Interview: Isabel Allende on her life, her writing, feminism, and her new book
Isabel Allende, the most luminous of Latina authors, does what she does. Even at 78, she likes doing things her way — with bravura and candour. So when her publishers in Spain wanted to print the speech that she gave at a women’s conference in Mexico in 2013 into a booklet a few years after it went viral, Allende read it and, having concluded that it was dated, decided it could not be published. “A lot had happened in the women’s movement since I gave the speech,” she writes in an email interview. Some of those developments, of course, included the #MeToo movement, the 2017 Women’s March after Donald Trump became the US President, the LGBTQ+ progression, and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter campaign. This prompted the Chilean-American author of over two dozen best selling novels and memoirs to reflect on her own “trajectory as a woman and as a feminist”. Her latest book, The Soul of a Woman, which releases on March 18, is a result of that reflection.
The Soul of a Woman is a booklet all right, but it’s one that doesn’t repackage an old speech; instead, it bristles with Allende’s big ideas on womanhood and power — laced with Allendesque wisdom and warmth, self-determination and defiance — drawing on memory and family history. A memoir, a feminist manifesto, a meditation on the condition of women, a polemic against patriarchy, machismo and male chauvinism, and a reflection on youth, ageing and immigration — the book is all this, albeit in parts. Following the tradition of Allende’s previous memoirs, it is discursive and conversational, and gives us a glimpse into not just Allende’s soul, but perhaps the soul of every woman who is invested in the idea of a just and joyful world. Allende, who has been a “pilgrim” along more roads than she cares to remember, revisits the “mapless” road of her life, which has been marked with “more than enough three-ring-circus material for writing”, as she wrote in My Invented Country: A Memoir (2003).
Much of this material she owes to her “unhappy” childhood in Chile. Her mother, Doña Panchita, was abandoned by her husband — Tomás Allende, a first cousin of Salvador Allende (President of Chile during 1970-1973), who worked as a second secretary at the Chilean embassy — in Peru, with two toddlers in diapers and a newborn baby. She was forced to return to her parents’ home in Chile, where Allende spent the first eight years of her childhood. “My grandparents’ house in Santiago, in the Providencia neighborhood, then a residential district and now a labyrinth of offices and shops, was large and ugly, a monstrosity of cement with high ceilings, drafts, walls darkened by kerosene-heater soot, heavy red plush curtains, Spanish furniture made to last a century, horrendous portraits of dead relatives, and piles of dusty books,” she writes in The Soul of a Woman.
After her grandmother died prematurely, Allende remembers her childhood as a time of “fear and darkness”. What did she fear? “That my mother would die and we would be sent to an orphanage, that I would be kidnapped by pirates, that the Devil would appear in the mirrors….” she writes in the book. Looking back, Allende is grateful to her unhappy childhood because it provided “ample material” for her writing. “I don’t know how novelists with happy childhoods in normal homes manage,” she writes. Panchita had married against her parents’ wishes. After the relationship failed, she had no choice but to annul the marriage since divorce was not legalized in Chile until 2004. Since her mother was not trained to work and had no money or freedom, it didn’t take long for the young, beautiful, and coquettish woman, who was separated from her husband, to become a target of gossip. Seeing her mother at a disadvantage — “trapped, vulnerable and desperate” — compared to the men in her family, and also being privy to the condition of her maids whom she saw as “victims”, filled Allende with “anger against machismo”. “I became obsessed with justice and developed a visceral reaction to male chauvinism. This resentment was an aberration in my family, which considered itself intellectual and modern but according to today’s standards was frankly Palaeolithic,” she writes in The Soul of a Woman.
