Bodies sunk comfortably on couches or sat upon rugs to listen as the lilting, accented voice of acclaimed Chilean author Isabel Allende washed over all like a comforting blanket on this past Thursday evening in the Morrison Memorial Library on campus.
Allende, a diminutive woman, shared her prose and opened up to questions from her audience in this month’s edition of Story Hour, a monthly prose reading series hosted by the english department. Allende shared excerpts from her 2010 novel “Island Beneath the Sea,” which follows the story of rebel slave Zarité in 18th century Haiti. Characteristic of Allende’s style, “Island” finds its characters entrenched in upheaval larger than themselves even as they attempt to maintain some semblance of personhood and freedom.
The prose of “Island” as read by Allende was lush and descriptive, a vivid – perhaps too vivid – description of passionate lovemaking followed by diction indicative of the cost of freedom for the slaves; Allende spent four years painstakingly studying the early revolutionary history of Haiti in order to place her characters in a historical context. With a taste for the text now spooned into her audience, Allende answered questions, notably addressing larger issues of power and its usage in relation to her novel.
“I had a lot of difficulty getting into this book because the research made me sick. When you realize what people can do to other people when they have power and impunity, you get sick,” said Allende of her writing process. With 27 million slaves out in the world today Allende notes that, though historical in nature, “Island Beneath the Sea” speaks to contemporary problems.
Yet hope remains with Allende, as exemplified by Zarité fighting for freedom. “We seem to be moving in circles but we’re really moving in a spiral – always ascending a little bit,” said Allende of the world’s general trajectory of improvement. “The instinct of spiritual evolution moves us forward always. And that instinct of evolution is in nature, is in the universe – everything moves forward in a way,” said Allende.
Allende also addressed the potential for Latin American unification. “It doesn’t work because if you have two Latin Americans in a room, you have three political parties,” she joked, while nevertheless acknowledging the great strides the continent has made towards greater political stability. The evening finished with a book signing for fans that, bolstered by Zarité’s tenacity, left with Allende’s words fresh in mind: “I’m very optimistic about the future. I think my grandchildren are going to live in a much better world than I did.”