Biography of Isabel Allende, Writer of Modern Magical Realism

The most widely read Spanish-language author in the world

Isabel Allende sitting onstage with a microphone
Isabel Allende attends the Miami Book Fair in 2017.

Johnny Louis / Getty Images

Isabel Allende (born Isabel Allende Llona, August 2, 1942) is a Chilean writer who specializes in magical realist literature. She is considered the most widely read Spanish-language author in the world and has received numerous awards, including Chile’s National Literature Prize and the American Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Fast Facts: Isabel Allende

  • Full Name: Isabel Allende Llona
  • Known For: Magical realism author and memoirist
  • Born: August 2, 1942 in Lima, Peru
  • Parents: Tomás Allende and Francisca Llona Barros
  • Spouses: Miguel Frías (m. 1962–87), William Gordon (m. 1988–2015)
  • Children: Paula Frías Allende, Nicolás Frías Allende
  • Notable Quote: "I'm aware of the mystery around us, so I write about coincidences, premonitions, emotions, dreams, the power of nature, magic."
  • Selected Awards and Honors: Colima Literary Prize, Feminist of the Year Award, Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres, Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, Chilean National Prize for Literature, Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction, National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom

Early Life

Allende was the daughter of Francisca Llona Barros and Tomás Allende and was born in Lima, Peru. At the time, her father was in public service, working at the Chilean embassy. In 1945, when Allende was only three, her father disappeared, leaving behind his wife and three children. Her mother moved their family to Santiago, Chile, where they lived for nearly a decade. In 1953, Francisca remarried to Ramón Huidobro, a diplomat. Huidobro was sent overseas; his posting had their entire family traveling to Lebanon and Bolivia between 1953 and 1958.

While the family was stationed in Bolivia, Allende was sent to an American private school. When they moved to Beirut, Lebanon, she was again sent to a private school, this one English-run. Allende was a good student as well as a voracious reader throughout her school years and beyond. Upon the family’s return to Chile in 1958, Allende was homeschooled for the remainder of her school years. She did not attend college. 

Isabel Allende began her career early, starting in 1959 with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Santiago. She worked for several years for the UN organization as a secretary. Her work with them sent her abroad as well, where she worked in Brussels, Belgium, and other cities in Europe.

Isabel Allende at a desk covered in papers
Allende at home, circa 1985.  Felipe Amilibia/Getty Images

Allende married relatively young. She met Miguel Frías, a young engineering student, and they married in 1962. The following year, Allende gave birth to her daughter Paula. Her son Nicolás was born in Chile in 1966. Allende’s home life was fairly traditional in terms of gender roles and family dynamics, but she did continue to work throughout the marriage. Allende became fluent in English as a second language; her husband’s family spoke English as well.

Translation and Journalism Career

Early on in her career, Allende’s first major writing-related job was as a translator of romance novels. It was her task to simply translate English romances to Spanish, but she began editing the dialogue to make the heroines more three-dimensional and intelligent, and even tweaked the endings of some of the books she translated in order to give the heroines more independent happily-ever-afters rather than the traditional “damsel” narratives in which they were rescued by the romantic heroes. As one might expect, these unapproved changes to the books she was only supposed to translate landed her in hot water, and she was eventually fired from this job.

In 1967, Allende began a career in journalism, joining the editorial staff of Paula magazine. She then worked at Mempato, a children’s magazine, from 1969 to 1974. Eventually, she rose to the rank of editor at Mempato, publishing a few children’s short stories and a collection of articles during the same period of time. Allende also worked in television production for a couple of Chilean news channels from 1970 to 1974. It was in the course of her journalism career that she met and interviewed Pablo Neruda, who encouraged her to leave the world of journalism to write fiction, telling her that she was far too imaginative to be spending her time in journalism rather than creative writing. His suggestion that she compile her satirical articles into a book actually led to her first published book. In 1973, Allende’s play, El Embajador, was performed in Santiago.

