Author Isabel Allende enlightens Berkeley audience
By Lou Fancher San Jose Mercury News
This city reads.
You can check Amazon's just-released annual list of "Most Well-Read Cities in America" (Berkeley ranked No. 3), or you can ask the folks at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley.
Just 30 minutes after announcing the April 25 appearance of best-selling author Isabel Allende, 300 reservations were made. The waiting-list-only crowd was spellbound during a 45-minute chat with Allende and Ethnic Studies Professor Beatriz Manz.
If nothing else, Berkeley reads Allende.
Her new release, "Maya's Notebook" (2013), is a double pleasure for Bay Area readers: a sizable slice of it is set in Berkeley.
Maya is a 19-year-old mess on the cusp of adding to the state's prison population. Virtually abandoned by her Scandinavian mother and Chilean father, she's raised in Berkeley by Nini, her magical, whip-smart paternal grandmother and her unconditionally loving, African American grandfather, Popo.
Unable to conform to Berkeley High -- or any other prototypical institution -- and imploding after her Popo's death from cancer, Maya spirals into a drug-, crime- and sex-filled hell. She thumbs a regrettable ride to Las Vegas and buries her grief-tinged fury in the mire of big-time gangs, police corruption, and prostitution.
Nini rescues Maya by sending her to the end of the world: Chiléo, southernmost in Chile's archipelago. Maya's "notebook," a near daily journal, tells the story of her exile with Nini's friend Manuel Arias, whose ancient soul is salve for Maya's brokenness.
"The book is about the law of reciprocity," Allende said. "Give as much as you take."
Allende wrote the book with her grandchildren in mind. Seeing the dangers -- and living them, as two of her husband's children tragically succumbed to drugs, one just four months ago -- she realized she could not protect them. But she could write their stories.
"My grandchildren are connected to 600 people (on Facebook), but have no one to hold their hands, when they need it," she lamented.
Asked how she managed to capture Berkeley High so convincingly, Allende said, "If I can research a place in Haiti of 200 years ago, I can research Berkeley High."
"Maya's Notebook" sings a contemporary tune: the language ripping and jagging with the simultaneous assertiveness and naiveté of a young rebel. Allende said she "suffered right along with Maya," then joked, saying, "Of course, I am the wonderful Nini, but Popo is not my husband, who is a grouchy guy."
The author's 10 works of fiction dip imperturbably into history; here she maintains precipitous balance as the narrative expands from harsh 21st century language to lyrical descriptions of Maya's unfolding exterior and interior worlds. It's a coming-of-age tale achieved by immersion in ageless wisdom. If Maya at times sounds a bit too wise, the beauty of Allende's writing remains undeniable.
"My job; I am quiet, silent, alone for long periods of time," she said. "Anyone who has that experience hears voices. I have revelations. I have dreams of a baby: what happens to the baby, happens to the book."
Science, according to Allende, opens possibilities but falsely separates the real, connected world. Magic realism, a term frequently used to describe her literary style, is a "great device" and is simply a product of "accepting what we don't know."
When writing nonfiction, Allende uses English, but insisted that fiction "happens in the belly, not the brain."
"Like fighting with my husband, it happens in Spanish," she said with a laugh.
An audience question about who she writes for and her legacy brought rich, passionate, wickedly honest responses:
"My audience? My audience is my characters: I talk to them," she said. "I don't think of my agent, readers, reviewers -- I am always surprised by them."
She continued, "My legacy? When I am dead, I will be cremated: ashes in toilet, there is no legacy. The legacy is the contribution to the collective conscious that we all have."
Manz closed the evening, with a surprise video. As the curtains opened to reveal the screen, Allende channeled "Nini," her mischievous, Berkeleyesque alter-ego and asked, "Is it going to be a male stripper?"
It wasn't, but it was, perhaps, even better: a group of students, poised above the sea, in Chiléo. Smiling and waving, they delivered their response in Spanish, adding to the praise for Allende's remarkable, hope-filled "Maya's Notebook."