Isabel Allendehas created a lifetime’s body of work full of essential reads.
“Violeta,” her latest novel, is no exception, out now from Ballantine. Written in her native Spanish and translated by Frances Riddle, she uses the story of one woman’s life to take the reader through communities, countries, conflicts, and continents.
Violeta Del Valle is the title character, a centenarian whose life is bookended by both pandemics. In the epistolary novel addressed to an essential character in Violeta’s life, the reader follows Violeta from her birth to her last moments, a witness to the last hundred years of upheaval. She was a child who could not be controlled, an “expert in a variety of afflictions,” who goes from mimicking her mother’s “eternal illness” to an eventual old woman who credits her own good health to living a life “proudly ignoring any and all ailments.”
Born in a mansion in Chile’s capital, Santiago, Violeta and her family are exiled from the only city she knows after a tragedy brought on by a combination of global politics and her father’s underhanded business dealings. She comes of age in the quiet Southern countryside, a setting that will become a center of atrocity, later, during the country’s bloody revolution. When her first husband won’t grant her a divorce, she’s devastated that she cannot marry her lover, the father of her two children.
But the estrangement from her husband, whose connections to cruelty lay deeper than expected, gives her the financial freedom to build a life connected to men without being controlled by them. It’s a life led in Chile and then all over the world — with scenes in Cuba, Miami, California, Norway — but one punctuated by grief, the high stakes of country and kin intertwined through the powerful personal narrative in which Allende excels. In one instance, at the height of the coup, Violeta asks her ex-lover, Julian Bravo, to use his military connections to smuggle their adult son out of the country; his sneer on whether he was successful—or helped at all—amplifies Violeta’s despair.
The novel is a heroine’s journey, feminine in its cyclical darkness, born of blood and smelling like death. Violeta navigates the underworld, filled with men who are criminals and kingpins, mobsters and militants, pilots and priests, Nazis and the occasional good guy.
But, remember, Violeta emphasizes to her reader, the good ones never win.
On this point, I disagree with the title character. In the relationships Violeta values the most, the characters choose right even when the odds don’t look good. What I love about Allende’s work is that she populates her books with people who are deeply affected by each other, yes, but also by the time in which they live and the groups whose values they uphold, by each character’s capacity to change against the backdrop of historic and systemic injustice designed to retain power. Violeta’s grandson is one example, the rebellious boy who nearly gets expelled from Catholic school and then, with the revolution all around him, becomes a Jesuit priest, modeled on the real-life Chilean hero, Felipe Berríos del Solar, to whom Allende co-dedicates the book.
Violeta is a complicated and imperfect narrator, a character neither free of sin, ambivalence, nor bile. As she explains in her first letter:
I imagine someday, when you are old and less busy, you might want to stop and remember me. You have a terrible memory since you’re always so distracted, and that defect gets worse with age. I think you’ll see that my life story is worthy of a novel, because of my sins more than my virtues. You have received many of my letters, where I’ve detailed much of my existence (minus the sins), but you must make good on your promise to burn them when I die, because they are overly sentimental and often cruel. This recounting of my life is meant to replace that excessive correspondence.
We see Violeta on both the wrong side of history and on the front lines of justice. I loved how her love changes her (in ways I didn’t expect), how her humor and her drive create a shield of resilience, and how she discovers, as she puts it, “courage is contagious and that there’s strength in numbers; what you can’t do on your own can be achieved together, the more the better.”
That courage comes not in the absence of death, but in a grief so deep even decades of “military machismo” cannot stamp it out. The threads of grief and death hold the novel taut, as in much of Allende’s best work.
“Violeta,” written in a time of deep communal grief, was also inspired by a personal one, the death of Allende’s mother, with whom she shared thousands of letters. Allende has walked more than her fair share of miles down the path of grief, and her experience shows. Violeta’s big moments rocked me, but it was the small ones that devastated me, a simple phrase like “I love you more than anyone in this world,” that made me long for my own late mother to untangle Allende’s themes together. Grief and motherhood, the choices we make that define us, who we’ve loved, how and where we’ve lived, and those we’ve left behind, all tango on the page in a way that cracked me open. In a way that allowed me to feel what I’ve mostly kept at bay during this pandemic time of solitude and isolation.
Maybe it’s because I cradled the book in bed, reading straight until dawn, but Allende’s words moved my nebulous feelings—floating somewhere in the periphery—directly into my center, the most intimate and rewarding reason that I read.
