley. You see them with their Birkenstock sandals. I love it. I go there all the time, although I live on the other side of the bay.

One of the themes of the book is the deranging effects of grief. We learn from Maya’s journal that she went off the rails after her grandfather died.
She adores her grandfather and when he dies she feels abandoned. So she gets in with the wrong people and ends up running away from home and becoming homeless, on drugs. But it’s the memory of the grandfather that saves her. I have lived through the tragedy of my husband’s children. They’re all addicts. The daughter has died. The elder son has spent half his life in prison. And in March, the younger son died of an overdose. So the family is in a very dark place right now.

I have lived the horror of drugs, how they destroy not only the person who takes them but the people around that person. It’s very hard to survive addiction.

The book is also about the redeeming power of writing, isn’t it? Writing is a way for Maya to process her grief.
I’ve lived that, too. Writing a memoir about the death of my daughter saved me from going crazy. It allowed me to understand and accept what happened. I will always carry sadness with me but it has not destroyed my life. I was able to process it, as you say – it was very cathartic.

Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook” is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99)

Isabel Allende at the Rome Literature Festival in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis