Thursday, February 4, 2010

Isabel Allende: Living Through Tears with Laughter

Those of us familiar with the writings of Isabel Allende, the world-renowned author of such profound works as The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, and Paula, were not surprised to hear her speak about how catastrophic events ─ the death of a daughter, the suspected assassination of an uncle, and exile from her own country ─ have shaped her life and influenced her writings. However, many were surprised that Allende has been able to maintain a sense of wit and humor in spite of what she has been through. During her remarks at the Leadership Conference, the internationally-acclaimed author had the audience laughing as well as crying as she shared glimpses into a life that was at times dazzling and at others devastating.

Sharing the Olympic Stage

Although she has written numerous books – both fiction and non – in the past 23 years, Allende insisted she was an unknown until she shared four minutes of fame as a flag bearer at the Olympic Game ceremonies earlier this year. “My grandchildren now think that I am cool,” said the diminutive author.

Allende received her first of many chuckles of the day from the audience when she shared a story about being dwarfed by her regal co-flag bearer, 50’s film star, Sophia Loren. “I walked behind the elegant Sophia, who is almost six feet tall even without her poufy hair. Of course all the cameras were on Sophia, gliding like a giraffe. At five feet two inches tall, I was hopping behind on my tiptoes trying to keep up.”

All kidding aside, Allende said the Olympic experience was truly an honor and spoke reverently about the others with whom she shared that honor: Somaly Mam, a spokeswoman for women and children who have been coerced into prostitution in Cambodia; Wangari Muta Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and political activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace; and Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and actress, Susan Sarandon.

A Daughter’s Death Affects Her Life

The former journalist, and author of such international best sellers as Eva Luna and Portrait in Sepia, also had numerous profound words of wisdom and stories to share with the audience. One of the many life-changing events that affected Allende deeply was the death of her daughter, Paula Frias, who died in 1992 at the age of 28, from an unusual blood disease known as porphyria. Allende said despite the grief and agony she experienced after her daughter’s death, she also found the pain of losing a loved one to be a cleansing experience.

Before she died, Allende’s daughter devoted her life to working with destitute women and children. Frias’s life work ─ and now the business of The Isabel Allende Foundation ─ was and is to empower women through education, reproductive rights, and economic independence. “This Foundation has reinforced my belief that it is through women we can make a difference in the world. But we need a critical number to tip the balance of power. Otherwise we are stuck in a quagmire of violence.”

Allende added that it is women who will bring feminine energy to the business table and said we need at least 50 percent at every level of management. “Women bring the resources of comfort, dialogue, and arbitration to the table, replacing those of aggression. Women want to preserve and enrich the quality of life for everybody, not only the privileged.” According to Allende this has already happened in Chile, where a woman president — Michelle Bachelet ─ has been elected for the first time. “A woman who is an agnostic, a socialist, and a single mother has been elected in the most Catholic and conservative nation in the world,” said Allende, who adds that Bachelet has already appointed woman to every level of the Cabinet.

Explaining the Connotations of Power

In the context of this year’s Leadership Conference, Allende spoke about the different connotations of power and empowerment and said what she fears most is power with impunity, and power to abuse and manipulate without accountability. “There is always abuse of power, not only in Chile but in other countries, too. Power with impunity chips away at an individual’s rights one by one. Soon you have lost a way of life that before you took for granted.”

Allende added that, as a writer, she is empowered by imagination and by the writer’s ability to influence and connect to others through the written word. Speaking of her writing life, Allende didn’t begin writing until she was 40 years old, and says she is only able to write about things and events related to her life, or “something about which I care for strongly.” Why then her latest novel, Zorro?

“I wrote this book because, as a 63-year-old grandmother, I feel I have a lot in common with this debonair hero.” She explained, “My fantasy is that, given the right circumstances, I could be like him: right the wrongs, expose the corrupt, and challenge the bullies. Deep in my heart I want to be like Zorro. I want to risk everything to make this a better almost perfect world. Arrogant? Yes, but if we do not imagine perfection how can we achieve it?” said the author who admits, in reality, her only weapons are the written word and a keyboard. Allende maintained that, for her, writing is about connecting. ”I keep the connection alive by writing. I want to connect. That is the point of my writing. In a sense it justifies and explains my life.”

Life-Changing Events Converge on a Date That Lives In Infamy

A bit superstitious, Allende always begins a new book on January 8. She said it’s a lucky date because it is the date on which she began to write The House of the Spirits, her blockbuster first-novel-turned-box-office-hit movie, starring Jeremy Irons, Winona Rider, Antonio Banderas, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep. Allende added that sticking with the January schedule gives her the discipline she needs to meet her writing deadlines.

Another date that is eerily significant in her life is September 11th. It is the day in 1973 of the military coup in Chile when her uncle, Salvador Allende, then president of Chile, was presumed assassinated. It is also, of course, the day that will live in infamy for the United States as the day of the Twin Towers tragedy.

Speaking about the more recent event, Allende said she felt something fundamentally changed for her that day. “For the first time I felt I belonged because I shared a feeling of vulnerability with the people of the United States. It is the day that the United States people awoke to the feeling of vulnerability; the idea that ‘it could happen to us.’ ” said Allende, who has always considered herself a foreigner whether residing in Chile, Venezuela, or Peru.

When asked if there is any value to being an outsider, Allende responded, “Once you have seen the world you have a better perspective of yourself, where you are, and the times in which you are living. I have lived through the Holocaust and The Cold War, and I don’t think it is worse today. All times are terrible. Reality is hard and violent, yet it seems that after every cycle, humanity has advanced a little.”

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