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.