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Friday, April 30, 2010

Transcript: ISABEL ALLENDE 'The House of the Spirits' - BBC, The Strand Monday 26 April 2010

Monday: Gay Film in India, Isabel Allende, Rankin, Peter Porter.
Duration: 28 minutes
The Strand
Monday 26 April 2010, still available.
 "Islands Beneath the Sea"

Her first novel, 'The House of the Spirits', began as a letter to her dying grandfather. It became an international bestseller and has been followed by 17 subsequent books, often drawing on her personal experience to examine the challenges faced by her female protagonists. Her latest novel, 'Island Beneath the Sea', is an exploration of slavery, motherhood and sacrifice, set against the backdrop of Haiti's historic slave revolt. She reveals what sparked her interest in Haiti (and which Hollywood actor she used as inspiration for one of her characters).

-a rush transcript -
by Nana Akyea Mensah


HARRIET GILBERT: Now, rejoice O English-speaking fans of Isabel Allende, her latest novel has just been translated! 
The Chilean Allende leapt into readers hearts with her very first book, "The House of the Spirits", an exploration of South America's post-colonial traumas through a somewhat fantastical family saga. And her exuberant story-telling skills plus her real concern with politics and history have kept her on the world's bestseller list since.

Her new novel, "Islands Beneath the Sea" opens in 18 century Haiti or San Domang as it is then known, and it drops us into a cauldron of simmering, frequently boiling over violence. The country's massive prosperity, as the richest in the Caribbean, depends entirely on the African slaves who worked on the sugar plantations under particularly brutal owners and overseers. So it is scarcely surprising that at last the slaves rebel, putting the slave heroine of Allende's novel, Zarite, in a painful position of having to rescue her master, not to save him, but to save the child she has had by him. Isabele Allende reads:

ISABEL ALLENDE: I found him limp with liquor lying on his back. His mouth gaping open with a thread of saliva down his chin. Suddenly, all the revulsion that I had for him seized me and I thought I was going to vomit. My presence and the light took an instant to penetrate the fog of the cognac. He waked with a cry, and with one quick move pulled out the pistol he kept beneat the pillow. When he recognised me, he lowered the gun but he didn't put it down.

"I have come to propose something to you Maître", I told him.

He sat on the edge of the bed with the pistol on his knees, as I explained that within hours rebels would attack Salazar, there would be a slaughter and fire, and that was why we had to flee immediately with the children, or tommorw we would all be dead.

HARRIET GILBERT: Isabel Allende reading from "Islands Beneath the Sea", in which a complex, often interelated cast of characters, African, European, mixed race, is driven from San Domang to New Orleans, where the tentacles of slavery still reach them. When I spoke to Isabele Allende from San Francisco where she lives now I asked why she would be interested in slavery as a subject?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I wasn't at the beginning that was not my intention. I wanted to write really a novel about New Orleans. And my idea was something about Pirates of the Caribbean. And then I ended up studying the history of New Orleans and found out that in the 1800s, 10,000 refugees that had fled from Haiti went to New Orleans and changed the flavour of the city. They were French colonisers, white, with their white families and also their families of colour, their African concubines and their children of colour. When I started doing the research I realised I needed to find out why these people had come and then I started studying about Haiti and I got totally involved in slavery and the plantations and the history of the only slave revolt in the world that succeeded.

HARRIET GILBERT: One of the things your novel shows is that when they did rebel, they themselves, the Africans, were almost as vicious and cruel to the white slave owners and to their overseers and so on, and also to they could, also be pretty cruel to their own people, they would resell them into slavery, for instance?

Yes, not in the time of Toussaint L'Ouverture but afterwards.

HARRIET GILBERT: He was the big slave rebel, the rebel leader.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, but after he was arrested by Napoleon, De Saline was in charge and he was very cruel and after sometime he started selling his own people to the pirates of the Caribbean who would then sell them in the United States where trade was forbidden so you couldn't bring new slaves from Africa - so they became very expensive, and so, De Saline was selling them to buy weapons.

HARRIET GILBERT: Were you at all uneasy about showing in the novel, the unattractive side of the slave rebellion? 

ISABEL ALLENDE: No, because I totally understand it.  The brutality that they had endured made them brutal because that's what happens. So, I wasn't at all uneasy because I don't think that any race is more virtuous than another one.

HARRIET GILBERT: From the research you've done in this novel, do you have a sense that this particularly cruel history of Haiti, of San Domang, has in some way coloured the country now, the 20th - 21st Haiti?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Haiti was isolated. Isolated by Europe and then isolated also by the United States. It is a country that has been... the land has been devastated. And the it was betrayed also by its own people
It has a history of corruption and betrayal.

Today in Haiti there are three hundred thousand slave children that are sold or given away by their families because they can't feed them and they work as slaves in households, and these kids could be five, six years old and this is happening today. By the way, not only in Haiti, it happens in many countries.

HARRIET GILBERT: You talk about the fact that the Africans in Haiti could come from all over the continent but one thing that appears to unite in the novel is voodoo, its religion?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, that came from Africa and was blended into other beliefs because some of the African slaves were Muslims and others were animists and so they had different beliefs but this voodoo thing really was extraordinary religion. When these people would go to battle, they would feel invincible because the spirits of the dead, that came from the Island Beneath the Sea, from Guinea, from paradise, they would come up to fight with them. For each man that was fighting against the troops of Napoleon, there were ten thousand spirits. So they felt they couldn't lose.

HARRIET GILBERT: What came across to me, finally the most powerfully, was the way that slavery affected the whole institution of motherhood. You have throughout this novel, women trying to, or actually succeeding  in killing their babies rather than allow them to become slaves. Was that really so common?
Apparently in Haiti it was. It was very exceptional because there the conditions were so brutal that the mothers would rather have their babies dead and they truly believed that they would go to the island beneath the sea and live their happy lives, and that would be better than having them serving the master in the plantation.

HARRIET GILBERT: I mean, there is an enormous complex of offspring some of whom as the result of rape by a slave owner, some of whom have been bought up by slaves even though they are not their children, and I just thought the whole way in which parenthood and relations between parents and children resolve themselves was so very interesting in this book?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well the thing with slavery and this is something that is not often spoken of, is that incest was very prevalent because at that time rape was a crime only if the woman involved was white. If she was a woman of colour there was no crime. And you could have fathers having sex with their daughters, I mean, you wouldn't talk about it, but it was very common. And that created very complicated family structures. And sometimes what happened is that the master would be able to emancipate the mother of the children after she was thirty years of age, but he could not emancipate the children. So the children would become that woman's slaves until they were  of age to be emancipated.

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