In her book “Invincible Women,” Israeli-American author Dr. Bilha Chesner Fish sat down with 21 successful women immigrants and spoke with them about their views on why immigration is essential to the American spirit.
The collection features compassionate, in-depth conversations with writers, artists, philanthropists, scientists, business executives, and chefs.
Isabel Allende shares how she uses her writing to explore cultural memories and oppressive political themes that shaped her early life. Olga Murray saved young women in Nepal from enslavement and continues to help build schools and hospitals for needy children and their families. Wafaa El-Sadr, an infectious disease specialist, has developed family and community-based programs to help people living with AIDS. Doris Schechter fled the Holocaust and now manages a Kosher restaurant, writes cookbooks, and produces documentaries. Jacqueline Murekatete narrowly survived the Rwandan genocide and now helps others face their survival guilt and re-establish trusting relationships.
“Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants” will be published on May 14.
AWT shares an exclusive excerpt of the interview that Dr. Fish conducted with Isabel Allende, Chilean-American best-selling author and advocate for the rights of women and girls.
Dr. Fish: After a military coup in Chile, you found safety in Venezuela in 1973. In 1987 you decided to immigrate to the United States. How did these different situations affect you?
Isabel Allende: In the first circumstance, I was a political refugee. I left my country because I couldn’t stay, and I chose Venezuela because there were not very many choices. Very few countries accepted refugees from Chile. There were no visas given for Chileans in places like Costa Rica, Mexico, and others. Venezuela was a democracy. I could speak Spanish, and being a journalist, language was important for me. It was open for immigrants and refugees and whoever wanted to come to work.
It was very difficult for me because I didn’t want to leave my country, and I was always looking back. The experiences at the beginning were like paralysis and nostalgia, and very different from the experience of an immigrant. The immigrant chooses to go, and usually it’s a young person who’s looking at the future, not looking at the past, not thinking of returning, but thinking of establishing in another place. After all, we had kids and grandkids. So the emotional state of an immigrant is very different than a refugee. I would say that the experience of being an immigrant is much, much easier than being a refugee.
Dr. Fish: So in 1989, you immigrated to the United States, following your American husband William Gordon, and became a citizen in 1993. Did you feel comfortable right away?
Allende: Well, I came to the United States although I didn’t like the country at the time. The CIA had been involved in the military coup in Chile, so I had the feeling that America was one of my enemies really. It so happened that when I was on a book tour, I met a man, I fell in love, and I moved to be with him. That facilitated everything, not only my legal status in the US. I came with a tourist visa, but then we married, so very soon I applied for residency and a work permit. My husband opened all the doors for me. The problem when you are new in a country, like in Venezuela, for example, and actually everywhere, is that you don’t know the rules of that country. Sometimes you don’t even speak the language, and you don’t know how to get along and how to do things. For example, after living in Chile and Venezuela, I didn’t know that you could pay a bill with a check in the mail. I couldn’t believe that. It was just extraordinary, and there were many other things, both good and bad. My husband chaperoned me during the first few years until I learned the language and could have a life of my own.
Dr. Fish: In America, it was really a tremendous change of culture.
Allende: Yes. First of all, the language. Then I landed in the most dysfunctional family that you could possibly imagine. My husband had been married twice before, and he had three children, all of them addicts. So we had the problem of drug addiction, which I had never encountered before. I had no idea what that was. I thought it would be just about a few rules and lots of love. But no, forget it. His life was very chaotic, disorganized, but I was in love, and I’m Chilean, so I take on projects. Chilean women do that. I thought, I’ll handle this, but it was much harder than living in Venezuela, as I had to learn the language. At the beginning he had to translate the news on TV. I could read in English, but I couldn’t understand when people talked. That took me a while and then it took a while to learn to drive here and know the streets and do the things that normal people do all the time.
Dr. Fish: When you were in Venezuela, you wrote your first book at the age of forty, The House of the Spirits.
Allende: It happened by chance. I didn’t think I could be a writer, but I couldn’t be a journalist in Venezuela. I did all sorts of odd jobs to make a living and support my kids, and I ended up administering a school. It had nothing to do with writing, but my head was full of stories, the stories I brought from Chile and the extraordinary stories you can pick up in Venezuela, which is a crazy and wonderful place. I had all this that I wanted to tell, but mostly it was that the book was like an exercise in nostalgia. On January 8, 1981, we got a phone call telling me that my grandfather was dying in Chile. I had grown up in his house. He was a substitute father for me, and I couldn’t return to say goodbye. So I started this sort of letter that immediately turned into something else. I kept on writing about it, and I wrote till it became a manuscript of five hundred pages. I worked on the kitchen counter because I didn’t even have a desk. Eventually it landed in the hands of an agent in Spain. I was very lucky because the book was published and became an immediate success, which paved the way for other books and made me a writer. Without that, I would still be working in a school in Venezuela.
Dr. Fish: Your grandfather brought you up after you were abandoned by your father, and he was a very important, beloved figure in your life. What advice did he give you that resonates through your life?
Allende: He taught me all the stuff that has helped me to succeed. Discipline. Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t ask for anything. Be responsible for yourself and for others. Life is hard. Don’t expect anything.
Dr. Fish: Those are pretty tough messages.
Allende: It was like an emotional boot camp. Much later in life, I have been in therapy to take all that out of my head because I don’t need it anymore, but it was really useful during my youth and during the time when I was a political refugee and an immigrant and I needed all those things. That is what my grandfather taught me. He was severe and tough, but he was a loving man, and I hear his voice inside my head all the time.
Dr. Fish: What can you tell me about the significance of January 8?
Allende: I started my first book, The House of the Spirits, on January 8. It turned out to be very successful, so I started the second book on the same day the following year, a little bit because of superstition but also because I was working in a school when it was still vacation, so the kids were not back yet. It was very convenient because it was winter, and I had some time. All my books that I started on that date have been somehow successful, but mostly that date works out of discipline because my life has become very complicated. I am pulled in every direction. I have a foundation; I have too much going on. If I don’t have a day to start, I would be procrastinating forever. There’s always something that gets in the way. I do believe that things happen, weird coincidences that I cannot explain.
“Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants” can be ordered on Amazon.