The National Book Foundation announced Thursday that Isabel Allende will receive an honorary National Book Award medal for her “distinguished contribution to American letters.” The Peruvian writer is the first Spanish-speaking author and first person born outside the United States since 1990 to receive the prize. Past winners of the award include Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller and Joan Didion.
“Through expertly crafted and propulsive narratives, Allende elevates the stories and lives of women, never condescending to her readers or cheapening the experiences of her characters,” Lisa Lucas, executive director of the book foundation, said in a statement. “Allende’s work is proof that artistic excellence and commercial viability are not exclusive concepts, and that the stories about women written with women in mind are not only good business, but also represent crucial contributions to the literary landscape.”
Luis Alberto Urrea, best known for his book The Devil’s Highway, will present Allende with her medal at the National Book Award benefit dinner and ceremony in Manhattan in November.
Known for her multigenerational stories and use of magical realism, Allende intertwines the personal with the political, with a focus often on the lives of women. Her work has been set both inside and outside the United States, from Chile to the Bay Area, where Allende has lived since the 1980s.
Allende is one of the world’s most popular Spanish-language writers, with sales exceeding 60 million copies. Her work has been translated into over 30 languages and adapted into operas, plays and other works, including a 1993 film version of The House of the Spirits starring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons—a TV adaptation of that same novel is currently in development at Hulu. Allende’s previous honors include a Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded in 2014 by Barack Obama, and a lifetime achievement award from PEN Center USA two years later.
Allende, now 76, has written over 20 books, even though her first was not published until she was 40. Born in Peru, she lived in Bolivia and Beirut before settling in Chile. Allende worked as a journalist for a Venezuelan newspaper until the death of her grandfather inspired her to write a letter to him that became her debut novel The House of the Spirits, published in 1982 and her best-known work to date.
Her other books include Eva Luna, The Stories of Eva Luna, Of Love and Shadows and Island Beneath the Sea. Allende is currently working on a novel about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, set during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.