Author Isabel Allende Honors Her Daughter’s Life

“We only have what we give.”

Posted Mar 20, 2011

Isabel Allende's fiction and memoirs have been life-changing for so many people, and so has the foundation she started to honor her daughter. Paula Frias was only 28 years old when she died in 1992. "She was the light of our family, and it broke my heart when she died so young," Allende says. Paula spent her short life working as a volunteer in poor communities in Venezuela and Spain, and her mother has continued her work with The Isabel Allende Foundation. Here's more from Ms. Allende:

Jennifer Haupt: Your first memoir, Paula, published in 2006, interweaves the stories of your family with your own poignant story of love and loss during the year your daughter was in a coma. Did you actually tell Paula these stories as you sat by her bedside, and did that provide some comfort to you during that difficult time?

Isabel Allende: When my daughter fell in a coma, the doctors in the hospital in Madrid kept telling me that she would wake up and recover completely. I had heard that patients after a long coma have memory problems. I decided to write to Paula about her family, her country and her past so that when she came back to us she wouldn't be so lost. I didn't know then that the hospital was covering up gross negligence in the Intensive Care Unit and that my daughter would never wake up, she had severe brain damage. When finally I could take her home to California, in a vegetative state, I stopped writing to her and started writing to my mother in Chile. For my memoir I used the journal I kept at the hospital in Madrid and the letters I wrote to my mother during that awful year of l992.

JH: In your second memoir, The Sum of Our Days, published in 2008, you write this about Paula: "In these years without you I have learned to manage sadness, making it my ally." How has the foundation you created to honor your daughter's memory helped with your grieving process?

IA: The Foundation allows me to continue the work that Paula did as a teacher and psychologist. She worked for women and children, always among the poor. Every time I write a check from the Foundation to support a good cause, I feel my daughter watching over my shoulder and smiling. Paula is alive and present in my life.

JH: When did you decide to start the Isabel Allende Foundation to honor Paula, and how did you decide what the mission would be?

IA: I started the Foundation in l996, after a trip to India in which a woman in a village tried to give me a new born baby girl, probably because she could not care for her and also because girls are not appreciated in many places in the world. By then I had published my memoir and I had been saving the income from the book in a separate bank account with the idea of using it to honor my daughter. I could not help that baby girl in India but I decided that I could help others, so I created a foundation with the mission of caring for women and girls, the poorest of the poor.

JH: I love this quote of yours: "The first lie of fiction is that the author gives some order to the chaos of life: chronological order, or whatever order the author chooses." Tell me, is there an essential truth about life that writing fiction has revealed to you over the years?

IA: I have learned many things in the 30 years that I have been writing. First, I have learned about me, I know that there is consistency between my writing, my principles and the way I conduct my life. Second, I have learned that my stories connect me to millions of readers all over the world, so I have the responsibility to be as honest and truthful in my writing as possible. Third, I have learned that I can create my own legend, I choose what to remember and what to forget, I choose the tone and the adjectives to tell my life. I have decided to tell it in epic language and technicolor. I don't want an uneventful and safe life, I prefer and adventurous one.

Isabel Allende Liona is a Chilean/American writer who has written three memoirs and fifteen novels during the past twenty-nine years, including the bestsellers The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, and The Island Beneath the Sea. To find out more about The Isabel Allende Foundation, please visit the website.