Isabel Allende's many books, including The House of the Spirits and Paula, have sold more than 51 million copies and been translated into 30 languages. Born in Chile, she is a lifelong advocate for human rights, a passionate speaker, and the founder of the Isabel Allende Foundation.
In bringing to the world your two memoirs, Paula and The Sum of Our Days, was there the intuition that these books could instigate change for others in a personal way? Is this the kind of change that could ultimately motivate readers to take action in the world to make a difference in people's lives?
Isabel Allende: After my daughter Paula died I was confused, depressed, angry. I knew that the only way to deal with my grief was writing and thatís how the memoir came to be. After sharing the manuscript with some members of our family, including Paulaís widower, we decided to publish it because we thought that it could help other people in times of loss. I never imagined, however, that it would have such an incredible response from the readers. Fifteen years later I still get letters every day from people who felt touched by my daughterís story. I hope that in some cases the book opened up a space to grief openly, to share feelings and experiences, to understand that we come to this world to lose everything and there is nothing wrong about that.
How does the act of writing memoir change you the writer?
A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth. In a memoir I look at myself, my life, and the people I love the most in the mirror of the blank screen. In a memoir feelings are more important that facts and to write honestly I have to confront my demons. In each case I have learnt about myself and because every book is a reflection of the person I am, I assume that in subtle ways writing memoirs makes me a better person and a better writer. (Wishful thinking!)
Is there a special kind of courage that is required to tell your deeply personal story? And is that a type of courage that is innate to women?
I suppose that you are right: a memoir requires courage, but I have to admit that in my case it requires more editing than courage. I tend to tell all, even the secrets that are not mine to tell, therefore editing is really important. I am always willing to open up my life and my heart because I believe that generally it is not the truth exposed what makes one vulnerable but the secrets one keeps. My life is not very different from other peopleís lives and I have not committed any awful sin or crime that I canít confess. Itís not that I am shameless, itís that I am aware of how much we all have in common. Sharing our stories seems natural to me.
What is it about memoir Ė the writing and the reading Ė that takes us from the personal to the universal in a more profound way? That inspires action? Does this make writing memoirs a political act?
A memoir is an invitation into another personís privacy.
Do you see a difference in memoirs written by women versus those written by men?
I prefer to read memoirs by women because they are honest and often spiritual, I can relate to them better and they always teach me something. Menís memoirs are about answers; womenís memoirs are about questions. Most male authors want to look good in their memoirs and have a place in posterity, while most women know that posterity is what happens when you no longer care Women want to connect with others here and now, they couldnít care less about legacy!
You began your career as a journalist, then became a novelist, and then came to write a memoir. But in all your work you bring us stories of courageous women who create change in their world. What are the differences and possibilities of these different mediums in terms of conveying a message?
I never try to convey a message, I just want to tell a story. Why that story in particular? I have no idea but I have learned to surrender to the muse. I become obsessed with a theme or with certain stories, they haunt me for years and finally I write them. I have stopped asking myself why, now I trust that in every book I am exploring my own soul, my past, myself. Certain things interest me deeply: strong women, mothers, love, violence, death, loss, grief, friendship, loyalty, justice, and redemption. Those seem to be constant themes in my writing and in my life. I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the ďmessageí, even if I am not even aware that there is one, is conveyed better in this form.
Do you have the sense that the work of memoir or fiction can be as or more effective at altering attitudes or making a difference in the world than journalism?
Journalism, by definition, has to be as objective as possible, it should not be personal or intimate. Often the journalist is conditioned by the media it serves. Even if there is no official censorship, the corporations that own the media have ďguidelinesĒ. Journalism can be very effective in controlling or manipulating public opinion and it can make important changes in the culture, because it reaches almost everybody, while fiction and memoirs require more sophisticated readers. However, the shelf life of books is longer and the impact they can have in the readers is usually stronger.
How has your personal experience informed or directed the mission of the Isabelle Allende Foundation?
The Foundation was created after I experienced the death of my daughter Paula. I decided not to touch the income derived from the book, it should all go to continue the work my daughter had been doing in her short life. In the last eleven years I have made substantial contributions to the Foundation with the income of all my other books. Paula was a psychologist and a teacher, she worked as a volunteer eight hours a day, six days a week to serve women and girls in need. She never had any money and she never wanted any. It was only natural that the Foundationís mission would be to empower women and girls. Also, my own experience as a woman born in the forties, who participated actively in Womenís Lib., has determined the mission of the Foundation. I have always been a feminist, I have worked for women and with women all my life. The Foundation gives me the opportunity to use my resources and knowledge to continue the feminist struggle.
You are participating in Omega's upcoming Women & Courage conference. Why to you is cultivating women's courage so important and timely right now?
Women have always been courageous. They are the bravest of the brave! They are always fearless when protecting their children and in the last century they have been fearless in the fight for their rights. The patriarchy has innumerable ways of confronting womenís courage. A recent example is how effective it has been in depicting feminists as witches and fueling a backlash of the Womenís Lib. Today millions of young women who benefit from the struggles of their mothers and grandmothers and would not give up any of their rights donít call themselves feminists because itís not sexy. They believe that feminism is dated. They have not looked around, they are not aware that today, in the 21st century, women still do two thirds of the world labor and own less than 1% of the assets; girls are still sold into premature marriage, prostitutions, and forced labor; women are forced to have children they donít want or they canít care for, they are beaten, tortured, raped and assassinated with impunity. In times of conflict, war, poverty or religious fundamentalism, women and children are the first and most numerous victims. Women need all their courage today, as they needed it before.
I belong to the first generation of older women empowered by education and health care. Never before so many older women have had so many resources. Our role as grandmothers is to protect young women and children, to work for peace in every way and at every level, and to improve the quality of life for everybody, not just the privileged. Our role is to dream a better world and to work courageously to make that dream possible.
As a writer and activist, what is your view of how well the media is doing its job? And how you do see the connection between the various kinds of media and the potential for human rights advocacy?
The media could do a much better job, thatís for sure, especially the media that targets women. Womenís glossy magazines, womenís TV series and programs, with few exceptions, are disgusting. Human rights? They couldnít care less! Their message to women is all about consumerism, looking sexy and pleasing men in bed. And yet they have the potential to make profound changes for the better in womenís lives. In the rest of the media there are some great advocacy journalists and programs, but they are few.
If you could deliver one message to women today, what would it be?
Sisters: talk to each other, be connected and informed, form womenís circles, share your stories, work together, and take risks. Together we are invincible. There is nothing to be afraid of.
For more on Isabel Allende, visit her web site at www.isabelallende.com
Note: Portions of this interview appeared in the article Isabel Allende, Loung Ung and the Power of Memoir which appeared at the Women's Media Center site.
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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .
Marianne Schnall is a writer and interviewer who has worked for many publications. Marianne is the founder of the women's site Feminist.com and the co-founder of EcoMall.com, an environmental site. Through her diverse writings, interviews and websites, Marianne hopes to raise awareness about important issues and causes.