Isabel Allende: ‘It would be terrible for the United States, and for humanity, if Trump were to be elected president again’

The Chilean writer has authored her first children’s book: ‘Perla The Mighty Dog.’ In this work, she explores the problem of bullying and the importance of facing our fears. ‘If we face what we fear the most, it turns out that it’s not so terrible,’ she says, during a interview with EL PAÍS

La escritora Isabel Allende fotografiada en su casa de Sausalito, en el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco.
Writer Isabel Allende photographed at her home in Sausalito, in the San Francisco Bay Area, in January 2021.Lori Barra
Carlos S. Maldonado

The prolific Chilean writer Isabel Allende returned to bookstores this week, with her first children’s book: Perla: The Mighty Dog. It’s a story that was born from an everyday event. One day, Allende, 81, had gone out to walk with her little dog, who has the same name as the pet in her book. Perla approached a tree and started barking at a squirrel. Suddenly, a large dog broke off its leash and began to attack her.

“Everyone ran to hold the [big] dog, but we couldn’t get there in time. Perla turned around and faced him. I’d never seen her like that: all her hair stood up, she was foaming at the mouth. She growled like a beast and the dog turned around and ran away. After that, people took videos and photos and Perla became a celebrity in the park,” the author tells EL PAÍS, smiling through a video call.

Her dog and a little neighbor — who visits her on Tuesdays and Thursdays — became the inspiration for the book. “My agent had been telling me for a long time to write a story for little children, an illustrated story. I didn’t have small children around, because my children and my grandchildren are already grown. But there’s a neighbor who comes to see me on Tuesdays and Thursdays; I’ve known her since she was born and now she’s three-and-a-half-years-old. Her name is Camila and she enters the house shouting ‘book, book, book!’ The only thing she wants is to read. First, we read a book and then, she has an ice cream. Those two days are sacred for her and, deep down, they’ve become sacred for me, too. Everything came together there,” Allende recalls.

The book — published with illustrations by Sandy Rodríguez — tells the story of Nico, a little boy whose family rescues a dog who will soon become his best friend. The boy is bullied at school, but he doesn’t tell anyone about it. Allende reproduces the park scene in the story and Perla’s attitude towards the dog that wants to attack her. The small dog’s courage helps the boy confront his attackers. “That gave me the idea that, oftentimes, if we face what we fear most, it turns out that it’s not so terrible,” says the author of Island Beneath the Sea (2009) and Paula (1994), the story about the illness and death of her daughter.

In this interview with EL PAÍS, Allende discusses her own childhood, wandering around the world with her diplomat parents. Their work caused her to constantly change schools and grow up as a shy, isolated girl. She also speaks about the things or situations that inspire her books, while also touching on current events. Allende worries about all the power that “bullies” have accumulated in the world. She fears, for instance, that Donald Trump will return to power in the United States, though she’s also concerned about the conservative shift that’s being registered in many countries.

“People feel that they’re not represented in democracy and that democracy is as corrupt as anything else. They’re looking for an authoritarian leader. Look what has happened in El Salvador,” she says, in reference to President Nayib Bukele. “I think it would be terrible for the United States — and for humanity — if Donald Trump were to be president again. I hope it doesn’t happen, but there are many possibilities that it will happen, despite his scandals,” says the acclaimed Chilean author, in an interview which she grants to EL PAÍS from her home in the small seaside city of Sausalito, north of San Francisco.

Question. In your books, you explore human relationships. But, in this particular work, you focus on the relationship between a boy and his dog. You’ve said in the past that you like dogs more than people...

Answer. Of course, because dogs are loyal, friendly, fun, and they don’t talk back to you.

Q. Nico — the young protagonist of the book — suffers from bullying at school. You say in the book that “bullies are cowards.” Is the book a message against child abuse?

A. I don’t like the idea of giving a message, but rather telling a story. And if the story teaches you something good, so much the better. I had the idea that, if we face what we fear most, it turns out that it’s not so terrible. I think that, first of all, parents and teachers have to be watching and trying to protect [children], but there also has to be an attitude on the part of the child to defend themselves.

Q. Oftentimes, children are silent. Do you think that a child who suffers from abuse can act like Nico did when reading this story?

A. A little abused child has so few defenses. I was never bullied at school, but I changed schools all the time, because my parents were diplomats. I spent my childhood changing schools, countries, friends. I always felt excluded: that feeling of not belonging, of not having a single friend. At recess, I would be hiding behind a book, pretending that I was reading so that it wouldn’t be obvious how alone I was.

