Enchantment and Heartbreak in Haiti

Isabel Allende fell in love with New Orleans just before Katrina, and Haiti just before the earthquake. The quake in her native Chile didn’t shake her as much.
  • Transcript


Question: Why did you choose to write about Haiti in your new book?

Isabel Allende: I wasn’t planning it.  I started researching New Orleans because I went there for another book, for "Zorro," in 2003, and I just fell in love with the city.  This was before Katrina. And I loved the French flavor, the voodoo, the streets, the jazz, the music, like we see everything was so different from the rest of the United States.  And much of that flavor comes from 10,000 refugees that left what was then a French colony and now is Haiti, it was called Santo Domingo, and there was a slave revolt.  The only slave revolt that has ever succeeded in history happened there at the turn of the 18th century.  And the whites that survived the revolt escaped and 10,000 of them came to New Orleans. 

So when I was doing the research, I stumbled on this fact and I said, "Oh, I have to find out what happened there."  So, I started researching about Haiti.  And that took over completely because it was such an incredible story.  It had all the elements of everything I love.  It had the passion, the violence, the brutality, and the courage and the magic and the spirituality and nature.  It had everything.

How did the earthquakes in Haiti and your native Chile affect you?

Isabel Allende: Well, very much because the Haitian earthquake was a horrible tragedy.  The death toll was appalling.  And it was exposed the poverty of the country and the lack of infrastructure and government.  And my foundation had been doing some work in Haiti, so we knew about part of that, but now it was all over in the news.  And aid has been poured into Haiti, and Haitian people want to do the work themselves.  They don’t want things to be given to them.  "Don’t give me the fish, teach me to fish."  And it was very different in Chile.  Because Chile is a country that has an infrastructure, a government that works. There is no corruption, to speak of, and we are prepared for this kind of catastrophe because we have them all the time.  Every 10 years or so, we have a big earthquake in Chile, or flooding, or some kind of thing, so to the point that when things—when nothing happens in four or five years, people get nervous.  We are, like, expecting it.  And when it happens, people know how to act. 

So right now, Chile has thousands and thousands of people who are homeless, they lost everything, they are living in tents, the winter began, it's raining, and the government is trying to rebuild the roads and the bridges and the hospitals.  So, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of money and a lot of effort, but there’s no sense of the despair that we saw in Haiti.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George