Isabel Allende: ‘Women Are Chipping Away the Patriarchy’

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Credit: Eugenia Mello

This interview is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.

“When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, even before the concept was known in my family, I am not exaggerating.” So begins Isabel Allende’s latest memoir, “The Soul of a Woman,” a collection of essays that details her roots as a defender of women’s rights and her lifelong defiance of patriarchal mores.

Allende, who has sold some 75 million books around the world throughout her career, wrote “The Soul of a Woman” and her next novel, “Violeta,” coming in 2022, in her Bay Area home as she weathered the pandemic.

We recently checked in with Allende over email to ask about life during the lockdown, her process as a writer and to discuss some of the reminiscences she shares in her memoir. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

You famously start writing new books on Jan. 8 — which you have said in the past started as a superstition, but has become more of a tradition. And these days you write in the attic of your home near San Francisco, every day for hours at a time. Do you have any other enduring traditions or habits as a writer?

Starting my books on Jan. 8 is not so much a tradition as discipline. My life is very complicated; there are too many demands from the public, editors, journalists, critics and professors. I need to carve out a sacred space for writing.

Having a date to start a new book helps me to organize my yearly calendar and informs everybody around me that I am not available. This is probably my only original “habit.” The rest is what any writer does: research, write compulsively, edit, correct, rewrite, etc.

You mentioned in an interview earlier this year that the pandemic had afforded you what writers often need: time, solitude and silence. Did the lockdown lead to more introspection — or perhaps spark more reflection — as you wrote “The Soul of a Woman”?

The lockdown gave me the opportunity to reflect upon many aspects of my life. A few years ago, I gave a speech at a women’s conference in Mexico, and when it went viral, my editor in Spain suggested it could be published as a small booklet. I read it and realized it was stale. A lot had happened to women and feminism since I participated in that conference, and a lot had happened to me as well.

I decided to write a completely different book that was not only about feminism and the ongoing war against women, but also about love, aging, female solidarity, the patriarchy and more.

“The House of the Spirits,” your debut novel, was published in 1982, and your next book, “Violeta,” comes out in 2022. You have often pointed out that you feel you’re more creative now than you were decades ago. Has the inspiration for the stories you want to tell changed in the last 40 years?

All my books are different. I have tackled many genres: literary fiction, historical novels, a young adult trilogy, short stories, memoirs and even a crime novel, so I suppose the inspiration has changed constantly in the last 40 years.

However, the themes have not changed so much. I still write about love, death, violence, organic justice, strong women, absent fathers, people at risk and power with impunity.

Credit: Bryan Thomas for The New York Times 

Your new memoir often touches on various facets of aging. In the book, you describe how your stepfather, your Tio Ramón, lamented that his biggest mistake was to retire at the age of 80. You say that you agree, noting that his downward slope began around this time, and how that bolstered your decision never to retire. In fact, you write that “I am not going to retire, I am going to renovate.” That phrase stuck with me because it’s a fascinating way to redefine this stage of life. What will renovation look like for you?

Renovate for me means to take risks, to try new things, to be curious and engaged in the world, to build community, make new friends, give back as much as possible, challenge myself with different subjects to write about, fall in love.

Old people want safety and comfort. I want to write, love, play with my dogs and help women and girls through my foundation. I don’t like golf or bingo.


In “The Soul of a Woman,” you also write: “Men fear feminine power. That’s why laws, religion and strict mores have been imposed for centuries — all kinds of restrictions on women’s intellectual, economic and artistic development.” And you call violence against women the “greatest crisis that faces humanity.” Do you have hope that societies will one day fully empower women and reverse this crisis? What will it take?

I have lived enough to see great changes in the situation of women. Little by little, women are chipping away the patriarchy. The fact we have not been able to replace it yet doesn’t mean we have failed; it means that the job is monumental. But it’s not impossible.

I believe it will happen, but not in my lifetime, and it will happen only if women are educated, informed, connected and active. It takes very little for us to lose the rights we have obtained. Best recent example: the Taliban. In a few days, women and girls lost all their rights in Afghanistan, and the most awful form of patriarchy took over the country. We have to be vigilant: Given the wrong circumstances, it can happen anywhere.

You founded the Isabel Allende Foundation 25 years ago in memory of your daughter, Paula Frías. What is on the horizon for the foundation in 2022 and beyond?

The foundation invests in the power of women and girls in the areas of health and reproductive rights; education or training, so that women can sustain themselves; and protection against violence and exploitation.

In the last few years, we have been doing a lot of work among refugees worldwide. We plan to continue our work for as long as I live and I can write. The foundation is financed by my work only.

 The article was originally published in The New York Times:

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