Q. How did you face that exclusion?

A. I could never face it, because when I started to make friends, I had to go somewhere else.

In life, I’ve learned to take the initiative of friendship. But when I was young — and especially when I was a girl — I was extremely shy. I didn’t dare take any initiative. If nobody invited me to [join them], I stayed in my corner with a book.

Q. It’s strange, because you’ve said that one of your powers is to make people laugh.

A. You change a lot with age. Your circumstances change. I began to bring out my personality and feel at ease when we finally returned to Chile. I was 16-years-old then and I finally entered a school with the idea that I was going to stay in a country for good. At that time, I began to feel more confident about myself, but it was very difficult for me.

Q. Being uprooted hit you hard.

A. Of course it did. My parents weren’t even with me, because they were in Turkey. I went to live at my grandfather’s house and everything was strange and nobody helped me. I couldn’t go out anywhere, because my grandfather was super strict. He didn’t have much of a social life, either. I was very feminist, full of ideas and very rebellious, but I behaved well, I got good grades and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to jump out the window to escape, like my granddaughter did. She escaped from her room to the neighbor’s roof…

Q. Maybe that kind of freedom helps children become more independent.

A. Sure. My son, Nicolás, was terrible. I still don’t know all the evil things he did, but some are legendary.

Q. What kind of things did he do?

A. I’m going to tell you about one incident. We lived in Caracas, in [the neighborhood of] Los Palos Grandes, where the buildings are next to each other. Nicolás would throw eggs with a slingshot at the building in front of us, with the idea of putting it through a window and having the egg fall inside an apartment. He never hit it and the egg fell against the wall of the building, in the summer heat of Caracas. The egg ran downwards and it turned into an omelette. Then, people would complain to me and I would say: “But how? My son? Never! My son would never do something like that!” I would call him and say, “Nicolás, are you slinging eggs at the building across the street?” And he would answer: “Mom, why do you always suspect me? You make me feel bad, because you never trust me.” He had never told me a lie straight up before. It was terrible, the things he did were crazy. But now he’s a serious man, completely zen.

Q. What attitude did you have towards these pranks?

A. I trusted him blindly. I was so stupid, you know, a naive mother.

Q. What effect does literature have on Isabel Allende?

A. It takes me to another world. When I read a book, I immerse myself in a universe that someone else created and that I completely believe. I know it’s fiction, I know it’s a novel, but I dedicate myself to the mission. And that’s what I try to do when I write: I try to create a world that I’m immersed in, detail by detail. And while I’m in that book, I have nothing else in my head, to the point that I can’t relax, because I have the book inside me. I dream about the book, I wake up in the morning thinking about it, I get up at midnight because an idea occurs to me. I can’t let go of it.

Q. At what point do you say, “this could be a story for a book”?

A. I think that there are these seeds that I have inside me, because everything catches my attention. People write to me, send me stories about their lives, or the lives of their grandparents. One thing after another is spun. I’m very disciplined and I start all my books on January 8. But oftentimes, I don’t know which of those seeds is going to germinate into a story. Sometimes, on January 8, I start something that I can’t develop and I start another thing. And, suddenly, something catches on.

Q. How much influence do current events have on your work? In your previous novel you touched on a very heavy topic: family separation due to the immigration policies that were toughened under Donald Trump.

A. I don’t try to write about current events — because things change very quickly — but rather about human tragedy, which is eternal. I have a foundation and we do work on the border: we’re aware of the detention centers for separated children, because there are 1,400 children in the United States who haven’t yet been able to be reunited with their families. [The U.S. authorities have] deported the parents, and not even to their countries of origin. They sent them back to Mexico and they’ve never been able to reunite with their families.

Q. Are you worried that Trump’s return to power will make this situation worse?

A. Of course. I think it would be terrible for the United States — and for humanity — if Donald Trump were to be president again. I hope it doesn’t happen, but there’s a good chance that it will happen, despite his scandals. The Republican Party supports him, so it’s very possible that he’ll be elected. And a massive deportation has already been announced.

Q. Why do you think such a high percentage of people in the U.S. favor Trump?

A. Because there’s a shift to the right in many places and a return to authoritarianism, as if democracy had failed. People feel that they’re not represented in democracy and that democracy is as corrupt as [any other system]. They’re looking for an authoritarian leader. Look what has happened in El Salvador [with President Bukele].

Q. Why is totalitarianism so attractive?

A. Because people want clear answers.

Q. Does literature help prevent people from becoming bullies when they grow up?

A. I don’t think literature has that power. Literature gives us other things: it connects us with other people, it makes us understand that we’re not alone, that what happens to us doesn’t only happen to us. I think that’s the power of literature, the power of connection. It makes us part of humanity.

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