Brandi Larsenserves as the board president for Literary Cleveland and writes books and essays. She is the co-writer of UNCULTURED: A Memoir, forthcoming from St. Martin’s.
Pull up a chair at Case Western Reserve University’s new reading seminar for a hearty discussion of four Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, covering everything from the modern, urban Native experience to the consequences of political upheaval in Chile.
Organizers invite you to explore four Anisfield-Wolf award winning books:
“There There” by Tommy Orange (2019, fiction) — January 23
Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, launched his literary career with :”There There,” a layered, multi generational journey of 12 Native American characters who converge on a fictional powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. “Markedly, there’s so much joy [from Native communities] in feeling like they’re in a book, in a way that feels like ‘now,’ like it hasn’t been represented enough.” Orange said during a recent stop in Cleveland.
“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (2017, fiction) — April 16
What began as a letter to Allende’s 100-year-old grandfather became “The House of the Spirits,” her debut novel that led to a career tally of more than 67 million copies sold. The story follows four generations of the Trueba family through political upheaval in Chile, Allende’s home.
Colette Ngana, a doctoral student in sociology, said the choice to begin with “There There” was an intentional one.
“I don’t think we highlight indigenous writers often enough,” Ngana said. “[There There] allows us to learn more about the historical perspective. If you didn’t know about the occupation of Alcatraz, for example, the book pushes you to look into indigenous history. What does that mean for our perspectives in resistance movements of the indigenous experience?”
Facilitators will provide historical and political context on the books, while participants are invited to discuss the larger themes these books present.
The reading seminar is open to the community, with organizers hoping for a mixture of students, staff and Cleveland-area residents to attend. “Often we don’t have many opportunities for people in the community to feel integrated into academic life,” Ngana said. “[This first seminar] will be a test to see who comes. We want everybody to feel welcome.”
The first session will be held Thursday, January 23 from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Kelvin Smith Library’s Dampeer Room, 11055 Euclid Avenue. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Lisa Kollins at email@example.com.
In the onslaught of titles published each year, friends of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can deploy a powerful technique to sift the wheat from the chaff: Find the new work from those writers already in the canon. Here are some gems sitting atop the 2019 pile:
“Black Leopard Red Wolf” by Marlon James
The Jamaican American novelist most celebrated for “A Brief History of Seven Killings” goes genre. Actor Michael B. Jordan bought the film rights to this epic fueled by African mythology even before it published in February. The story — the first installment of a planned trilogy — spools out in beautiful sentences that coil around a hunter named Tracker. In nonlinear flashbacks, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone to find a disappeared boy, joining forces with a giant, a buffalo, a witch, a water goddess and a shape-shifting leopard. Following the child’s scent – Tracker “has a nose” – means trekking through forest, across rivers and through magical doors, beset by fantastical creatures. Tracker, we learn, is the red wolf of the title and the facts are murky. (“Truth changes shape as the crocodile eats away at the moon.”) This bloody quest-story is no escapism. As James told the New Yorker: “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism. It is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.”
“Everything Inside: Stories” by Edwidge Danticat
The author of “Clare of the Sea Light” and “Brother, I’m Dying” brought out in August her first short fiction collection in more than a decade. Known for precise, pitch-perfect sentences and a gift for juxtaposition, Danticat weaves eight Haiti-influenced stories of diaspora and longing. She pairs Cindy Jimenez-Vera’s insight — “being born is the first exile” — with Nikki Giovanni’s “We love because it’s the only true adventure” to frame the urgencies of quiet lives. One belongs to Elsie, a Miami home-health care worker, whose decency is no match to the manipulations of her ex-husband and former best friend. Another centers on a New York City teacher who is cheated of a final chance to meet her father before his late-life death. The last story, “Without Inspection,” covers 6.5 seconds as a construction worker falls toward oblivion. He realizes that “whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die.”
