Holt Uncensored

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by Pat Holt

Friday, December 21, 2001


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Novelist Isabel Allende was talking about the power of language during her recent onstage interview for City Arts & Lectures at a packed Herbst Theater in San Francisco (see #289).

In one of the many unexpected twists of that night, Allende had turned from the idea of "an excess of patriotism" that can rise up after a tragedy such as the attacks of September 11, 2001, to the Orwellian nightmare that overtakes a country following a military coup.

Few writers could be more attuned to the signs of this kind of nationalistic fervor than the Chilean writer. Having witnessed a similar "you're for us or against us" message from the right-wing terrorists who took over the democracy of Chile - and who assassinated her uncle, then-president Salvador Allende, in 1973 - Isabel told the audience how it felt to watch a dictatorship of language, as well as government, overtake the culture.

"In 24 hours, words were forbidden by decree," she said. "You couldn't say the word 'companero,' which means companion; you couldn't say 'democracy' without adding an adjective - 'conditioned democracy,' 'authoritarian democracy,' even 'totalitarian democracy,' which was incredible.

"You had to be careful with the word 'people.' There were euphemisms to explain reality. That's why when I hear the language of patriotism, I'm so distressed. Words have this enormous power. We must use them properly. In writing, in the choice of the words I use, as a novelist I have the power to paint a scene. I decide what color I want by the way I tell it."

Working with her translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, Allende said that ordinarily the two will go through 40 pages or so without a problem before hitting "one of those ironies - subtle things you can only express in your own language,"

"She'll say, 'I can't translate this word verbatim - I have to put it in our culture,' " Isabel explained.

"For example, in Spanish, we use the word 'destiny' all the time - meaning fate, or luck. In English it's loaded, because Anglo Saxons feel they are very much in charge of their lives. They don't have this fatalistic approach to life that Latin Americans have. For us, destiny is just destiny. But for you, destiny is DESTINY."

Inevitably, the bawdy side of Allende emerged. "Sometimes when Margaret Peden is translating parts about love or love-making, she'll find my writing 'too much,' and has to tone it down.

"American men or English-speaking men don't have a vocabulary for love that we have in Spanish. Actually Spanish-speaking men have this wonderful vocabulary for love, but they don't know anything about foreplay. They are terrible lovers. That 'Latin Lover' business is a myth - they just talk nice. They think that the G spot is in your ear, so they don't even look for it anywhere else. Wait a minute - where were we?"

Since I'm the on-stage interviewer, I get to explain that we were talking about the power of language, and how Margaret Sayers Peden's concern that Allende's descriptions of love-making in Spanish are 'too much' if translated verbatim in English.

"Yes, the translator can't just translate," says Isabel. "She has to go into the culture of the reader. In Spanish, she says, my writing about sex may sound sensual and erotic. But in English, it sounds suspicious! Well, she's right. If an American man talked like that, you'd think he was weird. Fortunately, my [North American] husband thinks he speaks Spanish, so that helps."

Was it hard to write "Aphrodite," a survey of foods throughout the world that are considered aphrodisiacs?

"Oh, 'Aphrodite' is about lust and gluttony - the only two sins worth committing, in my opinion. However, 'Aphrodite' has many recipes in the back that - well, I made them all up. I didn't even try them out. I just said they were aphrodisiacs, and people believed it. It was amazing. But then I realized the world of food is a sacred world. You cannot say certain things or mix certain ingredients because people who are the food editors and the food critics and the gourmets are very jealous of their territory."

Allende wrote "Aphrodite" to find her writing voice again - playful, impassioned, provocative, ribald - after the death of her daughter Paula and the publication of "Paula," the book that started out as a letter to her daughter during the long months of extended coma. After "Paula," Allende was unable to do anything but face a blank screen.

"I was terrified I would never write a story again. But then I heard Anne Lamott say there is no such thing as writer's block. It's just that you've given everything away, and your reservoirs are empty.

