Photo by and © Lori-Barra

Isabel Allende is a behemoth of Spanish literature. A bestselling author in both Spanish and English, Allende has published twenty one books that have sold over 65 million copies. She has received numerous awards for her work including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Daughter of a Chilean diplomat, Allende is known for her use of magic realism in best sellers like The House of Spirits and City of Beasts. But perhaps first and foremost, Allende is a master storyteller, a word smith of rare talent who fills her stories with strong, passionate, sometimes whimsical, always charming female characters that hold her narratives together and demand our sympathy and admiration.

Allende recently spoke at a Border Kitchens event about her most recent book, The Soul of a Woman or  Wat wij willen (What we want) in Dutch. Declaring herself a feminist from the age of five, the Chilean writer explains that although unfamiliar with the term at this young age, her feelings of anger and a strong sense of injustice were recognizable to her even then. She remembers her maternal grandfather – a patriarch who she both loved and hated, saying, ‘He who pays the bills gives the orders’. She recalls clearly that her mother, a woman of elegance and refinement who came from a wealthy family, never had any cash. In this sense, she never had any power, explains Allende. She was brought up to understand that as a female member of the upper class, education was not important but rather a good marriage and a beautiful, well managed home.

Described as ‘a bold exploration of womanhood, feminism, parenting, ageing, love and more’ and Allende’s ‘most liberating book yet’, Soul of a Woman is partly a tribute to her mother. Known simply as Panchita, she died recently and Allende admits to missing her ‘terribly’. When her father abandoned her mother with three young children, she became a fierce defiant girl who watched with admiration as her mother provided for the family without ‘resources or voice’. ‘I was inspired by my mother but I never wanted to be her’, Allende explains. Although her attempts to ‘inject feminism’ into her mother was a ‘fruitless task’ the writer tells us that her mother was ‘always my best friend’. They corresponded with a letter or more each day, for decades. Recently, Allende tells us, her son digitized the entire collection and found there were over 24 000 letters. ‘They incorporate my mother’s whole life and mine’ says Allende simply.   

There were other sources of inspiration for this book too – namely her daughter, Paula, who died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-nine and her literary agent, Carmen Balcells.  ‘My daughter was an old soul, she was born wise’. Paula was a humanitarian, who worked in impoverished communities in Venezuela and Spain. Allende started the Isabel Allende Foundation in her memory, in 1996, to continue her daughter’s work of service and compassion. Seed funding for the Foundation came from the income Allende received from the memoir she wrote in her daughter’s name, Paula and she continues to fund the foundation annually with income from her other books. 

Describing her Catalan literary agent, Carmen Balcells, as ‘a force of nature’, she recalls advice that she gave her at the beginning of her literary career when House of Spirits had just become a best seller in the Spanish speaking world and a large party had been organised in Barcelona to introduce her to the intelligentsia. ‘Relax,’ Balcells told her, ‘here nobody knows anything, we are all improvising’. These words still bring comfort today when Allende is feeling nervous or insecure, she tells us. In her book, Allende gives an honest examination of her own role as a mother. Describing herself as a ‘mildly neglectful mother’, she admits that she couldn’t have brought up her children without the help of nannies, teachers, family and friends. Recently married for a third time, Allende is also outspoken in her discussion of ageing in women. ‘This is one issue that the feminist movement has forgotten’ she tells us with typical candour. I think it’s fair to say that if anyone has the power to shift such attitudes, it is Isabel Allende.     Souwie Buis   Den Haag 14th May 2021