La casa de los espiritus de Isabel Allende
Spanish cover of Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits". Debolsillo

Allende’s burgeoning career was cut short unexpectedly, which put her life in danger but, eventually, led to her finally finding the space to write. Salvador Allende, president of Chile at the time and a first cousin of Allende’s father, was overthrown in 1973, which changed Allende’s life forever. She began helping to arrange safe passages out of the country for people on the wanted lists of the new regime. Soon, however, her mother and stepfather—who had been appointed ambassador to Argentina by President Allende in 1970—were nearly assassinated, and she herself ended up on a list and began receiving death threats. Knowing that the new regime was already tracking and executing its opponents and their families, Allende fled to Venezuela, where she lived and wrote for 13 years. During this time, she began working on the manuscript that would become her first published novel, The House of the Spirits, although it was not actually published until 1982.

She worked as a journalist and as a school administrator, but Allende truly pursued her writing in Venezuela, while also rebelling against patriarchal, traditional gender roles at home. She separated from her husband in 1978, eventually divorcing him in 1987. She stated that her move to Venezuela, though forced by political circumstance, likely helped her writing career by allowing her to escape the expected life of a stay-at-home wife and mother. Instead of being trapped in that role, the upheaval in her life allowed her to break free and forge her own path. Her novels often reflect these attitudes: just as she had edited the endings of romance novels to make the heroines stronger, her own books tend to feature complex female characters who challenge male-dominated power structures and ideas.

From Magical Realism to Politics (1982-1991)

  • The House of the Spirits (1985)
  • Of Love and Shadows (1987)
  • Eva Luna (1988)
  • The Stories of Eva Luna (1991)
  • The Infinite Plan (1993)

Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits, was inspired in 1981 when she received a phone call telling her that her much-loved grandfather was nearing death. She was in exile in Venezuela and unable to see him, so she began writing a letter instead. The letter to him eventually turned into The House of the Spirits, which was written in hopes of keeping her grandfather “alive” in spirit at least.

The House of the Spirits helped to establish Allende’s reputation in the genre of magical realism. It follows four generations of a single family, starting with a woman who has supernatural powers that she secretly recalls in her journal. Alongside the family saga, there is significant political commentary. Although the name of the country where the novel is set is never mentioned, nor are there any recognizable names among the figures in the book, the novel’s tale of post-colonialism, revolution, and the resulting oppressive regime is a fairly clear parallel for Chile’s tumultuous past and present. These political elements would play a bigger role in some of her next novels.

Isabel Allende presents her book
Santiago, CHILE: Isabel Allende presents her book "Ines of my Soul" during a press conference in Santiago, Chile. The book is based on the life of Ines Suarez, a woman who participated in the colonization of the American continent during the 16th century.  CLAUDIO POZO / Getty Images

Allende followed The House of the Spirits two years later with The Porcelain Fat Lady, which returned to her roots as a children’s author. The book draws on two significant events in Allende’s real life: her split from her husband and the repressive politics of the Pinochet regime back in her native Chile. This would become a through-line in much of Allende’s work—using the events of her own life, even the sad or negative ones, to inspire her creative output.

Eva Luna and Of Love and Shadows followed, both of which addressed the tensions under the Pinochet regime. Allende’s work at the time also dipped back into the short story pool. In 1991, she came out with The Stories of Eva Luna, presented as a series of short stories told by the heroine of Eva Luna.

Major Successes and Genre Fiction (1999-present)

  • Paula (1994)
  • Aphrodite (1998)
  • Daughter of Fortune (1999)
  • Portrait in Sepia (2000)
  • City of the Beasts (2002)
  • My Invented Country (2003)
  • Kingdom of the Golden Dragon (2004)
  • Forest of the Pygmies (2005)
  • Zorro (2005)
  • Inés of my Soul (2006)
  • The Sum of Our Days (2008)
  • Island Beneath the Sea (2010)
  • Maya’s Notebook (2011)
  • Ripper (2014)
  • The Japanese Lover (2015)
  • In the Midst of Winter (2017)
  • A Long Petal of the Sea (2019)

Allende’s personal life took a front seat in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which limited her writing output. In 1988, after finalizing her divorce from Frías, Allende met William Gordon while on a book tour in the U.S. Gordon, a lawyer and writer from San Francisco, married Allende later that year. Allende lost her daughter, Paula, in 1992, after she went into a vegetative state following complications from porphyria and a medicine dosing error that resulted in severe brain damage. Following Paula’s death, Allende started a charitable foundation in her name, and she wrote a memoir, Paula, in 1994.

