Ten years ago the novelist Isabel Allende became a US citizen. Her passport identified her as an American, and she lived in California. But at heart, she said recently, she continued to be a Latin American from Chile, where her family's roots were and where she lived on and off for a third of her 60 years.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. And as she watched the World Trade Center burning on her television screen, she said, her feelings about her identity changed. "Watching the towers burn, I didn't feel a distance at all," she said. "I mourned with everyone in this country."
Her pain was so raw, and her identification with the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington so strong that Allende began to call herself an American. In her latest book, My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile (HarperCollins), Allende uses that moment to illustrate how a sense of identity need not be linked to nationality. Sometimes it is shaped by years of living in another country, she said, or as happened to her it can be forged in one intense moment of spiritual connection.
"For the moment California is my home and Chile is the land of my nostalgia," Allende writes. "My heart isn't divided; it has merely grown larger."
Allende has lived in Peru, Chile, Lebanon, Bolivia, Switzerland, Belgium, Venezuela, and for the past 16 years in the US. This book, her 11th and her second memoir, is her first attempt to sift through a lifetime of memories and family lore and explore how being Chilean has molded her sense of identity and influenced her writing.
"Nation and tribe are confused in my mind," Allende said in a recent phone interview, echoing a line in her book. Her "tribe," she explained, is her family, her truest connection after a lifetime of constant uprooting. Because her family is Chilean, as were the rituals and customs with which she was brought up, she had always considered herself mainly Chilean.
The book is also a sort of travelogue through Chile, which she lovingly describes as "a nation of poets," where hens lay eggs "the color of gold," and fish sport "jeweled scales."
A reviewer in The New York Times Book Review described My Invented Country as "enticing yet frustrating," saying that rather than being a linear account of her life, the book feels more like a road map, pointing to events that have been fodder for her books. Allende dismissed the criticism. "Life is not like a German essay," she said. "Memories are circular, not linear."
Fact, fiction, memories -- real and imagined -- and family legends are the stuff of Allende's books, often described by academics as models of Latin American magic realism. But there is nothing magical about her books, Allende said. Her characters are real, she insisted, springing not from her imagination but from her extended family: the great-aunt who sprouted wings (in reality a bone deformity of the shoulders) in Stories of Eva Luna and the obese and arthritic great-grandmother in The House of the Spirits.
"With a family like mine, you don't need to have an imagination," she is fond of saying.
Allende, a daughter of a Chilean diplomat, was born in Peru while her father, a cousin of Salvador Allende, was posted there. One day when she was 3 her father went to buy cigarettes and never came back. Or maybe that's not the story at all, Allende conceded. She has also been told that he went to a party wearing a wig and dressed as a Peruvian Indian woman, had a wild time and forgot he had a family.