“The Gilded Auction Block” by Shane McCrae
Following his essential poetry collection “In the Language of My Captors,” McCrae continues his investigation of U.S. freedom and its contradictions. In 23 poems, McCrae addresses the present American moment, and in some pieces responds directly to Donald Trump. The first poem, “The President Visits the Storm” starts with an epigraph from the 45th chief executive: “What a crowd! What a turnout!” — proclaimed to victims of Hurricane Harvey. And McCrae considers how the country has turned out. A poem titled “Black Joe Arpaio” begins “America you wouldn’t pardon me.” In another, McCrae stands up the exact language Carrie Kinsey used in a 1903 letter to Theodore Roosevelt about her brother – wrongly sold into forced labor – and transforms it through ear and syntax into a searing work of art. The poet also circles back to his white supremacist grandmother in Texas “who loved me and hated everybody like me.” She and her black grandson create a knot that grief cannot untie. It is a privilege to read his reckonings now.
“Grand Union” by Zadie Smith
The outlandishly gifted British novelist of “White Teeth” and “On Beauty” published her first short story collection in October. In 19 tales, she wheels through a dizzying constellation of topics, tones and fonts, writing about the future and the past. A reader can enter anywhere, like her bravura “The Lazy River,” an endlessly rotating watery amusement for tourists in Spain. Elsewhere, the writer spills blood in London even as the jaunty “Escape from New York” rifts on the urban legend that Michael Jackson ferried Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando out of the smoking debris of 9/11 in a rental car. And the marvelous “Words and Music” mediates on peak musical experiences as lived by two disputatious sisters. A couple of stories are closer to fragments, but several seem destined to become classics. Smith begins and ends with two mother-daughter stories — the first bristles with alienation, the last, “Grand Union” with the transcendence of generations.
“I: New and Selected Poems” by Toi Derricotte
The Pittsburgh poet co-founded Cave Canem, whose motto is “a home for black poetry.” This collection serves as a profound home for 30 new pieces as well as those swept from five earlier books across a span of 50 years. The title “I” comes from Derricotte’s son and is perfect for a writer sometimes characterized as a confessional poet, one who has mined the self to grapple with gender, race, identity, sex and spirit. In “Tender” she writes: “The tenderest meat/comes from the houses/where you hear the least/squealing. The secret/is to give a little wine before killing.” The collection, dedicated in part to “the mother and fathers – Galway, Lucille, Ruth and Audre” gestures toward the poetic ancestry of Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton (another Anisfield-Wolf recipient), Ruth Stone and Audre Lorde. In her acknowledgements, Derricotte writes, “I am most grateful to the universe for the community of Cave Canem. We imagined a place in which black folks were safe to write the poems they needed to write.” And so she has.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” by Isabel Allende
The beloved novelist, born in Peru, raised in Chile and now a resident of northern California, writes in her acknowledgements: “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me.” Indeed, this historical fiction contains unmistakable autobiographical notes. It begins with the Republicans loss of Spain and the marriage of convenience between fighters Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera in 1938. She is pregnant with the son of his slain brother and can only leave France aboard a ship for wounded fighters if she marries him. The ship sails to Chile and their bond of expediency begins a complicated family saga that crests with the catastrophic 1973 overthrow of the democratically-elected Chilean government, just as it radically altered the author’s life. Allende knows how to spin an engrossing story and to reward her readers with a savory and satisfying surprise for the 80-year-old Victor at the end.
“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead
The arrival of this latest novel from “The Underground Railroad” writer caused Time Magazine to enshrine him in July as “America’s Storyteller.” Seventeen years earlier, Whitehead picked up an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “John Henry Days.” The novelist returns to U.S. history for “The Nickel Boys.” It is based on a Florida reform school, the Dozier School for Boys, that warped the lives of thousands of children for 111 years. In the fictional treatment, Elwood Curtis is derailed from his path toward college and pitched into a facility where “all the violent offenders . . . were on the staff.” Turner is wiser to the rigged game and eats soap when forced labor becomes unbearable. Whitehead doesn’t dwell in horror, instead, pervasive racism soaks the novel’s ground, so there is nowhere to stand for either boy. In prose as clear as water, Whitehead traps his reader. Undergirding it all are the unmarked graves of close to 100 Dozier boys unearthed in 2014. Finally made unforgettable.
“Sightseer in This Killing City” by Eugene Gloria
This is Gloria’s first book since the Manila-born Midwestern poet won his Anisfield-Wolf prize for “My Favorite Warlord” in 2013. Known for taking months, and sometimes years, on a single poem, Gloria joins Shane McCrae in pondering the contemporary American moment. Deeply attuned to heritage and displacement, the new poems continue Gloria’s preoccupation with the arrivals and departures of ordinary people. The title poem reverberates from a Dallas hospital. The other 47 in this collection are concise, erudite and plain-spoken in language enriched by Gloria’s reading across continents and centuries. He samples Stevie Wonder and Shakespeare; Baudelaire and Al Green. In “Implicit Body,” the speaker commands “Call me Mr. Gone/who’s done made/some other plans./All that remains is nostalgia/and this aching torso of blue.”
