In her new novel, The Japanese Lover, Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende yanks readers from their cultural obsession with youth. In the book's magical pages, we reckon with life through the process of facing death. Rarely is aging humanized, romanticized, even.
The setting is a retirement home, but not the kind that is marred by the decrepit smell of impending death. No, it's a community where romantic love is still alive and residents laugh and play. It's a place where wrinkles, wheelchairs, and failing eyesight are badges of a full life lived. Most important, the walls of the retirement home let history come alive through memory.
We travel back through the life of Alma, a vivacious yet irascible aging artist and designer who opts into the senior home to spend her final days. Alma, like all of us, is concerned with reflecting on love and mortality. These two subjects, Allende tells me, are ones she had been mulling when she sat down to write.
Over the past three decades, Allende has received more than 50 literary awards for her 20 books. Her debut novel, 1982's The House of the Spirits, follows a family over 90 years in post-colonial Chile. Allende's books have sold over 65 million copies. The writing of The Japanese Lover, like House of the Spirits, traces all the main characters from childhood. With Allende, history is the only way to truly understand how and why we love who we love.
The following is a deeply personal and revealing conversation with the author, who is 73 and recently single. When we come to the topic of unconditional love, a theme in her book, Allende tells me it is impossible to have unconditional love in a romantic relationship. Allende loves her dog unconditionally, she says, but never the man she's sleeping with.
Collier Meyerson: Your books, like The House of the Spirits, are often in conversation with history. With The Japanese Lover, many of your characters are directly impacted by World War II. There's a character who escaped the Holocaust, another who made it out of Auschwitz alive; there's a Japanese American internment-camp survivor and a French Resistance fighter. I was just wondering how history informs your literary ideas?
Isabel Allende: I have a very acute sense of place and time, so all of my stories are rooted in a place and a time. And before I start writing, before I have an idea of where and when the story happens, I research it thoroughly. In this case, my characters were 18 years old. I had to imagine what had happened in their first 18 years, and of course the Second World War would have been the most striking event because all of these people were displaced by the war. I needed to research that, and I think that the stories and events gave the novel some roots it would not have had otherwise, if I had not mentioned it.
CM: You say you researched the events thoroughly. What does that process look like? You painted such a vivid picture of a Japanese internment camp. I'm ashamed to say I've never read any book or piece of writing about that experience.
IA: It's part of the hidden history. Not much is known. It's not taught in school, and I think that only now, recently, with the new Japanese American museum and with the third or fourth generation of Japanese Americans that are bringing out the story, we know more. The information is available. It's just a matter of looking for it. When I was researching the rights of the Japanese character, I had heard about the internment camps, so I started researching. I researched Manzanar from that, the one in Southern California, and when I had almost written everything about it, I realized that the Japanese Americans from San Francisco were not sent to Manzanar. Those were the ones from L.A. The ones who were from San Francisco were sent to Utah, to Topaz. I had to start my research over to get the [characters] to Topaz. That happens sometimes, that you get all involved and you get sidetracked.
CM: Do you feel like it's hard to let go of one idea? When you find out it's not historically accurate?
IA: Yes, yes. Basically, it was the same effect but in a different place.
CM: There are these moments in The Japanese Lover where the dead commune with the living, or it's hinted at, at least, and where the old are faced with different levels of proximity to death, and you really get underneath death in your writing in this book. I was wondering if you could talk to me a little about how some of your own thoughts and experiences with death, or with your own mortality, may or may not have played a role in the writing of it.
IA: All the things in the book were very relevant for me at the moment when I was writing it. I had turned 70, so aging was really present in my life. For the first time, I was conscious of aging, because in the previous decades I had just lived my life without thinking of aging. When you turn 70, everybody looks at you as if you were already decrepit. I'm not. I feel 50. Most people feel younger than their age, but the culture values youth, success, beauty, productivity. There is no space in this culture for older people. However, the fastest-growing population in the United States is the older people, because we are living much longer, healthier lives. The problem is, individuals often don't have the resources to take care of older people as they age. This is something that is happening, and we have to deal with it. It was happening also in my life. The main theme in the book, I think, aside from aging, is love.
IA: At the time when I was writing the book, my marriage was ending. In April of this year, I separated from my husband after 27 years of marriage. Of course, it didn't happen in one day. It had been dwindling down for several years. I was in the process of deciding if I should stay in the marriage, because it's always comfortable to stay in which you know rather than to launch into the void at 70. So all that was there in my mind. I was thinking about love. The loss of the marriage. The loss of youth. The loss of independence, in a certain way. Can love endure? Is it possible to love the same person? I concluded that maybe, if they're lovers, but husband and wife is very hard. Really hard. Our lives are much longer now. My mother and stepfather have been together for 67 years, and it's their second marriage.
IA: My stepfather will be a hundred years old.
