Violeta: a novel by Isabel Allende
Violeta, is a novel that begins and ends with an epidemic and that covers the last 100 years of history. Set mainly in the Chilean Patagonia, with moments in Argentina, Miami and Norway, the novel deals with a wide range of themes, from feminism and verbal abuse, human rights violations and homosexuality, to amorous passions, infidelity and even global warming. It also reviews socialist movements, communism and military dictatorships. Read more...
First English edition 2022. Award winning author and New York Times best seller, ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: PopSugar, Real Simple, Reader's Digest.
SWIC Students, Faculty and Staff can request a FREE copy of the book.
A NOTE FROM AUTHOR
It is very strange to write one’s biography because it is just a list of dates, events, and achievements. In reality, the most important things about my life happened in the secret chambers of my heart and have no place in a biography. My most significant achievements are not my books, but the love I share with a few people—especially my family—and the ways in which I have tried to help others.
When I was young, I often felt desperate: so much pain in the world and so little I could do to alleviate it! But now I look back at my life and feel satisfied because few days went by without me at least trying to make a difference. In any case, here is a short summary.
B i o g r a p h y
Name: Isabel Allende Llona
Nationality: Chilean/American. Born in Peru to Chilean parents; became an American citizen in 1993.
Date of Birth: August 2, 1942
Profession: Writer Journalist Teacher - Creative Writing and Latin American Literature
Advocacy and Activism: In 1995 Isabel created the Isabel Allende Foundation to support the empowerment of women and girls worldwide (isabelallende.org). For over 20 years she has lecutured internationally about women's rights and the empowerment of women, Latin American an world politics, Chile, writing and the creative process, spirituality and her own work.
A CONVERSATION WITH
I receive innumerable letters from readers, academics, and journalists regarding my work. Since it is impossible to answer them all, I hope the following section—a compilation of interview questions I have received over the years—will be helpful. Those interested in learning more about my life and work may also wish to read Isabel Allende: Life and Spirit by Celia Correas Zapata.
1. What did you think about Violeta as a character? How did she evolve throughout the course of the book? Which period of her life was the most interesting to you? Did you learn anything from her story?
2. Violeta tells her story in the form of a letter, a practice inspired by Isabel Allende’s own correspondence with her mother, Panchita. Since Allende was 16, she and her mother would write letters almost daily when they were apart, each writing one half of a shared monologue that recorded their lives. What does the epistolary style add to the overall effect of the novel?
3. The novel is bookended by two pandemics. Did that timeline encourage you examine what it means to live during and through such times more closely? What does it take to keep going when the world is filled with turmoil and unease?
4. Allende chooses to leave the country unnamed in Violeta, though scenes in the novel are inspired by historical events in the region and Allende’s life—such as military coups and dictatorships, the 1918 flu pandemic, The Great Depression, the Women’s Rights movement, etc. Why do you think she made this choice? How did the open-ended setting impact your reading experience?
5. Violeta experiences different kinds and stages of love—expressed through family, security, passion, grief, kinship, tolerance, acceptance, and good humor. Discuss Violeta’s various relationships. How does Allende capture the ways we love? In what ways does our capacity for love change over time?
6. Violeta says, “It was clear to me from a young age that although I respected them, my mother and my aunts were stuck in the past, uninterested in the outside world or anything that might challenge their beliefs.” Discuss the ways different generations approach feminism.
7. Violeta is filled with playful, witty humor. What scenes or moments made you laugh? What does humor add to the overall effect of the story?
8. Violeta’s Aunt Pia observes, “Better a boring husband that an unreliable one.” Do you agree? Do you think passion or loyalty is more important for a good marriage?
9. Memory is major theme in this novel, made up of the unexpected events that make a life. Sometimes it’s a blessing and sometimes it’s a curse, as Violeta says. Discuss how the book explores memory.
10. In the last chapter, Allende writes, “There’s a time to live and time to die. In between there’s time to remember.” How did this book make you reflect on your own life? What did you take away from reading it?