"That was very revealing to me because I felt I had given everything to Paula, and that starting to write again was just a matter of filling up the reservoirs, of giving myself time.

"But I think also that therapy helped. Being a Chilean, I never went to therapy. I thought that was something that the gringos do.

"In any case, shortly after Paula died, my husband's daughter Jennifer died. So both our children were gone in the span of a year. Willie and I were grieving, but we're very strong people, and we did not admit to each other how much pain we had accumulated, and how much sorrow we were dealing with every day. We started going off into different directions. I began talking about divorce, but Willie had already been through the end of two marriages, so he said, 'Let's go to therapy.'

'Let's go to WHAT?' I said.

'Let's talk it out in therapy,' he said, because by this time we couldn't talk at all.

"I was very reluctant, but we went. The therapist was a Buddhist who had a shaved head, was dressed in a yellow tunic and drank green tea. I thought, 'Oh my god - Marin County,here we are."

"We talked about our lives while the therapist kept his eyes closed. I thought he was meditating and kept thinking how much money this was costing. But when he opened his eyes, they were full of tears, and he said, 'there's so much sadness! There's so much sadness! What has happened?" And Willie and I could say for the first time that we had a broken heart, and we could cry together for this terrible thing that had happened. So the therapist lost two clients, because from that moment on, we could talk."

Allende is so forthcoming and darts around so much in conversation that the audience is either laughing delightedly or stunned into silence. Throughout the evening, though, I kept sensing a subdued whisper floating here and there, and it was only until when the lights came up that I realized a good third to half the audience spoke Spanish as the primary language, had read Allende's books in Spanish, and had come to the theater to talk to her in Spanish.

Boy! If you ever wondered what kind of Spanish-language audience is out there for English-to-Spanish books, this evening was one great education. The subdued whisper, it turned out, had come from row after row in which a designated translator was delivering Isabel's remarks to a dozen others.

So many of the questions were asked in Spanish, and many of those that were asked in English by Spanish-speaking audience members came from young readers who stood up and said something like this: "I'm 16, and right now I'm real nervous because I'm all shaky and I think my heart's gonna, you know, go boom boom boom boom boom, so can you tell me . . . " and then the question would lapse into Spanish, which sounded like this to me, since I don't speak a language other than English:

"Soy Chileana, spanish spanish spanish spanish spanish spanish ROLE MODEL spanish spanish spanish spanish spanish spanish ROLE MODEL spanish spanish spanish spanish spanish spanish spanish?"

To this, Isabel would respond graciously in English and then in Spanish. In the question above, she said that it was true: "I didn't have many role models as a young girl, because there weren't many women writing at the time. Now as you say I have become a role model for many Latina women sitting in that row. I think it's a very heavy responsibility that I don't know if I want to have, but thank you for telling me."

And Allende added, bless her: "As to role models among Latina women today: In the last 15 years, American publishers have realized that most readers of fiction are women, and they like to read books by other women. So publishers are looking for women writers to cater to that female readership that is out there and that they have failed to see before. So now they are looking for Latina writers, many of whom could never have published before."

To this, the men in the audience - clearly half the house - nodded vigorously, and I thought: What a frontier this is! Isabel Allende may have opened the door to Spanish-language and women's audiences, but what a rich mixture of readers await her (and others') next book!



Wow, what a year. I'll be back after the holidays. Pat



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Although HarperCollins recently announced that it will publish Michael Moore's book, "Stupid White Men," after all (in February), the withholding of the book from publication in September because of its criticism of George Bush is a disturbing, and, I suspect, much more widespread practice than we realize.

Not to split hairs, I think we ought not to refer to HarperCollins' suppression of the book as "censorship." It would be censorship if the government gave orders not to publish it, or if there were some evidence that pressure had been brought to bear by some agency of the government. I suggest this only for the sake of clarity, so that we look carefully at the publisher's motives. What is operating here? As you point out, it's a climate of opinion, a basically commercial motive, with publishers thinking--readers won't like this now--won't BUY.