When Allende turned six and was expelled from school — run by German Catholic nuns — after having been accused of “insubordination’, she knew it was “a prelude to my future”, she writes in the book: “Maybe the real reason I was expelled was that Panchita was a single mother with three kids.” Her mother went on to pair up with another man, Ramón Huidobro, when Allende was 11, but her father’s sudden disappearance seemed to have “scarred” Allende. “How could I trust men who love you one day and vanish the next?” she writes, adding that the lack of a father in her childhood likely contributed to her “rebelliousness”. Uncle Ramón, as Allende called her stepfather, was “cheerful, bossy, proud, and a male chauvinist”, but soon became her “best friend and confidant”. For her grandfather, Agustín Llona Cuevas, who had started working at 14, when his father’s death left the family in a helpless condition, life was about “discipline, effort, and responsibility”. Allende spent her first eight years under his tutelage, under the influence of his “stoic school of thought”. Later, at 16, she moved back in with him, when she and her brothers were sent back to Chile after Lebanon, where Ramón was consul and where the family had been living, was in the midst of a political and religious crisis that threatened to plunge the country into civil war.
I ask Allende about the women and men in her life and what has she learnt from them. The Soul of a Woman, at some level, is an ode to some illustrious women, from her mother Panchita and daughter Paula to fellow feminists, writers, poets, and, most of all, literary agent Carmen Balcells — who made the publication of her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1982), possible. The basis for the novel was a letter Allende had started writing to her grandfather, who was dying in Chile. Rejected by several publishers in the time of the boom (“a male phenomenon”) in Latin American literature, the novel, written in the magical realist tradition, became a worldwide best seller and catapulted Allende to literary stardom. “Without its success, I would not be a writer today,” says Allende. How did the women in her life shape Allende’s writing and activism? “I could have not done much in my life without the help of other women. First my mother, then my mother-in-law and the nannies who helped me raise my children, my colleagues in journalism and so on. I owe everything to women. I have worked for women and with women all my life. My strongest characters are inspired in women I have known,” says Allende. As for the men, she is quite unequivocal about them too. Her grandfather, she says, gave her “stoicism, discipline and endurance”. Her stepfather taught her about “loyalty, service and generosity”. Her son, Nicolas, is “the pillar” of her life and taught her about “unconditional love”. With her three husbands — Miguel Frías, Willie Gordon, and Roger Cukras, whom she married two years ago at 76 — she says she has shared different stages in her life, but they have “not been my teachers”.
Allende has mined much of her own life — as a woman and as a journalist, as a feminist and a philanthropist, as an exile and an immigrant — to write best selling books, mainly the important events that “determined” her destiny or her personality: her father’s disappearance, the military coup in Chile, her 13-year-long exile in Venezuela during which she wrote The House of the Spirits, her daughter Paula’s death, the success of her first novel, or her two divorces. Although she started writing late, at the age of 40, her oeuvre of 25 books in the past four decades is a testimony to her enviable prolificacy. Her books, all written in her native Spanish, have been translated into 35 languages. As a writer, she continues to be curious and conscious of the ‘abuse of power and power to abuse’ and writes “what should not be forgotten”. Her books, steeped in the power of nature and magic, unravel the mystery around us: our emotions and premonitions, intrigues and adventures, coincidences and catastrophes, eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. She belongs to the first generation of Latin American writers who grew up reading the great masters of the boom, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez whose Hundred Years of Solitude inspired her first novel. How did the boom inform her choice of form, style and themes? The writers of the boom, says Allende, were a “choir of different but harmonious voices” that in one way or another influenced all the writers that came after them. “My first novel follows the path of several of those writers, but all my books are different and in time I suppose that I have developed my own style,” she says.