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
Named to several best-of-the-year lists, this stunning collection grapples with the black body, especially the queer black body, in poems that combine bright music and “everything cut down.” Brown follows his “The New Testament,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf prize, with a meditation over 51 poems on masculinity, desire, violence and tradition: in poetry, in racism, even in the impulse to plant gardens. In the musical, compressed lines of “Dark,” Brown writes “I’m sick/of your hurting. I see that/you’re blue. You may be ugly/but that ain’t new.” The poet comes up with a new form, “the duplex,” which he designed to gut the sonnet. “The Tradition” is suffused with prickling self-knowledge, of a sense of this poet coming into his own. He addresses his own persona in “The Rabbits”: “I am tired/Of claiming beauty where/There is only truth.”
Add Isabel Allende‘s groundbreaking first novel, “The House of the Spirits,” to the golden age of television adaptations.
Streaming giant Hulu has acquired the classic 1982 story, which has been translated into more than 35 languages. Allende began it at a low moment in her life when she was 40 years old and living in Venezuela.
This consummate Chilean story follows the Trueba family over four generations and catapulted its author to fame. Deeply personal, “The House of the Spirits” began as Allende’s farewell letter to her 100-year-old grandfather and incorporates elements of magical realism. In the 35 years since its publication, Allende has written more than 20 books, sold more than 70 million copies and become an international touchstone.
Hulu is now seeking a writer and director to helm the project. Allende, who won the Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize last year, will serve as executive producer. She lives outside San Francisco.
“My purpose in life seems to be storytelling and nothing else,” she said at the awards ceremony in Cleveland. “Through me, some characters come to life and do what they are meant to do in this world, even if I don’t know what it is.”
The Emmy-award winning “A Handmaid’s Tale,” based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, is one of Hulu’s most watched and critically acclaimed shows. It is also adapting Celeste Ng’s Shaker Heights-based novel, “Little Fires Everywhere.”
“The House of the Spirits” begins with this sentence: “Barrabás came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy.” Now he will be coming to screens everywhere.
During Cleveland Book Week, the incomparable Isabel Allende joked at age 75 about her new boyfriend, and about her approach to literature:
“I’ve been writing for 35 years and I have no idea how I do it. I don’t have an idea of what the book is about until it’s published and I read the reviews,” she quipped in a talk on life and literature at the City Club of Cleveland.
She begins each book on January 8, commemorating the day she sat down at her kitchen table — a stymied 40-year-old exile — to begin a letter to her century-old grandfather. That letter poured out of her until it became The House of the Spirits, which launched Allende onto a global stage. It led to her being named this year’s Anisfield-Wolf recipient for lifetime achievement.
“Having a sacred day to start is like magic,” the Chilean-American woman said. “What began as superstition is now like discipline.” Her next novel, In the Midst of Winter, goes on sale October 31.
View her talk in full below and join our mailing list to be among the first to hear the lineup for Cleveland Book Week 2018.
Last week we celebrated Cleveland Book Week, a series of book and literacy-themed events surrounding the 82nd annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. From September 5-9, community events across Greater Cleveland honored this year’s Anisfield-Wolf winners and celebrated all things literary in our community.
Sept. 5 – We kicked Book Week off with a launch celebration on Public Square, featuring free children’s and young adult books from the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank, free ice cream from Mitchell’s, and live music from Roots of American Music. The event showcased reading and literacy-focused nonprofit organizations serving Greater Clevelanders.
The 82nd annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony drew a record crowd of more than 1,200 to the State Theatre at Playhouse Square to celebrate this year’s winners: Isabel Allende, Peter Ho Davies, Tyehimba Jess, Karan Mahajan and Margot Lee Shetterly. In case you missed it – or simply want to relive it – you can watch the entire ceremony.
Peter Ho Davies
Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards 2017 fiction winner Peter Ho Davies discussed his groundbreaking book The Fortunes to a crowd at Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center. That same day, Davies was announced as a finalist for this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Margot Lee Shetterly
More than 750 Cleveland Metropolitan School District students joined 2017 Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction winner Margot Lee Shetterly at Cleveland State University to hear about Shetterly’s research and writing of Hidden Figures. The event featured a performance of Hidden by the Tri-C Creative Arts Dance Academy, and every student in the audience received a copy of Shetterly’s book.
