Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

One of literature’s most prestigious honors, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters recognizes individuals who have made an exceptional impact on this country’s literary heritage.


Author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Luís Alberto Urrea to present Medal to Allende

One of literature’s most prestigious honors, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters recognizes individuals who have made an exceptional impact on this country’s literary heritage.

Isabel Allende, Photo credit: Lori Barra
Isabel Allende, Photo credit: Lori Barra

The National Book Foundation announced it will award Isabel Allende with its 2018 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (DCAL). The Chilean-American author, whose 1982 debut novel The House of the Spirits propelled her into the literary limelight and the public consciousness, is being honored for her expansive body of work—made up of nearly two dozen works of fiction, memoir, and essay—and her role as a critical figure of Latin-American literature, as well as a wildly successful writer of titles in translation in the U.S., Allende’s adopted country.

Written in her native Spanish, Allende’s work has been translated into 35 languages and has sold nearly 70 million copies across the globe, a testament to her work’s broad, global significance. Allende is the recipient of many distinguished honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to her by Barack Obama in 2014. The DCAL will be presented to Allende by the acclaimed Mexican-American writer Luís Alberto Urrea, whose book The Devil’s Highway was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Allende will be the first Spanish-language author to the recognized with the DCAL honor, and only the second, since Saul Bellow in 1990, to be born outside the United States.

“Able to forge profoundly emotional connections with readers around the world, Isabel Allende has offered generations of fans multilayered and deeply felt narratives that illuminate the rich lives and histories of her characters,” said David Steinberger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “Allende pulls from her own experiences to offer a global audience access to geographically and culturally specific stories that might otherwise never reach them.”

Prior to becoming a novelist, Allende spent many years as a journalist in Chile. Her family was forced to flee to Venezuela following the 1973 coup that deposed her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, and installed Augusto Pinochet as dictator, an experience that would inform her groundbreaking first novel, which established Allende as a significant talent. Critically acclaimed in South America and beyond, The House of the Spirits is a multigenerational story of a family’s history in Chile from the 1920s to ’70s, and heralded a new voice in the male-dominated canon of Latin-American literature.

First published in 1982, The House of the Spirits would go on to be translated into dozens of languages in many countries, serialized in American Vogue, and become an international bestseller. Subsequent titles explore stories all over the globe, from gold rush-era California (Daughter of Fortune, an Oprah Book Club selection) to late 18th-century Spain (Zorro) and more. In addition to her novels, Allende has written multiple memoirs, including Paula, an intensely personal book that explores the fantastic history of Allende’s life and family and the experience of tending to her daughter in her final days.

“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,” said Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “Allende’s work is proof that artistic excellence and commercial viability are not exclusive concepts, and that stories about women written with women in mind are not only good business, but also represent crucial contributions to the literary landscape.”

Allende immigrated to the United States in 1987 and became an American citizen in 1993. Her experiences as an immigrant, journalist, and former political refugee continue to inform much of her work, which concerns itself with issues of human rights, social justice, and the struggles women face in achieving parity of power. While many of her stories are imbued with notes of magic realism, Allende writes broadly across subjects, speaking to greater truths about power, identity, love, family, displacement, and loss.

In addition to her bestselling first novel, The House of the Spirits, Allende is the author of 22 additional titles, including memoirs, essays, novels, and books for young readers. These include Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, City of the Beasts, Paula, and In the Midst of Winter, her most recent novel. The National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters joins a host of prestigious awards and honors with which Allende’s remarkable life and work have been recognized. In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN America, Chile’s National Literature Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. On top of her writing career, Allende devotes much of her life to philanthropic causes, work that includes her charitable foundation invested in the protection and advancement of girls and women worldwide, established in honor of her late daughter. Allende’s full bio can be found below.

Allende is the 31st recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include Annie Proulx, Robert A. Caro, John Ashbery, Judy Blume, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Eudora Welty, and Tom Wolfe.

Nominations for the DCAL medal are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. The final selection is made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors. Recipients of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters receive $10,000 and a solid brass medal.

About Isabel Allende

Chilean author Isabel Allende won worldwide acclaim when her bestselling first novel, The House of the Spirits, was published in 1982. In addition to launching Allende’s career as a renowned author, the book, which grew out of a farewell letter to her dying grandfather, also established her as a feminist force in Latin America’s male-dominated literary world.

She has since written 22 more works, including Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Stories of Eva Luna, The Infinite Plan, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, a trilogy for young readers (City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies), Zorro, Ines of My Soul, Island Beneath the Sea, Maya’s Notebook, Ripper, The Japanese Lover, and her latest book, In the Midst of Winter. Books of nonfiction include Aphrodite, a humorous collection of recipes and essays, and three memoirs: My Invented Country, Paula (a bestseller that documents Allende’s daughter’s illness and death, as well as her own life), and The Sum of Our Days.

Allende’s books, all written in her native Spanish, have been translated into 35 languages and have sold nearly 70 million copies. Her works both entertain and educate readers by weaving intriguing stories with significant historical events. Settings for her books include Chile throughout the 15th, 19th and 20th centuries, the California gold rush, the guerrilla movement of 1960s Venezuela, the Vietnam War and the 18th-century slave revolt in Haiti.

Allende, who has received dozens of international tributes and awards over the last 30 years, describes her fiction as “realistic literature,” rooted in her remarkable upbringing and the mystical people and events that fueled her imagination. Her writings are equally informed by her feminist convictions, her commitment to social justice and the harsh political realities that shaped her destiny.

A prominent journalist for Chilean television and magazines in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Allende’s life was forever altered when General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in 1973 that toppled Chile’s socialist reform government. Allende’s cousin Salvador Allende, who had been elected Chile’s president in 1970, died in the coup. The Pinochet regime was marked early on by repression and brutality, and Allende became involved with groups offering aid to victims of the regime. Ultimately finding it unsafe to remain in Chile, she fled the country in 1975 with her husband and two children. The family lived in exile in Venezuela for the next 13 years.

In 1981, Allende learned that her beloved grandfather, who still lived in Chile, was dying. She began a letter to him, recounting her childhood memories of life in her grandparents’ home. Although her grandfather died before having a chance to read the letter, its contents became the basis for The House of the Spirits, the novel that launched her literary career at age 40. The novel details the lives of two families living in Chile from the 1920s to the country’s military coup in 1973, and has been described as both a family saga and a political testimony.

In addition to her work as a writer, Allende also devotes much of her time to human rights. Following the death of her daughter, Paula, in 1992, she established in her honor a charitable foundation dedicated to the protection and empowerment of women and girls worldwide.

Since 1987, Allende has made her home in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Allende became a U.S. citizen in 1993, but lives, she says, with one foot in California and the other in Chile.

Luís Alberto Urrea (Photo credit: Joe Mazz, Brave Lux)
Luís Alberto Urrea (Photo credit: Joe Mazz, Brave Lux)

About Luís Alberto Urrea:

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark work of nonficiton The Devil’s HighwayLuís Alberto Urrea is also the bestselling author of the novels The Hummingbird’s DaughterInto the Beautiful North, and Queen of America, as well as the story collection The Water Museum, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. He has won the Lannan Literary Award, an Edgar Award, and a 2017 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, among many other honors. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, he lives outside of Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

National Book Foundation's Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Medallion

Every fall, in conjunction with the conferring of The National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature, the Board of Directors of the Foundation also presents a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The recipient is a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work. Recipients of the Award receive $10,000.

Faculty Name

no content

X