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Wednesday September 25, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Wednesday September 25, 2013 MYT 7:45:14 AM
by anita sethi
Novelist Isabel Allende talks about her enduring and complex relationship with her mother, the death of her daughter, and her family’s tussle with drug addiction.
THE longest, most solid and complex relationship in my life is with my mother. It started before I was born and now, when I am 71 and living in California and she is 92 and living in Chile, we are still in touch daily. I have a closet full of my mother’s letters in plastic boxes; one for each year of our correspondence. We are very different women. She is Catholic, conservative, a real “lady” in the 1950s sense of the word, and also creative, curious and smart. Like most women of her generation and in her social class, she was raised to be a housewife and a mother; she depended first on her father and then on her husband, so she never felt really free.
My tough grandfather, a self-made man, taught me that the most valuable asset is honour. His definition of honour was strict: honesty above all, family is second to honour only, have a work ethic, take care of myself and others, serve, be generous, never ask for anything that I can do or get by myself, never brag, whine or complain.
I wrote my first novel, The House of the Spirits, when living in exile in Venezuela, after the military coup in Chile in the 1970s. That book was an attempt to recover the world I had lost: my country, my family, my home, my job, my friends. All the stories of my childhood came back to me in waves. I had no problem using my relatives as models for the characters; I simply changed a few names. Unfortunately, several of those relatives were enraged and didn’t speak to me for years.
Writing about my daughter Paula’s death was cathartic. It saved me from total despair, it helped me understand and accept what had happened. I had serious doubts about publishing such a personal book, but I have never regretted it because for 20 years I have received daily messages from readers all over the world who are touched by the book. Everybody has losses – it’s unavoidable in life. Sharing our pain is very healing.
As a family, we have suffered for decades the impact of addiction. My husband William’s three children are, or were, drug addicts. His daughter died at 28 of drug-related causes, his youngest son died a few months ago at 35 of a heroin overdose, and his oldest son has spent half his life in jail for drugs. I know that the so-called war on drugs is lost. Addiction is a public-health issue, not a police or military problem. Bullets and prison are not the solution. Drugs should be controlled, like alcohol, but not penalised; money has to be taken out of the equation.
I have been a foreigner all my life, first as a daughter of diplomats, then as a political refugee and now as an immigrant in the United States. I have had to leave everything behind and start anew several times, and I have lost most of my extended family. Here in California, I have tried to recreate a sense of extended family with a few chosen loyal friends. I call them “my tribe”. It works better than a real family because we are together by choice, not obligation. My grandchildren have grown up in this little tribe and I don’t think they are aware that we are not even blood-related. – Guardian News & Media
*Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende is out now.
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Lifestyle, Family & Community, Isabel Allende, author, family values, drug addiction
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