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Isabel Allende weaves together love, secrecy and WWII in 'The Japanese Lover'

Writer Isabel Allende is known to millions of her fans around the world for her books,
Writer Isabel Allende is known to millions of her fans around the world for her books, "The House of the Spirits," and "City of the Beasts." Her newest book is called "The Japanese Lover."
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Writer Isabel Allende is known to millions of her fans around the world for her books, "The House of the Spirits," and "City of the Beasts."

Allende joined host Alex Cohen to talk about her newest book, "The Japanese Lover," and her long career that started more than three decades ago. You can catch Allende at the Skirball Cultural Center on Tuesday at 8 p.m. Click here for more information. 

Interview Highlights

Alex Cohen: The title, "The Japanese Lover," refers to a relationship between a woman named Alma Belasco, a Jewish immigrant who comes to California in 1939 to escape the Nazis, and a man named Ichimei Fukuda, the son of a Japanese immigrant. Their love must remain secret because the idea of a white woman with a Japanese man was unheard of at that time, which may be hard to understand today. Bring us back to that time, what was so taboo about that kind of love?

Isabel Allende: It would have been impossible for them to have a marriage. Therefore they become lovers, and their love endures a lifetime. But they couldn't marry, not only because it was legally impossible, but also they were separated by so many obstacles: by wealth, social class, culture, everything. Everything worked against them, and I think that if they would have married, it would have been a disaster.

Alex Cohen: In my mind these two were just destined to be together, but there is also that notion of forbidden love, you want what you can't have. In your mind as you created their relationship, do you feel like the fact that they couldn't be together propel their love even further?

Isabel Allende: In my mind, yes, and I think that in real life, it's also the case. You know now, marriages last too long. Before people would get married and you were expected to live with your husband 20, 30 years. Now you live 65 years with the same person! (laughs) It's too long. But with lovers, you know, lovers meet to share the best of themselves, in secret time, a time that is like a parentheses from everything else in their lives. So, of course, it's endurable.   

Alex Cohen: You write about Jews escaping from the Nazis, and the Japanese being interned. You yourself endured the 1973 military coup in Chile, when the then-president of Chile, and your father's cousin, was overthrown, and Augusto Pinochet came to power. Do you rely on any of your own experiences to tap into what your characters might have felt? 

Isabel Allende: I think I do, but not consciously. I write only about things I care for, obsessions, memory, emotions that somehow I can't either understand or overcome or control, and then I end up writing about that, and everything is related to the kind of life I have had. In all my books, you will find displaced people, or people who are not sheltered by the big umbrella of the establishment. They're marginals for whatever reason, poverty, or gender, or whatever reason there is. Those are the characters I'm interested in, because I always feel like a foreigner. I always feel that I don't quite belong — not even in Chile anymore. And it's good for a writer, because as a writer, I end up asking the questions that nobody else asks, because everybody takes everything for granted. But because I am new in a place, I am curious in a way, and that gives me stories.

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.

CORRECTION: During the interview, we misidentified Book Soup as the location of Allende's event. The reading will take place at the Skirball Cultural Center. We regret this error.