Q: You have mentioned that some elements of the novel are inspired by events in your family history, and specifically your mother’s life—can you expand on this?
A: When my mother died, three years ago, many people suggested that I write about her life. I couldn’t. I was too close to her, I had no distance or perspective to see her as a character. She did not have an exceptional life, but she lived almost a century, a fascinating century of great changes for humanity; in her correspondence with me, she recorded most of it. Violeta is physically, emotionally, and intellectually like my mother, she belongs to the same generation and social class, but she had a different fate. Unfortunately, she was never financially independent. That would have made such a huge difference in her life!!
Q: You have talked about the beautiful relationship you had with your mother. Is it correct that you wrote to her every day from 1986 until she died? Can you tell us a bit more?
A: I was separated from my mother when I was 16 years old. She was in Turkey with my stepfather, who was a diplomat, and I was in Chile at my grandfather’s house. We started writing to each other almost every day. The letters took weeks to reach us but it didn’t matter, it was not a conversation, it was a shared uninterrupted monologue. We were separated most of our lives and we kept the long habit of the daily letter. I saved her letters and copies of most of mine. Recently my son decided to archive dozens of boxes with that insane correspondence. He calculated that I have 24.000 letters.
Q: Is there something of yourself in the character of Violeta?
A: I heard once that all characters are part of the author. I don’t know if that’s true. I have hundreds of characters in 26 books and I don’t think any of them are based on me. But obviously my values, memories, demons, and angels are in all of them, even in the villains. (Maybe mostly in the villains . . . ) Violeta is strong and independent, like all my female protagonists. Is that something of myself? Probably.
Q: You have said that the character of Camilo was inspired by your best friend, who is a Jesuit priest. Please could you tell us a bit more about him?
A: His name is Felipe Berríos del Solar and the book is dedicated to him. He works with the poor in a dump in the north of Chile; his religion is about compassion, inclusion, tolerance, service, unconditional love, struggle for justice, and social change. He is full of doubts about the church, but has no doubts about his faith. In the 60s, many Catholics embraced the Liberation Theology which was about those values that Felipe embraces. The hierarchy of the Church squashed. Today the Catholic church, like most religions, is not in touch with the needs of humanity and the times we are living. And they are all, without exception, patriarchal.
Q: Why did you decide to leave the country in which the novel is set unnamed?
A: It gives me more freedom, I don’t have to stick to precise dates or places. I did the same in The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows. Those stories could have happened in almost any Latin American country.
Q: Why did you choose to bookend the novel with pandemics? How do you feel that informs other elements of the story?
A: Violeta lives to be a hundred years old. In her deathbed, isolated because of the pandemic, she reflects, remembers and writes to her grandson. I thought it would be poetic to place her century between the two pandemics. Now that we are living under Covid-19 we can easily imagine what the influenza pandemic was a century ago. So much happened in these years and here we are, in the same place. Isn’t it ironic?
Q: Is the character of Nieves inspired by a real person?
A: I was married for 28 years to a man whose three children were addicts. Tragically, they all died of drug-related causes. I lived very close to addiction for a long time and I know first hand how devastating it is for the patient, the family, and everybody else around. Nieves is inspired by Jennifer, Willie’s only daughter, who died very young, shortly after giving birth.
Q: Love is a recurrent theme in your books and lately you have written a lot about love at an old age. Can you talk about that?
A: I am an invincible romantic. I have been in love always since age seven to this day. So no wonder love appears constantly in my writing. I believe it is the most powerful force in the world, in different ways, it moves everything in nature. In my old age—I will be 80 this year 2022—I value love more than ever. I am often asked how it is to love at this stage. It’s like falling in love in our youth but with more patience, tolerance, good humor, and a sense that we have very little time left. We have to enjoy it. That’s what Violeta does in her old age, when she falls in love with the Norwegian birdwatcher.
Q: Some of the plot of Violeta is inspired by actual historical events—can you talk about what you hoped to achieve with this? Were you hoping to write about the impact of sweeping historical changes on individual lives?
