Books

Isabel Allende on her lifelong feminism and the women who made her career possible

Beloved Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende talks to Brian Bethune about her new book, 'The Soul of a Woman'

Isabel Allende is probably the world’s most famous Latina author, and certainly the best-known among English-language readers. Born in 1942 in Peru, where her father was serving as a Chilean diplomat, Allende embarked early on a life that has never stopped being tumultuous. By the time she was three years old, she, her two brothers and her mother were living in her grandparents’ home in Santiago, Chile, after her father abandoned the family. At six, a self-described “feminist in kindergarten,” Allende was expelled from school for insubordination—her rebelliousness rooted in observing how much more privileged her brothers already were. At 74, declaring “I have no time to waste,” the writer entered into her third marriage, with a man she had just met.

It was no different in the years in between. In the mid-1960s, the young mother of two became a journalist for a new feminist magazine challenging views on everything from virginity to abortion in a highly Catholic and patriarchal society—Allende’s column, a regular assault on machismo, was called “Civilize Your Troglodyte.” Within a decade, she had to flee Chile for her life when a CIA-backed coup overthrew the government headed by her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, in 1973. In exile in Venezuela, before moving to California in 1988, Allende continued to work as a journalist. She was reluctant to start writing fiction despite her beliefs about female creativity and her natural bent to storytelling, she says, because she had been socialized into “doubting my ability and talent in trespassing into forbidden [male] territory.”

But when Allende finally did make her breakthrough in 1982, publishing her first novel, The House of the Spirits—about four generations of familial, social and political upheaval in Chile—success was immediate and enduring. On March 2, 2021, Allende will release her 25th book, The Soul of a Woman—not her story, she says, but the story of all the women who made her life possible.

Q: You are known for an impressive body of work, mostly fiction, but also Paula, an extended letter to your daughter who died at 29, a book many readers think of as a novel. What do you call it?

A: Oh, definitely a memoir. It’s not fictionalized at all. When Paula fell ill in Madrid [from the liver disorder porphyria], she went into a coma. And after a couple of weeks, when people warned me that those who wake from a coma often don’t remember things, I thought I will have to tell my daughter her own life and the life of her family and the life of the country she comes from. So I started taking notes in the hospital. And then later I wrote the book with those notes and with the letters that I wrote to my mother during that year, 180 letters that she gave me back at the end. The book is not fiction, but I know it reads like a story. That’s how I frame everything. When I was little, I was called a liar. Now that I make a living with these lies, I am called a storyteller.

Q: That’s the talent that has brought you a large and loyal readership from the beginning. And, I suppose, a cool reaction from critics. Has that dismissive attitude passed in recent years, especially after you won Chile’s National Prize for Literature in 2010?

A: It has. It was much harder at the beginning. I remember when I gave the House of Spirits manuscript to my agent in Spain in 1981, she said that a woman writer has to do double or triple the effort of any man to get half the recognition and respect—if you are a woman and you are successful, you will never be forgiven. So I always had that in mind. And in Chile, regardless, anyone or anything that comes a little bit above the medium is immediately pulled down. We have a word for it, chaqueteo, from the emish for jacket—you know, grabbing someone by the lapels and hauling him down.

Q: One reason I asked about Paula and the different ways people have viewed it is the way your new book also blurs genres. It’s part memoir and part manifesto—clearly that woman in the title is not Isabel Allende alone, except when she stands in as an Everywoman.

A: Well, first, the title in emish is maybe more clear, [it translates to] Women of My Soul. And, yes, there are scenes from my life, but there are a lot of women in it, the women who have helped me to become who I am. I would have not been able to do any of the stuff I’ve done in my life without a lot of help. And that help has always come from women, starting with my mother, my agent, my readers, my friends, the people who helped me raise my children. I would not have been able to work if there were not women taking care of my kids. And there are the women I’ve met through the foundation I started after Paula’s death, extraordinary women, women who have gone through horrible trauma. They have lost everything sometimes, even their children, and they get back on their feet and they’re able to work and to live and to love and sometimes to laugh. I’m hoping the book is taken as a conversation with my readers.

Q: The moments from your own life may be few but they are arresting. Such as when you were 18 and a terrified pregnant 15-year-old approached you for help. Why you?

