During this third day of Women’s History Month I’ve been reading El Cuaderno de Maya (Maya’s Notebook), by a female writer of historic significance, Isabel Allende. My Spanish teacher was shrewd: he brought the book in one day and together we read the first few pages in the original language. It’s been the bulk of my weekly assignment ever since. I was hooked after the first paragraph, those few lines with which the author somehow evoked Maya’s personality, suggested her recent and risky history, tantalized me about her grandmother’s story, and most of all made me want to read her notebook. In English, as translated by Anne McLean, it reads:

A week ago my grandmother gave me a dry-eyed hug at the San Francisco airport and told me again that if I valued my life at all, I should not get in touch with anyone I knew until we could be sure my enemies were no longer looking for me. My Nini is paranoid, as the residents of the People’s Independent Republic of Berkeley tend to be, persecuted as they are by the government and extraterrestrials, but in my case she wasn’t exaggerating: no amount of precaution could ever be enough. She handed me a hundred-page notebook so I could keep a diary, as I did from the age of eight until I was fifteen, when my life went off the rails. “You’re going to have time to get bored, Maya. Take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them,” she said. Several of my diaries are still in existence, sealed with industrial-strength adhesive tape. My grandfather kept them under lock and key in his desk for years, and now my Nini has them in a shoebox under her bed. This will be notebook number nine. My Nini believes they’ll be of use to me when I get psychoanalyzed, because they contain the keys to untie the knots of my personality; but if she’d read them, she’d know they contain a huge pile of tales tall enough to outfox Freud himself. My grandmother distrusts professionals who charge by the hour on principle, since quick results are not profitable for them. However, she makes an exception for psychiatrists, because one of them saved her from depression and from the traps of magic when she took it into her head to communicate with the dead.

Allende’s first novel, almost incredibly, was The House of the Spirits, epic in scope and powerful in its emotional and intellectual impact. From my perspective as an adoptive Northern Californian–a status she shares–her novel Daughter of Fortune is particularly interesting, because it moves from Chile to the founding of San Francisco as a modern city, during the Gold Rush. Her descriptions of modern-day Berkeley are so incisive (and funny) that although I’ve never been to Chile, I feel that Santiago, too, must be exactly as her words describe it. She has a stunning command of language, poetic yet straight-shooting, with phrases that can make you laugh out loud and shake your head in sorrow at the same time. In 2010, Allende was awarded Chile’s National Prize for Literature, one of only a few women to have received that recognition.

She was exiled from her native land in 1973 by the military coup and the assassination of Salvador Allende (her father’s cousin, or in Spanish, her tío en segundo grado). In an introduction to a memoir, she writes that the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center made her a U.S. American:

I no longer feel that I am an alien in the United States. When I watched the collapse of the towers, I had a sense of having lived a nearly identical nightmare. By a blood-chilling coincidence–historic karma–the commandeered airplanes struck their U.S. targets on a Tuesday, September 11, exactly the same day of the week and month–and at almost the same time in the morning–of the 1973 military coup in Chile, a terrorist act orchestrated by the CIA against a democracy. The images of burning buildings, smoke, flames, and panic are similar in both settings. That distant Tuesday in 1973 my life was split in two; nothing was ever again the same; I lost a country. That fateful Tuesday in 2001 was also a decisive moment; nothing will ever again be the same, and I gained a country. (“A Few Words of Introduction,” My Invented Country, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Not having yet read the book, I don’t know why the ironic twinning of these tragedies led to her feeling that she had gained a country. How does one even make a home in the country that destroyed one’s homeland, much less proudly claim that new nationality as one’s identity? If anyone can trace the complexities of that journey in such as way as to bring us along and make us understand, it’s Isabel Allende.

 

(An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that the English translation of El Cuaderno de Maya was by Allende herself, and omitted the names of the translators of both books quoted.)

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