A: I have written several historical novels, so I have become keenly interested in the past and how it shapes the present. My characters are not detached from the real world, the social and political events impact their lives. My own life has been determined by external events that I could not control. I can’t narrate my own life without referring to those circumstances. In the same way, I can’t create believable characters—complex and contradictory as real people are—without describing the time and the place where they live.
The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar
A novel about a Syrian American transgender man reckoning with the histories of his family and his homeland. Nadir's story is interwoven with that of another artist, a Syrian immigrant from more than half a century earlier. A vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history, The Thirty Names of Night is a timely exploration of how we all search for and ultimately embrace who we are. Read more...
Published in 2020. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction, Winner of the ALA Stonewall Book Award—Barbara Gittings Literature Award, Named Best Book of the Year by Bustle, Named Most Anticipated Book of the Year by The Millions, Electric Literature, and HuffPost.
SWIC Students, Faculty and Staff can request a FREE copy of the book.
B i o g r a p h y
I n t e r v i e w w i t h N P R ' s A i l s a C h a n g e
1 | The novel begins with the sentence “Tonight, five years to the day since I lost you, forty-eight white-throated sparrows fall from the sky” (1). How do these words set up the themes that will continue throughout the book?
2 | Two primary story lines emerge—that of Nadir and that of Laila, one in the present and one in the 1930s and ’40s. Why do you think the author chose to highlight these two characters and these two eras? What does the historical perspective add to the contemporary story line?
3 | Early on, we learn the story of Hawa, who builds “a flying machine out of a bicycle and two sets of linen wings” and flew for a short distance before crashing in a field (13). What does this story represent? How does it contribute to the theme of AFAB people (those who were assigned female at birth) resisting the burdens placed on them by the gender binary?
4 | The sense of an unseen city beneath the visible one permeates these pages with the remark that “Manhattan is invisible now, a city that lives only in the memories of those of us who were there” (20). What does this say about both New York City and Nadir’s reactions to the gazes of others as the novel unfolds?
5 | Nadir’s sections often invoke the “you” of his mother. Why do you think the author includes this, and how does it mirror the “you” referenced in Laila’s letters to B? How does his mother’s ghost influence Nadir’s actions? How do the characters understand themselves through their relationships to the people they love?
6 | Language and the act of naming are great concerns of the novel. How does naming things, from Geronticus simurghus, to love (ta’burni), to Nadir and others themselves, affect these characters’ understanding of themselves and their environments? How does Nadir claim himself in choosing a new name?
7 | Found and chosen families play a major role in this novel. Reflect on Laila’s relationship with her mother, Khalto Tala, and Ilyas and Nadir’s relationships with Teta, Reem, Sami, and Qamar.
8 | Sami explains his work, which draws attention to overlooked injustices and traumas within his community, by saying “I use the knots to mark where things happened. Marking a thing is a kind of witnessing. The past is already bound to the ground where it took place. I’m just making that bond visible” (104). If the characters were to apply this principle to their lives, what knots would they make?
9 | What does Laila’s interaction with Mrs. Theodore reveal about the immigrant and artistic experience in New York City at the time? How do both gender and race impact Nadir’s and Laila’s artistic careers? How do they impact the career of Benjamin Young?
10 | As Nadir struggles with his identity, he notes that “my truth isn’t inscribed on my body. It lives somewhere deeper, somewhere steadier, somewhere the body becomes irrelevant. . . . If I am in a state of becoming, it has no endpoint” (136). Consider the ways that transgender people are reduced to their bodies in society, and how this strips them of their humanity and complexity. How is the body treated in this novel, in both the ways the characters think of their own bodies and how others perceive them? In what ways do the characters resist being reduced to their bodies?
11 | Nadir notes that “Teta doesn’t like to tell stories quite the way they happened” (158). What does this say about Teta’s life and the storytelling in this novel? In what ways might members of a marginalized community be forced to keep silent about the things that they have endured to survive? Do you think there is a generational difference between Nadir and his teta in how they choose to speak (or not speak) their truths? In what ways does Teta honor her truths, even if she does so differently from Nadir?