In 1999, Allende returned to writing family epics with Daughter of Fortune and, the next year, its sequel Portrait in Sepia. Allende’s work dipped into the fiction genre again with a trio of young adult books that returned to her magical realism style: City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, and Forest of the Pygmies. Reportedly, she chose to write young adult books at the urging of her grandchildren. In 2005, she also released Zorro, her own take on the folk hero. 

Author Isabel Allende and husband William Gordon
Author Isabel Allende and husband William Gordon. Acey Harper / Getty Images

Allende continues to write novels, mostly magical realism and historical fiction. Although she often continues to focus on Latin American stories and cultures, this not always the case, and her novels tend to express an empathy with oppressed peoples throughout history and across the globe. For instance, her 2009 novel Island Beneath the Sea is set during the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th century. As of 2019, she has released 18 novels, along with collections of short stories, children’s literature, and four non-fiction memoirs. Her most recent work is her 2019 novel Long Petal of the Sea. For the most part, she now lives in California, where she resided with Gordon until their separation in 2015.

In 1994, Allende was the first woman to receive the Gabriela Mistral Order of Merit. She has received a slew of literary prizes, and her overall cultural contributions have been recognized on a global scale with national and organizational literary prizes in Chile, France, Germany, Denmark, Portugal, the United States, and more. At the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, Allende was one of eight flag-bearers at the opening ceremony. In 2010, she received Chile's National Literature Prize, and in 2014, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

Allende receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama
Allende receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2014. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Since 1993, Allende has been an American citizen, although her Latin American roots are evident in her work, which draws on her own life experiences as well as her prolific imagination. In 2018, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards.

Literary Styles and Themes

Allende writes largely, though not solely, in the genre of magical realism, drawing comparisons to authors such as Gabriel García Márquez. Magical realism is often associated with Latin American culture and authors, although other writers utilize the genre, too. The genre, as its name suggests, is a bridge between realism and fantasy fiction. Typically, it involves a story world that is essentially realistic, except for one or two fantasy elements, which are then treated with equal realism as the non-fantastical elements.

In several of her works, the complex political situation of her native Chile comes into play, both in direct depictions and in allegorical senses. Allende’s relative Salvador Allende was the president during a tumultuous and controversial time in Chile, and he was deposed by a military coup led by Pinochet (and tacitly supported by the United States military and intelligence apparatus). Pinochet instituted a military dictatorship and immediately banned all political dissent. Human rights violations were carried out, Allende’s allies and former colleagues were tracked down and killed, and civilians were also caught up in the crushing of dissent. Allende was personally affected by the upheaval, but she also wrote about the regime from a political standpoint. Some of her novels, notably Of Love and Shadows, explicitly depict life under the Pinochet regime, and do so with a critical eye.

Perhaps most importantly, Allende’s works often address issues of gender, specifically of women’s roles in patriarchal societies. From her earliest days as a translator of romance novels, Allende has been interested in depicting women who break out of the traditional, conservative molds that position marriage and motherhood as the pinnacle of the female experience. Her novels instead present complex women who attempt to take charge of their own lives and destinies, and she explores the consequences – both good and bad – of what happens when women try to set themselves free. 

Sources

  • Cox, Karen Castellucci. Isabel Allende: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press, 2003.
  • Main, Mary. Isabel Allende, Award-Winning Latin American Author. Enslow, 2005