Allende’s stories, mostly romantic, are essentially stories of passion — the passion of women and men deeply committed to either love or the worlds they come from or the ideals they profess. Does she see her work echoing her own passionate life, just as her characters contesting the ideals of patriarchal leaders find a parallel with her own history of oppression and liberation? “I think that most serious writers only write about those themes that they care for deeply, their demons and obsessions. It is no wonder that I write about strong women, absent fathers, violence, love, loyalty, justice, repression, displacement. Those have been the main themes of my life,” says Allende. In My Invented Country, she underlines how she writes as “a constant exercise in longing”. She has long walked the labyrinth of memory, a mainstay in her writing. “Nostalgia is my vice. Nostalgia is a melancholy, and slightly saccharine, sentiment, like tenderness,” she writes in My Invented Country. While in her life, she has been an incurable romantic”, in literature, romance has been a huge challenge for her since she finds it tough to create male lovers. What made Captain Rodrigo de Quiroga, the valiant conquistador of Chile and Inés Suárez’s husband, in Inés of My Soul (2006), and El Zorro, the 20th century pulp hero in her eponymous novel (2005), the exceptions? “Rodrigo de Quiroga really existed; he was the romantic husband of Inés Suarez during the Conquest of Chile. Zorro was created more than a hundred years ago, I didn’t invent him; he is the romantic figure par excellence,” says Allende, who has discovered that oppressors and villains make for better characters in a novel.
A great deal of Allende’s writing has emerged from “the darkest experience” of her life: the death of her daughter, Paula. She wrote the 1994 memoir, Paula, to cope with her coma and death at the age of 28 in 1992. She had come to India in 1995, with a broken heart, to heal. “I had lost all desire to go on living. India helped me to heal and it gave me a purpose: the idea of my foundation. The incredible beauty of India and the kindness of its people has stayed with me ever since. I will never forget it,” she says. The idea of the foundation had come to Allende after she had a moment of epiphany in Rajasthan where a woman had handed her a newborn baby girl, wrapped in rags. The Isabel Allende Foundation has worked in the area of women’s health, including reproductive rights, their education, economic independence, and protection against violence and exploitation. “My foundation supports non-profit organizations and programs that help refugees worldwide and especially in the border of the US and Mexico, where there is a humanitarian crisis due to the Trump administration cruel immigration policy. We help finance basic needs and legal representation in the American legal system,” she says.
The Soul of a Woman springs from a “happy” space Allende currently inhabits: old age. Inching towards eighty, Allende feels lighter, “free of self-doubt, irrational desires, useless complexes, and other deadly sins” that she no longer finds worth the trouble. “I am probably more mature as a person and as a writer. I am more relaxed, so I don’t fret so much about my writing. I allow the time and discipline that the craft requires but I don’t feel the need to spend 10 hours a day shackled to my computer. I enjoy life more and therefore I enjoy writing more, too. This doesn’t mean that I write happy, relaxed and sweet novels; I still write about the hardships of life and the cruelty of the world,” she says.
As a young woman coming of age during the late 1960s, Allende rode the first wave of feminism. Today, as a matriarch, she is better placed to deliberate on what the movement has been able to accomplish in the course of her lifetime and what the road ahead looks like. “The feminist movement is invigorated by a new wave of young women who have taken to the streets and are pushing history. They are not alone. Young men who are fed up with male chauvinism or who have been raised by feminist mothers are protesting with them, as well as non-binary people and many others who are oppressed by the establishment. Today, change comes faster because technology connects and informs us worldwide. I don’t think I will see the end of the patriarchy, but maybe my grandchildren will,” she says.
Early in The Soul of a Woman, Allende mentions how a rhetorical question posed to a thief by a caliph in the mythical city of Baghdad — “what do women want?” — has haunted her for decades. To answer that question towards the end of the book, she writes: “We want a world of beauty, not only that which the senses appreciate, but also the beauty perceived by an open heart and a clear mind. We want a pristine planet protected from all forms of aggression. We want a balanced and sustainable civilization based on mutual respect, and respect for other species and for nature. We want an inclusive and egalitarian civilization free of gender, race, class, and age discrimination, and any other classification that separates us. We want the kind of world where peace, empathy, decency, truth, and compassion prevail. Above all, we want a joyful world. That is what we, the good witches, want. It’s not a fantasy, it’s a project. Together we can achieve.”
Nawaid Anjum is a poet, translator, and independent journalist. He lives in New Delhi.