12 | “Many species of birds have been shown to have memories of their roosting or mating sites that persist over generations,” the novel notes (212). In what ways do the characters in this novel engage with memory, the weight of history, and generational trauma?
13 | In the end, what do you think Geronticus simurghus symbolizes to both Laila and Nadir?
14 | What power does Nadir claim for himself in erasing his birth name from the text? Why do you think the author chose not to tell the reader his birth name? If you found this frustrating, why do you think that is?
Q & A with Zeyn Joukhadar
Q: In both The Thirty Names of Night and your debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, you find important uses for mythical creatures—the roc and the simorgh. How has the folklore of the Levant and of greater southwest Asia influenced your work?
A: Myths, folktales, and folklore are often used to signal thematic concepts in literature. In any culture, folklore conveys meaning, history, and commonality. Growing up in the United States, I was often exposed to Western folklore in the literary canon without understanding it as context; it isn’t universal, though it was presented to me that way as a student. Once I began to read work by other Arab authors, I understood that we possessed our own cultural, mythological, and folkloric language, and began to employ this in my own work. For me, writing in English and in diaspora in the US, this represents an important decentering of the Western literary canon.
It’s interesting that the roc and the simorgh, which are based on the same creature and are shared across several Asian cultures, not only Syria and the Levant, appear in both books. I am starting to find, as I write, that I continue to develop concepts across my novels. I’m always working something out on the page.
Q: Like your debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, The Thirty Names of Night features both a historical and present-day story line. What draws you to the dual-narrative structure?
A: Partly I think this is because the interweaving of multiple story threads is part of my cultural heritage; traditional Arab oral storytelling makes use of similar structures. Two or more stories, when told together, make various aspects of each one visible by contrast, by similarity of themes, or by telling the same story in different ways. Partly I think it’s also because for me, history informs not only my work, but also my life. As a person of color, as a queer and trans person, and as someone who was assigned female at birth, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring history. I have to know where I come from and how my ancestors resisted in order to survive.
Q: You did a tremendous amount of research about the Syrian diaspora, both in neighborhoods of New York City, like Little Syria and along Atlantic Avenue, and in places like Toledo, Ohio, and Dearborn, Michigan. Did anything you found in your research surprise you?
A: The thing that surprised me the most was probably the oral histories of Arab auto factory workers in Dearborn and Detroit, which I was lucky enough to have access to while I was an artist in residence at the Arab American National Museum in 2019. I was struck, in particular, by a single voice. The person was described as a woman autoworker; she spoke about the misogyny and racism she experienced while working in the auto industry over many years. But it was what I heard in her voice that surprised me. Queer and trans AFAB people (those of us assigned female at birth) have a way of recognizing one another by our voices and our way of speaking, things that cis straight people typically don’t pick up on. We developed this as a means of surviving and finding one another while remaining hidden. I heard this quiet signal in this person’s voice, even at a distance of years. We have always, always been here.
Q: Many of the characters have a connection to visual art. What artists and pieces inspired you?
A: My father was a painter, and I’ve also always been a visual artist as well as a writer. I spent a year or two as a freelance scientific illustrator after earning my doctorate. I was always inspired by nature art, but I was also acutely aware that white cis men were taken seriously as artists while people who fell outside that narrow definition were not. I’ve always loved the art and writing of Etel Adnan, mentioned in the novel, and I’m excited about so many contemporary queer and trans artists of color. I think the future of contemporary art is bright.
Q: There’s a tremendous knowledge of bird species apparent in this novel. How did you decide which kinds of birds—like the Geronticus genus or the yellow-crowned night heron—would have special meaning for the characters?
A: I’ve always had an affinity for birds, and even studied their languages from the time I was a small child. During graduate school, I lived in Massachusetts, during which time I often went to the Museum for American Bird Art at Mass Audubon. After I took a job in rural Pennsylvania, I found the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg. There is a sketch there by Ned Smith of the yellow-crowned night heron that struck me, one I went back to see many times.
