Who’s Afraid of Isabel Allende?
Isabel Allende is a Chilean-American author whose life is nothing short of a rollercoaster. Most well-known for her fictional novels The House of Spirits and Eva Luna, she rightfully established herself as a literary pioneer in Latin American literature as one of the first female novelists with the same level of success (in many cases, more success than) as her male counterparts.
Allende fits comfortably in the same breath with Gabriel García Márquez and Eduardo Galeano when speaking about the profound effect that Latin America has had on global literature. Isabel Allende has not only contributed to magical realism but has also let her audience into very intimate parts of her life. The House of Spirits and Paula are two of her most popular works, both being inspired by the author’s loss of close family members.
Allende also reveals that her literary career was undermined and mocked by male authors who assumed that she would be more of a “typist” than an author. Her career has been no exception to the whirlwind that has been her life.
For this reason, it was immensely refreshing to see Allende open us up to a journey that has ultimately led to happiness and relief in old age. In The Soul of a Woman, Allende shares her grapple with feminism throughout her lifetime, a lifetime that has seen an overwhelming change to global politics and the feminist movement.
Allende’s childhood resonated with me in a sense that I imagine many girls have also felt. She outlines the feeling that something wasn’t right with the way women were treated, or how girls were treated differently from their brothers but had no way to articulate that indignance. In her most formative years, arguing with older relatives and friends was the only outlet for young girls who knew that they were getting an unfair deal.
From witnessing the harrowing experiences of women and girls less fortunate than herself to extensive research on feminist issues like violence against women and machismo culture, Allende gives us an entirely honest account of her life through the lens of feminism.
What I immensely appreciated was her tenacity in the face of old age. Allende does not pretend to spring out of bed every morning and live like a 20-year-old in her 70s. However, she gives her readers the comforting notion that old age is not the end of your life, and the elderly are as deserving of dignity and respect as everyone else. In a capitalist world where we tend to cast aside those who are not immediately profitable to us, we need to incorporate this idea into our feminist movements more vigilantly.
There is a beauty in aging that Allende flawlessly captures: the beauty of letting go. The self-doubt, the hypercriticism towards yourself slowly fades away as you learn who you are and what you’re worth. Allende is grateful to still have the same mind and her heart, but it is refreshing to see an older woman become comfortable in aging. She expresses peace and acceptance towards not having as much energy as she used to and relying on her husband for certain tasks.
Humility in the Face of Complexity
Allende is refreshingly open about understandings of gender that her grandchildren take for granted. All too often, the idea of being ‘the product of another time’ is used as an excuse for reactionary politics and an unwillingness to understand discourses that may have passed them by. She notices her grandchildren comfortably using pronouns she has never heard of, based on theories of gender with which she is completely unfamiliar. But she expresses a desire to understand what younger generations have more openly embraced, which is an admirable quality that I wish we saw more often.
Allende clearly demonstrates a cultural versatility and remains aware of feminist issues in other countries such as India, Nepal, and the Samburu tribe of Kenya. She celebrates the fortitude of women from other cultures and the actions that have been taken to invest in women and girls outside of Anglophone and Hispanic spaces. Most importantly, Allende does not pit these struggles against those in America and Europe.
A terrible mistake that is often made by well-intentioned feminists is the detraction from supposed ‘first-world problems’ by highlighting the undeniable hardship experienced by women and girls in the wider world. Allende avoids this mistake by unapologetically putting catcalling and women’s education in the same book.
One does not diminish the other; harassment, violence, and unwanted sexualisation of women and girls need to be addressed, whether it happens to a middle-class American or to a girl bound under the Kamlari system in Nepal. Allende makes it crystal clear from the beginning that many of the problems women face are found throughout the entire globe, but manifest in different ways. From Rwanda to Guatemala, to Bosnia, sexual violence is used against women in wartime. One of the most reliable ways to deduce the overall rate of violence in any country is to track the rate of violence against women in particular. These problems cannot be solved by attempting to rank which type of devaluing of women is the worst, and which should be put up with.
Allende did a brilliant job of bringing each and every burning issue to light, and her humility and sincerity made it as much an important feminist text as a delightful one.
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