Isabel Allende speaks at the Sanctuary Theatre

Isabel Allende answers questions from the audience. Photo by Julia Grace Cohn

3 min read

“Isabel Allende is a Latin American writer who has become a household name in the United States,” began Erin Goodman, Associate Director of Academic Programs at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), as she introduced the famous novelist before a crowd of more than 270 fans at the Sanctuary Theatre in Harvard Square this past Saturday evening. The Chilean-American author engaged in a candid conversation with Goodman and with Diana Sorensen, James F. Rothenberg Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literatures, on the occasion of the release of her latest novel.

Though she is best known as a novelist, Isabel Allende is also an activist. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, she established the Isabel Allende Foundation, promoting women’s and girls’ empowerment. As is characteristic of Allende, on Saturday she shared passionate insight on several subjects, ranging from the personal and lighthearted to the more serious, including human trafficking, immigration, and the refugee crisis.

When Sorensen asked Allende about how social justice factors into her creative process, Allende stated, “there are many cases in which people have absolute power with impunity, and they are able to do horrible things. The imagination for atrocities is infinite.”

In response to a question from Goodman about the recurrence of voiceless female characters in her novels, Allende reflected, “I am trying to explain what it means to be a woman and be permanently silenced, having a voice that is never heard.” In her new novel, “In the Midst of Winter,” the character of Evelyn, a migrant worker from Guatemala, has trouble speaking and sharing her traumatic past. “[She] represents the undocumented worker in this country that has no voice and no human rights,” Allende explained. “We penalize people who have escaped to save their lives.”

Allende herself was a refugee in Venezuela for 13 years before coming to the United States. Regarding her own background, she expressed, “I do think a lot about my past, about my roots. I try to conserve my Chilean background as much as possible being an immigrant here, but it is very easy for me to imagine what it is to be a refugee or an immigrant because I have been both … When we talk about refugees, we think of numbers and how to lower the numbers of refugees—that doesn’t mean anything … if I can give that story, like Evelyn’s story, for example, to one reader, I might be able to touch that reader’s heart, not with my words, but with the story because it is a human story.”

The Harvard Coop and DRCLAS presented the event, which was also supported by the José Mateo Ballet Theatre and the Harvard Square Business Association.