But I also asked myself what it meant for white men to paint birds that lived on stolen, occupied land and be highly compensated and praised for it. Why was their art taken seriously whereas mine, and the art of others like me (nonwhite, assigned female at birth, let alone queer, let alone transgender), was seen as an amateur pastime? I wanted to see, on the page, a protagonist who could honor the birds of their land of origin as well as the land in which they found themselves, and grapple with this. This is why, in Thirty Names, I decided also to discuss birds that were important as sacred symbols in the Levant and in the SWANA region more generally. This of course included the ibises (Threskiornithidae), of which Geronticus forms a subfamily.
Q: Did you find any major differences in writing your second novel as opposed to your first?
A: My second novel took much longer to write than my first. I took more risks with this second book, particularly in terms of the narrative structure as well as in talking openly about the experiences of transmasculine people. But I like to challenge myself more with each book I embark on. I think, as many others have said, that being a little afraid of a project is a sign you’re on the right path.
Q: Why did you choose not to reveal Nadir’s birth name/deadname in the text? Why was it censored rather than simply left unsaid?
A: Historically, cis writers have treated transness as a “spoiler,” and have misgendered and deadnamed trans characters until close to the end of a book or movie, using the reveal for shock value or laughs. Being called by our deadnames or purposefully misgendered is violence and erasure. In this novel, I decided to use erasure, so often a tool of transphobic violence, as a tool of resistance. Nadir himself erases or censors his deadname in the text, even before he chooses a name for himself. This active erasure was intended to show cis readers that he does not want them to know his deadname, as well as to make them reflect on the fact that cis people are not entitled to know trans people’s deadnames, and perhaps to give them the opportunity to reflect on why they so often feel entitled to knowing them.
Q: What was the hardest scene to write? Which came most easily to you?
A: I would say my favorite scenes to write were probably the scenes in 1930s Syria and New York, though I can’t quite say they were easy, as they required close to three years of research. The scenes in which I describe gender dysphoria (particularly the scenes at the OB/GYN and in the YMCA pool), were extremely difficult to write, even though I had all the information and experience I needed to write them. I wrote the first drafts of these scenes when I was still experiencing immense dysphoria myself. But it was important to me to have a description of dysphoria on the page written by an actual trans person. So often, when cis people try to describe the experience of dysphoria, they reduce it to hating one’s body or being distressed at not “looking like the opposite sex.” Both of these are very flattened and, even for binary trans people, often quite far from the truth. At the time I was writing this book, I had rarely read a depiction of dysphoria in a nonbinary person, written by a nonbinary person, and when I had, it was typically in the context of memoir. If I had been exposed to literature with better representation twenty years ago, it would have changed the course of my life and spared me much pain. I hope other trans people will read these difficult scenes and take comfort in knowing there is a word for what they are experiencing. I hope it will make this transphobic world a little easier to bear.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I’m working on a couple of novels at the moment as well as some nonfiction projects. I’ve also been collaborating with visual artist Matteo Rubbi on a multilingual, trans-Mediterranean atlas of the night sky, for which we’ve received support from the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.
ENHANCE YOUR EXPERIENCE!
Etel Adnan was born in 1925 and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna, her father, a high ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools.
She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris. In January 1955 she went to the United States to pursue post-graduate studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and Harvard. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy at Dominican College of San Rafael, California. Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, “an American poet”.
Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Woman of Light is a national best-selling novel that retains a mythic quality while following the stories of five generations of an Indigenous North American family. Luz "Little Light" Lopez, a tea leaf reader and laundress, is left to fend for herself after her older brother, Diego, a sanke charmer and factory worker, is run out of town by a violent white mob. As luz navigates 1930's Denver on her own, she begins to have visions that transport her to her Indigenous homeland in the nearby Lost Territory. Luz recollects her ancestors' origins, how her family flourished and how they were threatened. She bears witness to the sinister forces that have devastated her people and and their homelands for generations. In the end, it is up to Luz to save her family stories from disappearing into oblivion. Read more…
SWIC Students, Faculty and Staff can request a FREE copy of the book.