Along those lines, the December 3 PW carried a review of a book called COVER-UP OF CONVENIENCE by Ashton and Ferguson. According to the PW review this book seems to be a well-argued assertion that Libyan terrorists did not plant the bomb on Pan Am flight 103 that went down at Lockerbie, and that the CIA found it convenient to deflect attention from the more likely suspects because of some deals they were running. Interestingly, the Forecast note at the bottom says "in this time of patriotic fervor . . . charges the US government with serious crimes ... this will be a very hard sell to the media and book buyers."

In this case and in the Michael Moore case, and how many others, the effort seems to be to sell the public what they want, not to withhold information they want. We're dealing with denial here, which may be, in a fairly open society like ours, as hard (harder?) to deal with than government censorship.

Dorothy Bryant

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Should the majority of the citizens of the United States elect to convert to a totalitarian state and exercise censorship, so be it; it is their sovereign right.

At the same time, this lowly infidel would unceremoniously down a dose of hemlock and depart the worldly plane; as my country would no longer be the land of the free, nor a worthy home to this brave.

Meanwhile, I demand the inalienable right to be able to purchase my autographed copy of Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men and Other Excuses for the State of the Nation" (great title) anywhere, anytime. I'll even accept it with GWB's John Hancock, as I firmly believe the subject of a book deserves some credit as well.

Louis J. de Deaux

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your excellent column on Isabel Allende reminded me of an amusing anecdote when the author appeared on the Marian Jacobs Literary Forum of speakers presented annually by the Stockton Arts Commission. She came on the eve of publication of her first novel set in America, "The Infinite Plan." Bill Maxwell of Maxwell's Bookmark, Stockton's aggressive independent bookseller, was able to acquire advance copies of the book before they had been shipped to the nation's bookstores, including the local Barnes & Noble. Allende was unaware that we had them until she arrived for the 4 p.m. booksigning in the lobby of the theatre where she would speak that evening. She shouted in surprise and rushed over to the table of books. Allende, who said later she had not seen the finished book, stood there paging through it, exclaiming at the stylish dust jacket, which she had not yet seen. She became ecstatic and impulsively hugged the first person to approach her, who to my delight happened to be me. She of course filled the theatre for her remarks and left Stockton the only author that our Forum committee ever invited back. Vince Perrin, Director
Stockton Arts Commission

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your interview with Allende. She is remarkable! I have felt and have had the same experience/response after the death of my first-born son in his 24th year of life, as Allende had with the death of her daughter. This has been very difficult to explain to others as they stare at you with uncomprehending abilities. I, also, after many years of suppressing my feelings on this part of my life, have found relief and freedom by writing about him and about my feelings toward his life and death. Thank you immensely for sharing this with us.

Arlene S. Bice
Bordentown, New Jersey

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re Isabel Allende. Wow. The only thing more endearing than her words is the courage it took to say them to a packed house.

As (literary agent) Felicia Eth once said, Isabel's words made me forget that I'm in the business and made me remember why I'm in the business. It is the enduring beauty and power of words that brought Isabel to where she is today.

What I tell writers in our classes is that "The simplest recipe I know of for happiness is to find the gift that only you can give, the song that only you can sing and give it to the world. Writers have a wonderful opportunity not just to make a living but to make a difference."

My brother was a poet when he wasn't running a software company. After he died from cancer at the age of 46, part of his legacy to me is the certainty that life's greatest pleasure is sharing love, beauty and truth. Isabel said the same thing in other words.

Mike Larsen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm finding the online English edition of Al-Ahram Weekly, the Egyptian newspaper of record, a useful source of alternate perspectives on the Mideast, and ran across this excellent overview of the censorship problems in the US that you wrote about. Thought I'd pass it along.


Alan Gleason

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