IA: My mother is 95. I am touched with all stages of aging. For the book, I researched the retirement community here in the Bay Area called The Redwoods. It really exists. I didn't have to invent it. I just describe what I know in the book. It's important to do research.
CM: It's funny that you brought up marriage, because all my other questions really are about love. What you were just talking about, about marriages — asking the question: can you love one person? There's a line in the book that made me think of a conversation I'd been having, and it reads, "In marriage, nothing is unconditional."
CM: There's a couple in your book with an extraordinarily unconventional marriage. They're friends before anything else, but I interpreted their love as unconditional. I was wondering …
IA: They're not lovers though. When I say that in a couple nothing is unconditional, it's when you have a sexual relationship.
CM: Do you think that once romantic love is entered into a marriage, it becomes conditional?
IA: I think so. In my long life, in my experience, you can love your friends unconditionally. Your parents. Your children. Your pets, of course. I love my dog unconditionally, but never the man I'm sleeping with.
CM: Interesting. Why do you think that is?
IA: I want something back. It's such an intimate and profound relationship that it cannot be unconditional. I can only compare the intimacy of sex with the intimacy of the mother with a newborn baby. But with a newborn baby, it is unconditional. You would give your life for that little baby. It's not the same when you are in a sexual relationship unless you feel that you are loved as you love.
CM: Are romantic love and companionship mutually exclusive?
IA: I think that the perfect arrangement, the perfect couple, would be a couple that have been able to preserve the romantic and passionate bond, and they are great, great friends. Friendship is all about trust and sharing. Passionate and romantic love is all about sex and emotions. You have to try to combine those, I think. The great marriages, the great couples I know, have both.
CM: Right. To take a turn: it seems that you've spent a lot of time in California and particularly in San Francisco. This book takes place there. You said before that place influences you, and I was wondering if you could expand on that.
IA: I think that this story could not have been placed almost anywhere else, because, for example, the Japanese experience of the internment camps was in the West Coast only. It didn't happen in the East Coast, because the idea was that Japan might invade the United States by coming through the Pacific. It was all the Pacific Coast that was declared militarized, and the Japanese were put in internment camps. In that sense, this was the perfect place. Then, San Francisco and the Bay Area is a place that people come from everywhere. People come from internally, from other places in the United States, but also displaced people from other parts of the world. They come here. If you walk in the streets of San Francisco, you hear all the languages. You smell all the foods. You listen to the music from everywhere. There's great diversity. It's also a place where all the new things happen, so I thought that it would be the perfect place for the story. I've been here for 27 years, so I sort of know it. I don't need to research much to get the feeling of it.
CM: Was there a character in the book that came easily to you? One that you didn't have to struggle to write?
IA: The one that came really easy was the Japanese lover, because he's like a ghost in the book. He's always in the background like a spirit, like a shadow, almost. There's a very delicate line there. How real can he be to make the love believable and at the same time keep the secret, the shadow? That character needed some research because of the historical event, but it was easy.
CM: Why was it easy? What did you connect with him over?
IA: Actually, the idea of the book came in a conversation that I had with a friend walking in the streets of New York. We were talking about our mothers, and I was telling her how old my mother was, and she was telling me about her mother. Her mother was Jewish, and she said that she was in a retirement home and that she had had a friend for 40 years that was a Japanese gardener. This person had been very important in my friend's upbringing.
That was all she told me, and we changed the subject and we talked about other things. The story stayed with me because it had all the elements I was dealing with: aging, love, losses, displacement, et cetera. I started thinking that there was a story there, but for some reason I could not change the characters. The mother had to be Jewish — I mean, Alma had to be Jewish, and he had to be a Japanese gardener. It didn't occur to me that I could have made him a Mexican gardener and it would have been much easier. By the time I thought about it, the book was almost finished.
CM: Yes, that would have been a lot easier! Finally, I have been a fan of yours for a long time. I always tell people your books were my entry into real book reading.
IA: Oh, thank you.
CM: Your bio says that you have written 20 books translated into 35 languages, and I was wondering how it feels to be so influential and also if it impacts what you choose to write about.
IA: I don't think in those terms. I get hundreds of emails daily and a lot of feedback from people that are reading or have read my books. When I'm writing, or in my daily life, I just think of the work. I love to tell a story, but I might work with a story to make it the best I can without thinking of how many people will read it or if it will influence anybody.
Sometimes journalists ask me, "What's the message?" There is no message. I think that fiction should not be trying to give messages. Just tell a story. Some people connect with a story and may find between the lines something that might be useful to him or her, but that's not the intention of the author, I think. At least not mine.
CM: Are you writing something now?
IA: I'm supposed to start a new book on Friday, because I start all my books on January 8.
CM: Really? Why?
IA: Out of discipline. This time, I don't have a story, but it has happened before. I don't have a story, but I just get there, to my workplace, on January 8, and I sit down and wait. I can wait for weeks. Eventually, if I'm patient, I get it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter for Fusion.