A NOTE FROM AUTHOR
I grew up in Denver, the Rocky Mountains to the west and the sunrise prairie to the east. My world was steeped in family, heritage, and a deep reverence for the storytelling of my ancestors who had migrated from Southern Colorado to Denver during the Great Depression.
There was my glamourous Auntie Lucy, gifted with the sight, her snake-charming brother, my great-grandfather Alfonso from the Philippines, and great-grandma Esther who taught me her remedios in her white-walled kitchen. I heard tales of their labor in the sugar beet fields, of the gowns they handmade for the dance halls, and more sinister stories, too. My Auntie Lucy spoke of the Ku Klux Klan’s massive influence in Denver, and how as a small girl she would lie against the floorboards of her tenement, hiding from their sight for her safety.
I’ve always known my heritage to be a nuanced blending of Pueblo Native Americans, Mexican, Filipino, and European ancestors who came together in what is now known as Colorado. For many years, I thought my family story was a rare occurrence in an American society that often demands a people choose one identity, ostensibly erasing so much of our history.
Years ago, while I was writing the first drafts of Woman of Light, I visited my great-grandparents’ grave on the outskirts of Denver. The cemetery rows were covered in snow and crisp air kicked down from the mountains against my back. “Grandma Esther,” I said, “I am writing a book about us, and I hope to make you proud.”
I’ve always known it would be part of my life’s work to tell the story of my ancestors, a book that would illuminate the historical tragedies and triumphs of my community. I wanted to subvert the Western genre and to provide a space for Indigenous, Latinx, and multicultural characters based on my own ancestors to thrive in literature.
I am so excited for you to meet Luz, Diego, Maria Josie, and Lizette, and I hope you feel transported through space and time into the 1930s and beyond. I wrote these characters, and their stories, with immense love.
A CONVERSATION WITH
1 | Discuss the significance of the novel’s title, Woman of Light. What role does light play in the book?
2 | Which character was your favorite, and why?
3 | How does the novel address the importance of storytelling? How do you think we inherit the stories of our ancestors and what power do they hold over us? If you are comfortable with it, share a story about one of your ancestors and discuss the ways it influenced your life.
4 | Kali Fajardo-Anstine writes, “Sometimes men were like that, treating a girl’s voice as if it had slipped from her mouth and fallen directly into a pit.” How does the author give the women of this novel a voice?
5 | Discuss the novel’s visual imagery, from the landscape to the characters’ clothing. How does the author bring the setting to life?
6 | How is Woman of Light a new narrative of the American West? How does it compare to older, more textbook literature in this canon?
7 | Fajardo-Anstine writes of Pidre, “He couldn’t help but think that Anglos were perhaps the most dangerous storytellers of all—for they believed only their own words, and they allowed their stories to trample the truths of nearly every other man on Earth.” How does Woman of Light recenter Indigenous Chicano storytelling? Why do you think that’s important? Did reading this novel make you want to seek out other voices that have been sidelined throughout history—and literary history? Explain.
8 | There are several fantastic elements to the novel, like a clairvoyant tea-leaf reader. Why do you think the author decided to include these elements, and how did they enhance the story?
9 | “School doesn’t make you smart, Luz,” Ethel tells her. “It’s just a type of training. Real intelligence—that comes from our grit, our ability to read the world around us.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
10 | The novel’s timeline shifts as Luz has visions about her ancestors, and as Fajardo-Anstine reveals more to the reader about the past. How did these shifts affect your reading experience? What does Woman of Light have to say about the passing of time, and how things do and do not change?
11 | “Luz felt partly made of mountains,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “as if the land was family.” Discuss this quotation, and the role that land—and ownership—play in the novel. Consider things like the names of towns, and both official and “unofficial” claims of ownership.
THE TEA READING
EXPLORE MORE HISTORY
Check out the links below to learn more about the historical events that inspired Woman of Light
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