Stuyvesant Students Meet Chilean Novelist
Stuyvesant Spanish teacher Milton Diaz inserted parentheses into the curriculum of his AP Spanish Literature class, so that his students might read Isabel Allende’s latest book and meet the best-selling Chilean novelist. That day, Allende spoke and signed books at Lectorum, a Spanish-language bookstore on 14th Street, as part of her world-wide promotion of La Ciudad de las Bestias (The City of the Beasts). Diaz’s students had front-row seats and first dibs at asking questions, while the public crowded in the back amongst the book shelves and a line of fans waited outside.
According to Stuyvesant Assistant Principal of Foreign Language Rolf Schwagermann, Teresa Mlawer, president of Lectorum, had recommended Stuyvesant High School students in response to Allende’s desire to interact with young people, the audience she had in mind when she wrote La Ciudad de las Bestias. The novel, which tells the adventures of Californian teenager Alexander Cold and his eccentric grandmother in the Amazon rainforest, creates a good transition into the magical realist short stories of Spain and Latin America.
“This was one of the most exciting and disappointing things that happened to me this year,” said senior Maria Belopolsky. “It was exciting because I’d never met a published author before, and because Allende was a very interesting person, but disappointing because she seemed detached, as though she’d prepared all of her answers beforehand. Belopolsky asked Allende if she had any advice for young aspiring writers. “Write one good page every day and at the end of the year, you’ll have 365 pages, which is a novel,” said Allende.
“The author seemed a lot more interesting than her book,” said senior Fang Yuan of Allende, 60, who is the niece of Chilean President Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in 1973 in a CIA-aided military coup. Allende has also worked as a journalist, lived in exile, and traveled widely.
Said Belopolsky, “She tried to please too wide an audience without even bothering to come up with well-thought-out characters.” When Allende said she hadn’t known that Dr. Torres [one of the characters] would end up being a traitor, Belopolsky “wanted to stand up and shout, ‘I knew it was her as soon as I read that there was a traitor.’ Her book lacked depth, and it lacked soul.”
Schwagermann disagreed. “You can read it on different levels. On the surface it is an adventure story, but as Allende said, its greater theme is nature, the protection of the environment.” According to Allende, the dreams and fears of one generation differ from those of another by details only. As the cold war threat of nuclear warfare frightened Allende in her youth, so the destruction of rainforests and native South American people preoccupies the narrator of La Ciudad de las Bestias. The second book in this trilogy-to-be will follow Alex and his grandmother into the Himalayas and explore the theme of peace.
Senior Luciana Gravotta asked, “Who is the reader meant to be?” “Not little kids,” said Diaz, “because there are too many details, and not teenagers, because they can’t relate to the one-dimensional characters.” Some said the novel is appropriate for earlier years of Spanish study because it can be read without a dictionary in hand. Others thought parents should read it to children of elementary school age, since the novel contains anti-drug and anti-smoking messages that might trigger meaningful dialogue. And bedtime adventure stories are always in demand, as Allende, grandmother of three, knows. At the same time, she said the book is meant for ages twelve and up, she said.
Allende adopted a defensive stance several times in the afternoon. She explained the necessity of simplifying the book, especially in terms of good and evil, after senior Arthur Burkle, President of the Stuyvesant Chapter of the Spanish Honor Society, said that she portrayed New York and New Yorkers very negatively. Her descriptions of the city zero in on the homeless and the dirty streets, and the first person the main character meets in the city turns out to be a thief. “We are all sitting here and we’re not robbing each other,” said Burkle.
The meeting ended well, with Allende signing the students’ books. In the near future, Diaz hopes to use his contacts in the press and among literary agents to invite writers to Stuyvesant for round-table discussions that would not be limited to the AP Spanish Literature class. “I think this is what school should be about: creating impressions of your own about writers and their work,” he said.#
Katarzyna Kozanecka is a senior at Stuyvesant HS in Manhattan.