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Isabel Allende isn’t passing the feminist torch — she’s sharing it

Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende, whose new book is “The Soul of a Woman.”
(Lori Barra)

On the Shelf

The Soul of a Woman

By Isabel Allende
Ballantine: 192 pages, $23

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Isabel Allende‘s prolific output has delighted readers around the world for more than 40 years. On Wednesday, HBO Max announced it will stream a three-part biopic, “Isabel,” about her extraordinary life, beginning March 12. And at 78, Allende is still delivering books that would make an up-and-comer’s career. Her latest, part memoir and part treatise on feminism, is “The Soul of a Woman.”

With arresting honesty, Allende’s memoir details the difficulties of being a progressive, a feminist and now an elder stateswoman: a male-dominated publishing landscape, a world that still exploits women and a culture where it can be hard for an author of a certain age to find love. Passion, she asserts, never wanes, though she’s had to make adjustments: “Before, I used to fantasize about a night in the company of Antonio Banderas, but now that remote possibility seems like too much work. More sensual is a long shower before lying down with [my husband] Roger and the dogs between two ironed sheets to watch TV.”

Most importantly, Allende draws on her personal truths and long-standing commitment to gender equality to share a lifetime of wisdom that shaped her memorable storytelling, centered on strong, courageous women like Alba Trueba from “The House of the Spirits,” Eva Luna and more recently Roser from “A Long Petal of the Sea.”

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“The Soul of a Woman” is Allende’s gift to younger generations, though she is far from relinquishing her stake in the fight for equal rights. “I am not ready to pass the torch and hopefully I never will be,” she writes near the end of the book. “I want to light the torches of our daughters and granddaughters with mine. They will have to live for us, as we lived for our mothers, and carry on with the work we didn’t have time to finish.”

The Times spoke with Allende about her book, her activist spirit, the secret of aging gracefully and her hard-won search for home.

Isabel Allende Ideas Exchange.

Isabel Allende In Conversation

Virtual Ideas Exchange

Join us, March 1, 5:30 PM PT, for a special Ideas Exchange event featuring Isabel Allende in conversation with Times Deputy Editor Laurie Ochoa.

You mention activists you admire, particularly women who bring attention to crimes against girls and women around the globe. Joining the cause, you established the Isabel Allende Foundation, whose motto reads: “We Only Have What We Give.” Do you call yourself an activist?

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I am an activist. I have been fighting for women’s rights all my life. In my 20s I realized there was a feminist movement out there and that millions of other women were doing the work. I became a journalist and wrote for Paula, a feminist magazine in Chile, so I could refocus my anger into action. I realized that it was such a joyful struggle. The backlash was brutal, but it was still fun. I had the feeling that for every blow I received I could deliver two. That gave me enthusiasm. And then a new wave comes by way of young people that pushes history forward. How can I not have the energy to act when I’m also being pushed by that wave?

In ‘A Long Petal of the Sea,’ Isabel Allende evokes the world that jump-started her literary career, “The House of the Spirits.”

What kind of work does your foundation do?

Besides California and Chile, currently we are funding programs in India, Nepal and Guatemala and working through other organizations in Africa and Asia. Most recently we are focusing on the border. There is a humanitarian crisis among refugees and asylum seekers on the other side of the wall, and in most circumstances it is women and children who are the most vulnerable. Sometimes I feel that what we do is like a drop of water in the desert of need, but if you go case by case, person by person, you realize you can make a difference.

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Have you ever doubted your ability to make that difference?

Never. I never doubted the struggle. I have had an overdeveloped sense of justice since childhood and I think that feminism is a result of that — and the fact that the world is unfair. And every time I see injustice, I get the same rage inside.

What are your hopes for this book?

I hope it will be a piece of conversation among young women who might feel isolated or alone or who might not have thought about the struggle they need to confront. Women who have education, healthcare and resources are a minority in the world. The great majority are suffering. The responsibility of those who have more is to give more.

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Why do you think you wrote it now?

Because of everything that’s happening in our world, socially and politically, with the #MeToo movement, the fight for LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter. It made me think about my own trajectory as a feminist. It could have been written earlier — most of it — but not the part about aging. To talk about aging you really have to live it, without demonizing it or idealizing it.

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You write, “Even if we cling to the illusion of youth, most people my age are striding toward decrepitude and we are all going to end up dead before prejudice against aging is abolished.” What’s your advice for others dealing with ageism?

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We live in a country that is obsessed with beauty, youth and success, but all that diminishes and eventually ends. People are living longer, and when we reach a critical number that will shift the culture. Instead of pretending we are forever adolescents, we will give each stage in life its own value and place in society. I don’t have advice for other people but I can say what works for me and for the best old people I know: purpose. Age isolates us. We have to fight that. Be engaged in the world, your community and family. Have purpose.

The emotional journey of this book is variously sobering, uplifting, moving, but most notably humorous. Did that last part feel important to you?

Humor is essential in life! Everyone has to laugh and smile to move through this world. When I wrote feminist journalism as a young woman, I always did it with a humorous, ironic and sarcastic slant — making fun of men, making fun of machismo and this stupid society in which we lived. It worked really well because I could reach men with humor.

You encourage young women to feel at home in their intellect and their bodies, as you have. What does home look like to you now?

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I have been a foreigner all my life. I was born in Peru, my father abandoned my mother, then we moved to Chile, and when my mother married a diplomat, we traveled the world. Then I became a political refugee, finally an immigrant. Home was Chile but I’m a foreigner there too, because it has changed. I have changed. I’m still a foreigner in the U.S. after 40 years and I’ve been married to two American lawyers — What was I thinking? Home is where those I truly love are — like my son, my daughter-in-law and my dogs. Home is in the heart of my loved ones. And in my writing.

González is a distinguished professor of English and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.


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