“Write what should not be forgotten.” –Isabel Allende
It is not just on Women’s History Month that I’m paying tribute to this Chilean-American writer who, to some critics, has become more American (she lives in California and is married to an American) than Latin Am. After all, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the term of US President Barack Obama, an honor she shared in 2014 with, among other illustrious names, Stephen Sondheim and Meryl Streep, for “especially meritorious contributions” to American cultural life.
But to my mind, her story-telling is always rooted in Chile where “matters of social class, opportunity, and income were appalling,” as per her description in her latest nonfiction book The Soul of a Woman: On Impatient Love, Long Life, and Good Witches (New York: Ballantine Books, 2021).
Okay, she comes to us translated into English, she being said to be “the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author.” It could only mean that she may have surpassed Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, in readership. But Cervantes’ greatness in literature is assured. Allende’s fecundity as an author is also assured. To date, she has, oh, 24 books the latest of which is the novel Violeta.
I bow low to her feminism, forgive the obsequious gesture, but it’s the only verb that comes to mind. Okay, I salute her!
She defines feminism in The Soul of a Woman by declaring first what it is not: “It is not what we have between our legs but what we have between our ears. It’s a philosophical posture and an uprising against male authority. It’s a way of understanding human relations and a way to see the world. It’s a commitment to justice and a struggle for the emancipation of women, the LGBTQIA+ community, anyone oppressed by the system, including some men, and all the others who want to join.”
I can imagine her flinging her arms heavenward, declaring as she did in the book: “Welcome! The greater our number the better.”
It has been said that to make an equitable world possible, mothers must also teach their sons not to be señoritos who think it’s their innate right to be served by their mothers, wives or daughters.
‘What did I want for my son? That he be a good companion to women, not an adversary….’
Allende has made sure that her son Nicolas would be machismo-free. She writes: “What did I want for my son? That he be a good companion to women, not an adversary. …Nicolas learned in the cradle the concept of gender equality. If I missed some detail, his sister instilled it in him.”
Today he runs The Isabel Allende Foundation whose mission, according to isabelallende.org, is to “invest in the power of women and girls to secure reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence.”
So how then does Allende portray her male characters? The lovers, in particular, she says, “are fanatical guerrillas, hair-lipped merchants, vegetarian professors, invisible octogenarians, amputee soldiers, and so on.” One of two exemptions is Zorro who she couldn’t kill off “because the copyright belongs to a corporation that has good lawyers.”
In this book, she pays tribute to one of her dearest friends, Carmen Balcells, a literary agent from Spain and considered “the godmother of almost all the great writers of this Latin American boom, as well as hundreds of other Spanish-language authors.” Balcells was there for the milestones in Allende’s life, including her divorces and the illness (followed by the death) of daughter Paula commemorated in a memoir of the same name.
‘…get married, because a husband, no matter if he is a moron, looks good’
Allende has kept her friend’s photo on her desk as a reminder of the latter’s advice: “Anybody can write a good first book, but a writer is proved by the second and by those that follow; you are going to be judged harshly because success in women is not easily forgiven; write what you want; don’t allow anybody to interfere with your work or in the handling of your money; treat your children like royalty, they deserve it; get married, because a husband, no matter if he is a moron, looks good.”
At age 79, there is no stopping Allende. She has decided “to be active forever and use every brain cell and soul spark so there will be nothing left when I go. I am not going to retire, I am going to renovate. I am not willing to be cautious.”
She cites celebrity chef Julia Child, another lodi of mine, who listed red meat and gin as the secrets to her long life. “My excesses are different,” Allende writes, “but… I will not give them up. My mother used to say that the only regrets in our old age are the sins we didn’t commit and the things we didn’t buy.”
The book takes a more serious turn when she enumerates the injustices girls face in still many parts of the world. It is the reason behind establishing her foundation in Paula’s memory. The miseries these girls face are: being unwanted, being sold into premature marriage, forced labor, and prostitution, being beaten and raped, giving birth in puberty, becoming mothers of other girls “in an eternal cycle of humiliation and suffering.”
The author is unflinching when she describes the process of genital mutilation which 200 million women have suffered: “The clitoris and labia of a girl’s vulva are cut with a razor blade, knife, or a piece of sharp glass, without anesthesia and with minimal hygiene. Women perform this mutilation on girls, repeating without question a custom that aims at preventing sexual pleasure and orgasm. Governments do not always intervene; it’s considered a religious or cultural tradition, and a girl who has not been cut has less value in the matrimonial market.”
Would that all women reach Allende’s stage of “happy time” which in her words is “an internal feeling of well-being that starts with loving myself. I am free. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody, nor do I have to care for my children or grandchildren…I have done my duty…and I have done more than was expected of me.”
The Soul of a Woman is available at Fully Booked and Amazon.com. Its audiobook version, narrated by Gisela Chipe, can be found at https://www.kobo.com/ph/en/audiobook/the-soul-of-a-woman-2