Bestselling Chilean author Isabel Allende received an honorary Lifetime Achievement National Book Award on Wednesday night, making her the first ever Spanish-language author to receive the honor. Allende is most famous for the blockbuster success of her 1982 novel, “The House of Spirits” that has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. In total, she has written over 20 books.
The National Book Award medal is one of the highest honors in literature, previously being bestowed on literary greats like Arthur Miller, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison. The fact that the National Book Award Committee awarded the medal to an author who writes exclusively in Spanish cannot be understated.
When accepting the award, Allende delivered a stirring speech that touched on themes of memories, alienation, and the power of storytelling.
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Isabel Allende, la sobresaliente novelista chilena, agradeciendo hoy en una ceremonia realizada en Nueva York, el "Premio Nacional de Literatura de Estados Unidos", la primera autora en español en recibir tal distinción denominado: "National Book Award 2018". #isabelallende #usa #escritoras #novelista #writer #nationalbookaward #chile
Allende began her rousing acceptance speech by accepting the award “on behalf of millions of people like myself who have come to this country in search of a new life”. She went on to describe her life experience as that of a constant foreigner, as although she was born in Peru, she was raised in Chile. She said these experiences make her recognize the universal “incurable desire to belong in a place.”
But her speech didn’t stop there. She devoted the rest of her time on the podium to talk about her writing process, which she described as “taking notes” on her experiences.
“I draw on other people’s lives, especially the strong and passionate women that I meet everywhere,” she said. “I draw on the sorrow and the struggles of every day, on the joy of being alive and not afraid of death. I’m not afraid of life either. I refuse to live in fear and let alone to vote in fear”.
A former refugee herself, Allende didn’t back away from some painful topics.
Allende explained that she used her painful past to enrich her storytelling. “I was a political refugee for 13 years in Venezuela after the military coup of 1973 that ended a long tradition of democracy in Chile”, she said. “And I have been an immigrant in the United States for more than 30 years”. She went on to decry the international apathy towards refugees and displaced persons who “are forced to leave everything that is familiar to them and undertake dangerous journeys to save their lives”. According to her, Allende writes to keep their memories alive.
Allende concluded the speech with a touching message of unity and hope: “I write to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories. If we listen to another person’s story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred.” She received a standing ovation.
Allende wasn’t the only Latina to sweep up prizes at the National Book Awards.
The 69th edition of the awards saw Latinx Dominican poet Elizabeth Acevedo and Chinese-Panamanian writer Sigrid Nunez accept awards as well. Acevedo won the award for young people’s literature for her book Poet X. Nunez won the honors in fiction for her novel “The Friend,” which focuses on a writer who takes care of a friend’s Great Dane after they were driven to suicide.
Latina Twitter was quick to congratulate Allende on the prestigious recognition and thank her for her work.
— GailReedMEDICC (@MediccGail) November 16, 2018
This Cubana knows that a Lifetime achievement award is worth a Felicidades or two.
The fact is, Allende is one of the few Latina voices to be read by millions of people, regardless of nationality, across the globe.
— Maria Cardona Serra (@mmcardona) November 15, 2018
The impact of her voice is profound.
This Latina made a point of explaining how important it is to read a story that echoes your own.
But no woman embodies my teenage and young adult imagination like @isabelallende.
My forever foreigner. We both left our homes countries and are finding our own space.
I dream in Spanish and envision the world you created.
— Mariana Atencio (@marianaatencio) November 16, 2018
Indeed, there are countless Latinas in the US and elsewhere who are also “finding their own space” as foreigners.
Some Latinas applauded Allende’s speech that was chock-full of cutting wit and self-deprecating humor.
“I have a lover at 76.” YES ISABEL ALLENDE!!! #NBAWARDS
— Lilliam Rivera (@lilliamr) November 15, 2018
Talking about her “brave” lover, Allende held nothing back. And why should she? She is a proud, strong, passionate woman like the characters in her books.
But, Allende wasn’t the only Latina recognized with a National Book Award on Wednesday. Dominicana author Elizabeth Acevedo won the award for Young People’s literature for her book, “Poet X”, and Chinese-Panamanian author Sigrid Nunez won the prize for fiction for her novel “The Friend”. In the end, it was a powerful night for Latinas and Latina representation in the arts.
You can read Allende’s full acceptance speech here.
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