The Soul of a Feminist | Sunday Observer

The Soul of a Feminist

11 July, 2021

The Chilean American author Isabel Allende recently launched her new memoir The Soul of a Woman published by Bloomsbury. This is her third memoir after Paula and My Invented Country. According to Nawaid Anjum, a poet, translator, and independent journalist, The Soul of a Woman “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.” However, it’s 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.

Feminist in kindergarten

At the beginning of the memoir she writes, “When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, even before the concept was known in my family, I am not exaggerating…. I was born in 1942, so we are talking remote antiquity. I believe that the situation of my mother, Panchita, triggered my rebellion against male authority.”

She implies that she was a feminist even before the word or long before she knew what the word meant.

Mother’s Fate

Her mother is Doña Panchita who was abandoned by her husband, with two toddlers in diapers and a newborn baby. Then Panchita was in Peru as her husband, Tomás Allende, a first cousin of Salvador Allende (President of Chile during 1970-1973) worked as a second secretary at the Chilean embassy — in Peru. However, in her plight, she hadn’t any option other than returning to her parents’ home in Chile, where Allende spent the first eight years of her childhood. Panchita had married against her parents’ wishes. So after the failed relationship, she had to annul the marriage since divorce was not legalised in Chile until 2004. Meanwhile, she became a target of gossip as she was a young, beautiful, and coquettish, but unemployed woman who was separated from her husband. Simultaneously, Allende was expelled from school — run by German Catholic nuns — when she turned six. Allende had been accused of ‘insubordination’ for her expelling, but the real reason was her mother’s plight: a single mother with three kids. So, this was why she developed feministic ideas 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.

Writing and Philanthropy

As she recounts it was an advantage for her to have an unhappy childhoodbecause it provided “ample material” for her writing. “I don’t know how novelists with happy childhoods in normal homes manage,” she writes.

Allende’s married life was also not much different from her mother’s: she ended up marrying three times. The important thing is that she never gave up the fight for equality. In 1967, she co-founded the feminist magazine Paula, where she found she “could channel that anger into action”, and wrote a series of satirical columns on the patriarchy called Civilise Your Troglodyte. Later, she switched to writing novels examining family, history, displacement and the lives of women. On publishing her first book, the 1982 bestseller The House of the Spirits, she was celebrated as a new feminist voice in a male-dominated literary landscape. Thereafter, dozens more books followed, including Daughter of Fortunes, Inés of My Soul and City of the Beasts, which have been translated into more than 40 languages. And in 2014, Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour. She has sold 75 million books.

She also founded The Isabel Allende Foundation, to support and empower women and girls around the world. The foundation started from a seed investment from the earnings of her New York Times best-selling memoir Paula, in which she chronicled the tragic loss of her 29-year-old old daughter in 1992. The foundation invests in many organisations and initiatives that help women and children who have been separated at the U.S. border, those who are victims of human trafficking, and more.

Idea for the memoir

The seed of The Soul of a Woman, a reflection on womanhood that is part-memoir, part polemic, was planted when she delivered a lecture at a women’s conference in Mexico City. “I started thinking about the trajectory of my life as a woman and as a feminist,” she said about that moment. Along with documenting her early family life, the book contains elegant and illuminating reflections on youth, ageing and objectification (“feminism has not saved us from that servitude”).

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 civilisation based on mutual respect, and respect for other species and for nature. We want an inclusive and egalitarian civilisation 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.”

Soul of the writer

Women play a major role in Allende’s fiction as well as in her life. In a recent interview with the Hindustan Times she said “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.”

However, she wrote this memoir thanks to the happy environment given by men around her. Mainly they are her present – third – husband, Roger Cukras whom she married two years ago at 76 and her son, Nicolas, “the pillar” of her life and taught her about “unconditional love”. Now Allende thinks she is more mature as person and as a writer. Yet she still couldn’t write a romantic novel with a male protagonist as she didn’t believe in the male characters she was writing about . When she does introduce a male character into her books with romantic intent, she says, “I kill him somewhere around page 112, because I soon find I can’t stand the guy. If you wouldn’t want him in your life, why would you impose him on your protagonist?”

Thus, The Soul of a Woman is the soul of Isabel Allende, but to see the contradictions between her writer and herself, one has to read her life as against her books.

About Grandchildren

Particularly touching in the memoir are her reflections on her relationship with her grandchildren, who identify as non-binary. “When they introduce me to their friends,” she writes, “I now ask each one about their preferred pronouns.” I tell her that is rare for someone of her generation. “It is,” she agrees. “But you know, things change and they change for a reason. You have to adapt. When young people question, it always seems too much, it seems extreme. But in this struggle, wonderful things happen. New ideas, new art, new creativity. We are pushing history.”

Finally, the book opens up new doors to see the writer’s fictional world as well as her real world.