Isabel Allende has described her childhood in Chile as both miserable and magical.
It was miserable, she says, because her mother was always ill, or thought she was. She’d been abandoned by her husband, had no money or education, and was raising Isabel and her siblings in her parents’ house.
“The only way she could get attention from her father or anybody else was by being sick,” says Allende, whose novels, essays, and memoirs have been read by tens of millions of people around the world. “She didn’t do it consciously. As a child, I felt impotent and guilty because I felt that I couldn’t help her in any way.”
But Allende’s grandmother, who considered herself clairvoyant, made her childhood magical, she says.
In a recent interview with Latino USA, a public radio show, Allende, now 72 and a resident of northern California, talked about her grandmother’s seances, her grandfather’s ethics, and how each of her grandparents shaped her character and her career:
“My grandmother was called Isabel, like me, and my grandfather was called Agustín.”
“My grandmother was always experimenting with the paranormal, at a time when that was not allowed by the Catholic Church. I don’t know if now it’s allowed or not. But at the time, séances with spirits and all that—that was not allowed.”
“So she would have these séances, experiment with telephathy, trying to move objects without touching them or guess what was inside a box that was closed.”
“So I grew up with the mystery of life—with the possibility of magic, with the sense that nothing is as we see it.”
“And I think that that was a big influence for my writing. People say that I write magic realism. To me, it’s like life. I mean, I see life as very mysterious.”
“My grandfather was a tough Basque, a handsome man, who his job all his life was raising sheep in the South, in Patagonia, and then exporting the wool to London, to England.”
“And he had very rigid, conservative Catholic principles. And he was a man that was very generous, but he never showed his generosity because it would feel to him like showing off. So a sense of modesty, of discretion.”
“He would have wanted me to be a boy and he would have taught me to play pelota vasca. I think he was disappointed that I was a girl, but he loved me.”
“He gave me a work ethic, a sense of discipline: never whine, never complain, never ask for anything.”
“All those things—my grandfather’s rules—he gave me all the things that I have been able to use to survive in my strange life.”
Listen to the whole interview and other stories from Latino USA’s special episode on grandparents here.