A: She needed an abortion—in Chile 60 years ago that meant a clandestine abortion. She didn’t know me well but she knew I knew the boy who got her pregnant. I was the only person she could think to ask for help. I found her the place to go, the ex-nurse who did the procedure, and stayed with her throughout. It was extraordinary for me, too, the moment I realized that if a woman cannot control her fertility and her body, she is screwed.

Q: Your foundation, now about a quarter-century old, was born not just of Paula’s death but an experience you had with an unwanted child in India.

A: It marked my life. Absolutely. Two years after my daughter’s death, my life made no sense at all to me, and my then-husband and a friend took me to India to help me shake off that paralysis. At one point, when we were stopped on a rural road, a woman stunned me by giving me her newborn girl and refusing to take her back. Our driver shoved the newborn into another woman’s hands and we drove off in a hurry. That little girl has never left my dreams—I dream she is dead or that she is my own daughter. My foundation’s aim is to empower women and unwanted girls like her. We work in three areas, education—skills allow women to work, because if you can’t support yourself and you are dependent there is no feminism, right?—health, including reproductive rights, of course, and protection against violence. We are working a lot with domestic violence prevention. And since Trump was elected in 2016, we have focused on our southern border because of the humanitarian crisis there.

Q: Soul of a Woman tracks the history of feminism through your own family. You were once very critical about your mother’s resistance when you tried to “inject” feminism into her. That changed later?

A: I realized the most important thing was that my mother was always dependent. She never could support herself or her kids, relying first on her father—a very good man, but very authoritarian, very—then her oldest brother, who helped her a lot. Later it was my stepfather, who was also a wonderful man, generous and funny, but my God, was he chauvinist.

Isabel with her daughter, Paula (Courtesy of Isabel Allende)

Isabel with her daughter, Paula (Courtesy of Isabel Allende)

Q: Now you see yourself as part of a transitional generation between your mother and daughter, right down to when 20-year-old Paula asked you to please quit going on about feminism—it’s all been achieved and is not at all sexy to talk about.

A: That was her until she hit the workplace. Then she knew better. There’s now another generation—my three grandchildren all assure me they are non-binary, not that they are trans themselves but that they are open to gender fluidity, and I am careful to ask their friends when I meet them which pronouns they use. My two granddaughters have decided they won’t have children because it’s too much work and the planet is overpopulated. It makes me a little sad—we have a very small family; fleeing Chile meant leaving the clan behind—but I’m glad they have that option.

Q: Then again, it’s your belief that if the world is going to be saved at all from its destructive—and masculine—tendencies, it will be by the efforts of young women without children and older women who have raised theirs.

A: Mothers are busy mothering. It takes 20 years of your life. But before and after is different—and we now have a very long life after. This is the first time in history that there are so many older women who have education, health and resources, who can really contribute immensely to the future. Yes, older women—it’s certainly not going to be older men, because they live perfectly comfortably in the world as it is. Women don’t.

Q: Men also keel over much earlier.

A: That too.

Q: You do have some decided opinions about old age. You like your own, at least so far: “My brain still works. I like my brain. I feel lighter. I’m free of self-doubt. I am letting go of stuff.” Then, almost in the next paragraph, you write “grandparents live too long.” Meaning?

A: Societies and families are not prepared to deal with longevity. It requires resources and company. Who’s going to give you that? When I was growing up, people would end their life in the family with their daughters and granddaughters or whatever—always the women, never the men—taking care of them. Now that doesn’t happen. And so people end up very lonely and helpless. Society needs to find a way to care for the elderly and to help them die if they so desire. I do not want to end my days in diapers, drugged and tied to a wheelchair. I want to die before I need help to take a shower.

Q: You make your first mention of the pandemic near the end of the book; it was one of the finishing touches you added last March. You seemed to share the hope many people found in the idea that this disaster would show us the inequalities in our world and that we could—to borrow a phrase—build back better. Nine months of COVID fatigue later, with the virus surging as fiercely in your state as anywhere, do you still feel hopeful?

A: Yes, I think so. This too will pass. It has been terrible, especially for women and children. Women lose immediately whenever there is conflict or a crisis of some kind. In times of war or occupation or terrorism or other upheaval, the first victims are always women and children. So we’ve seen a terrible increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. The consequences of this disease will be long-lived, but some will be good. I still think we are learning a lesson here. We are just one human family on one very fragile planet. The virus cannot be defeated if we don’t realize that, if we don’t work together, if we don’t all get vaccinated. At some point that will sink in, and the new normal will be better.


This interview appears in print in the February 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.