Chilean history – intricately woven and dramatic in its narrative – has been the subject of several novels, but not in a manner as compelling as Florencia Mallon’s freshman effort.
“Beyond the ties of Blood” is a powerful story about one Eugenia Adulante, an upper-class college student in Santiago, Chile whose love of a political activist sets her squarely amid the violence and turmoil of the country’s 1973 military coup. Eugenia largely turns a blind eye to the activism of her lover, Manuel Bronstein and finds herself imprisoned and later, horrifically tortured. Pregnant and alone, Eugenia flees her native country for a journalism career in Mexico, and later, the United States. But the past is relentless in its torture and Eugenia – and her precious daughter, Laura – must, like Chile itself, confront its history.
Mallon, was raised in Santiago herself and was educated at Harvard and Yale University. Now head of the History department at the University of Wisconsin, she has written several well-respected historical tomes on post-colonial Mexico and Peru, as well as on Chilean statehood. En route to a speaking engagement in Iowa, she shared with NBC Latino about her transition to fiction, her history of political activism, and why her narrative of Chile’s dramatic coup is revolutionary in its own right.
“Beyond the ties of blood” is largely about how war ties people together in complex relationships. What prompted you to tackle the 1973 coup in Chile in your very first novel?
“My mother is from Santiago and my father was from California; they met here in the States and were married in Chile. I grew up in Santiago, very much feeling the ties to my mother’s family who were basically from land-owning stock. They weren’t very well off but still held on to those upper-class values. So I was this rebel kid in my Chilean family, the only one who supported Allende. It was an amazing time in the history of my country and after the coup, I did a lot of organizing work with the solidarity movement while I was a student in the U.S. As a historian, I provide evidence for something in my footnotes; and when I found I couldn’t do that with the history of the coup, I turned to fiction. Fiction has turned out to be demanding in a different way because you have to convince readers what they’re reading is authentic. And so what started out as a story of a Mapuche woman became a short story that five years later is now a novel.”
You mentioned that you worked as an activist here in the United States. What was your experience with the revolution?
“I grew up in Chile but went to the college in the United States, so I didn’t connect to the student activism in Chile like I describe in my book. I was the kid that believed in the nationalization of copper while my aunts and uncles argued against me at the dinner table. My primary activism experience was as student organizer in the U.S. against the Vietnam War. But I always connected with what was happening in Chile and I had always wanted to do a project in Chile but hadn’t been able to during my student years. So it wasn’t until after the Pinochet dictatorship ended and there was a transition to democratic rule in the 90s that I was able to go there, talk to people about the coup and conduct research. When I wasn’t able to find out what had happened to certain characters during my research, I decided to write my own stories about the narrative – and that’s when I began writing fiction.”
You made such a point to introduce indigenous characters like Tonia and Jewish immigrants like Manuel, into the novel. How important was it to you to present a complete picture of the Chilean population and landscape?
“I chose to make that an important part of the book because in Chile itself, there’s an official, singular version of Chilean origin, society and culture that’s not multicultural in the least. Part of what I wanted to do by introducing these characters as part of my Chilean story was to explore how Chilean culture and history is much more multi-dimensional that’s recognized. When people recognize that multi-cultural aspect of my book, I’m extremely pleased because that means I fulfilled my goal.”
What did you learn about yourself through the writing of this book?
“I learned first and foremost that what really makes me passionate is to form an intellectual and creative story about people that are usually not in the limelight. I even did that with my doctoral dissertation, which was based on the development and capitalism of the mining industry in Peru, but told through the perspective of peasant communities – the people usually left out of the story. But what I learned with this book is that I do love history and sharing that perspective, which can comfortably be done in fiction. And so the next two novels that I have planned are set in historical events but from the perspectives of strong female characters who are not your usual protagonists. The first novel is about the Shining Path War in Peru seen through the eyes of a Latina anthropologist called to find a man who disappeared during the conflict. And the other novel is a bit more centered in history; the story of a great Mapuche leader told through the perspective of one of his European wives.”
What do you think about the comparisons that have been made between Isabelle Allende and yourself?
“I think the main reason we’ve been compared is because we’re both Chilean and to some extent, there are similarities in class background between us. But I think on one level I feel really honored by the comparison because “House of Spirits” and “Paula” are books that have inspired me a lot. At the same time, we both write very different types of historical fiction. Because I am a historian, I tend to think about plot in a very different way. I have a good friend who is very close to her family and asked if I wanted the possibility of Isabel writing a blurb in my novel – and who wouldn’t want that? Isabel never does it and did not make any exceptions for my book, but she did wish me well. With that, I’m truly honored to be compared to her.”