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The Chilean author Isabel Allende became the first Spanish-language author to win the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters at the National Book Awards in New York earlier this month.  The 76-year-old writer of more than 20 works of fiction and non-fiction – among them Of Love and Shadows and Eva Luna, said she accepted the award “on behalf of millions of people like myself who have come to this country in search of a new life”.

She was speaking as the so-called ‘migrant caravan’ of men, women and children who say they are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador reached Tijuana on the Mexican-US border.

“This is a dark time, my friends,” she said at the gala event at the restaurant Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan.  “This is a time of nationalism and racism; of cruelty and fanaticism. A time when the values and principles that sustain our civilisation are under siege.  It’s a time of violence and poverty for many; masses of people, who are forced to leave everything that is familiar to them and undertake dangerous journeys to save their lives.”

Allende was born in Chile, but spent 13 years living as a political refugee in Venezuela before moving to the United States. In 1982 she published her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, which brought her literary acclaim.

She has received numerous awards in her long career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2014 and the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction in 2010.

The evening also saw one new award, the National Book Award for Translated Literature which was won by Japanese author Yoko Tawada for her novel The Emissary (New Directions), translated by Margaret Mitsutani.

Allende closed her speech by saying: “I write to preserve memory against the ocean of oblivion, and to bring people together.  I believe in the power of stories.”