The Professional Book Nerds podcast welcomed a live audience at the Cuyahoga County Public Library South Euclid-Lyndhurst branch to hear 2017 Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Karan Mahajan talk about his novel The Association of Small Bombs, named by The New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2016.
2017 Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement winner Isabel Allende spoke to a sold-out crowd at The City Club of Cleveland over lunch. The novelist, feminist and philanthropist talked about her life, work and politics, and took questions from the audience.
Brews & Prose and Twelve Literary and Performative Arts hosted an evening of music, poetry and history at Karamu House to celebrate this year’s Anisfield-Wolf poetry winner Tyehimba Jess. Another sold-out crowd flocked to this event to hear Jess perform poetry from his book Olio, accompanied by improvisation from local musicians.
Thank you to all of our Cleveland Book Week partners, and the many Greater Clevelanders who attended Cleveland Book Week events! Be the first to know about Cleveland Book Week 2018 events and tickets by signing up to receive email updates here.
The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 82nd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2017 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:
• Isabel Allende, Lifetime Achievement
• Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes, Fiction
• Tyehimba Jess, Olio, Poetry
• Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs, Fiction
• Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures, Nonfiction
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners broaden our insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor a breakthrough history of black women mathematicians powering NASA, a riveting novel of the Asian American experience, a mesmerizing, poetic exploration of forgotten black musical performance and a spellbinding story of violence and its consequences. All is capped by the lifetime achievement of Isabel Allende, an unparalleled writer and philanthropist.”
Dr. Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. Joining him in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.
The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored Sept. 7 at the State Theatre in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of Cleveland Book Week. Join our mailing list to be the first to know when the free tickets are available.
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT: Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende is considered the most widely-read author writing in Spanish, having sold more than 67 million books. Born in 1942 in Lima, Peru, to Chilean parents, Allende burst onto the literary scene in 1982 with The House of the Spirits, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. She starts each new book on the date of that letter, January 8. A feminist and philanthropist, Allende memorialized her daughter in the acclaimed nonfiction work Paula. More than 3.5 million have watched her TED Talk on leading a passionate life. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
FICTION:Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes
Peter Ho Davies sees his innovative novel The Fortunes as “examining the burdens, limitations and absurdities of Asian stereotypes.” Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates calls it a “prophetic work, with passages here of surpassing beauty.” In four linked sections, The Fortunes explores the California Gold Rush, actress Anna May Wong, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by a disgruntled Detroit autoworker and the contemporary adoption of a Chinese daughter by American parents. Davies, a University of Michigan professor, is drawn to how we construct our identities.
POETRY: Tyehimba Jess, Olio
Tyehimba Jess put eight years into the creation of his second book, Olio, itself a physical work of art that imagines and reclaims lost African-American performances from the Civil War until World War I. A native of Detroit, Jess graduated from the University of Chicago and New York University. He is an alumni of Chicago’s Green Mill Slam Team. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove declared herself wowed by “this roller-coaster mélange of poetry, anecdote, songs, interviews and transcripts” code-switching its way through the briar patch of American history. Jess is a professor at the College of Staten Island.
FICTION: Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs
Karan Mahajan took an incident from his New Delhi boyhood, when a car bomb exploded in 1996 in a marketplace near his home, as a spark for his second novel, The Association of Small Bombs. It tells of three boys caught in the blast, only one of whom survives. In a brilliant study of violence and its aftermath, Mahajan examines Punjabi society, Hindu and Muslim antagonism and the sometimes comic expression of human grievances. Anisfield-Wolf juror Simon Schama called the novel “a brilliant explosion of a book, essaying a totally original style — antic, dynamic and unrelentingly gripping.”
NONFICTION: Margot Lee Shetterly,Hidden Figures
Margot Lee Shetterly saw her first book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, become a juggernaut atop the bestseller lists. Simultaneously, the film version enjoyed critical acclaim and a robust box office. The writer, on a 2010 visit to her hometown of Hampton, Va., realized the stories of four local workers at NASA — Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden — deserved telling. Shetterly conducted hundreds of interviews and read thousands of documents to accurately depict her protagonists. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove called it “a riveting, important work.”