Old flavour of new novel resonates with Haiti today

Chilean author Isabel Allende hopes readers don’t think that her latest book, Island Beneath the Sea, set in Haiti, is being published in English to take advantage of the current focus on the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country.

NEW YORK — Chilean author Isabel Allende hopes readers don’t think that her latest book, Island Beneath the Sea, set in Haiti, is being published in English to take advantage of the current focus on the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country.

“It’s a terrible coincidence,” says the best-selling author of The House of the Spirits.

“I felt bad that the book was going to come out now (in English) and that it might look as if I was taking advantage of the circumstances, but on the other hand it seems important that Haiti is in the news, that it’s on the map again and that people are talking about Haiti, a marvellous country in need of help,” she says.

The 67-year-old author originally considered setting the novel in New Orleans, but her research took her to Haiti.

“I noticed that the French flavour of New Orleans, the cooking, the voodoo, a lot of the customs come from 10,000 refugees who fled Haiti during the slave revolution at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s . . . and many of them came to Louisiana,” she says during a recent interview.

“So I began investigating the circumstances that forced them to leave and that’s how I got into the Haitian Revolution, which is fascinating.”

The book, which debuted in Spanish last year and just came out in English in the United States, follows Zarite Sedella, a slave in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) at the end of the 18th century who had the good fortune to avoid working on sugar plantations or in the mills, because she was always a domestic slave.

Although Island Beneath the Sea takes place 200 years ago, Allende says, “the theme of slavery is one that is horribly alive today.”

“There are 27 million slaves in the world today . . . and we’re not just talking about girls who work in Cambodian bordellos, but people who are in indentured servitude, sometimes for generations; entire villages that work in agriculture, in the fishing industry, logging and all sorts of sweatshops,” she says.

“When there’s so much poverty, when there’s so much abuse, I think it’s important to say it as much as possible — to make awareness about this,” Allende says. She added that 300,000 children in Haiti are domestic slaves who are given away by their parents who are too poor to take care of them.

Allende is one of the best-known contemporary women authors in Latin America, who sometimes writes based on her own experiences, weaving together myth and realism. Her books, which have been translated into more than 27 languages, shift between autobiographical and historical and are usually focused on women.

Her latest book has been a bestseller in many Latin American countries and is already a bestseller on Amazon.com.

Terry Karten, Allende’s editor at Harper Collins, said the book continues to sell well in hardback and e-book.

“We expect the novel to be a favourite choice for summer reading and book groups as well,” she said in an email to The Associated Press.

The book’s research took about four years and writing another year.

“When I begin writing I have the place and time well researched. I have all the documentation about what happened during that moment in that place and nothing more,” she says of her creative process.

“It took me maybe two years to gather the primary materials, but I wasn’t able to write the book because I didn’t have Zarite, I didn’t have her voice — the story was very rough,” she says. But one day, she dreamed about the character. “Or she appeared to me when I was meditating, but I saw her fully. And when I had Zarite’s personality, with her body, her long neck, her elegant hands, her voice, I was able to write the book easily.”

Allende, who has endured personal tragedy — she shared the loss of her daughter in her memoir “Paula” — says she is grateful for the life she’s led.

“I think very few people pass through life without suffering. And my suffering is no different from that of others and it’s not greater,” she says.