With her direct speaking style and fearless blunt descriptions, legendary Chilean novelist Isabel Allende could very well have been any woman in the audience. Just like the rest of us, Allende struggles with loss, violence and fear while trying to progress in a patriarchal world.
Last Saturday, three days after war with Iraq began, Allende, a respected novelist, journalist, playwright, professor and lecturer, spoke in the music building concert hall. Introduced as “the most notable author in South America, man or woman,” the Bay Area resident captivated the audience. She talked about her work and opinions in the greater context of democracy, world peace, and imperialism, all of which she said, could be dramatically changed and molded by women and the incredible amount of goodness they could bestow.
“When I was in my twenties I was almost convinced that by now everything would be different. I thought women would have taken over. We are 51 percent of humanity and we have not been able to stop this greed,” she said.
Allende, who lived in Chile during the military coup of the 1970’s when the government was ousted and a new one put in place, stressed the severity of the current situation in American relations with Iraq.
“The feeling of not having power, any voice, I know it and it makes me uneasy. Fascism is very attractive. It is based on the idea of supremacy that one country has the destiny to impose its rights on other peoples.”
Citing everything that was taken away from her, and the Chilean generation that lived through the coup, she said that today we take many ideals in practice for granted.
“If you think you have these rights, this freedom, this voice forever, you’re wrong. If a fundamentalist government comes in you lose it in a few months, moments,” she said.
Although Chile has since become a democracy, Allende noted that they are still dealing with the scars. The despair and anxiety she felt is one that she fears will also be felt by the Iraqi women.
However, according to Allende, the best thing we can do is to remember the war in Iraq and the women that will be affected by it.
This message struck a chord with graduate student Seferina Rivera who agreed that the greatest loss would be for the Iraqi women who can’t protect their children.
“I think we need to make an effort to not forget and to help heal,” said Rivera.
The event was the finale in a series of a national Mills Sesquicentennial campaign and was intended to be a conversation between president Janet Holmgren and Allende. Questions were written up and faxed to Allende prior to the event. However, once in the concert hall, Allende made it clear that she had no intention of following protocol.
“Art is not something you can rationalize or explain,” she said. “Instinct and imagination play a role, and the rest is bullshit.”
The audience was made up of more than 450 Mills alumnae, trustees, and donors. Allende immediately set the crowd of women in their black ensembles, dangling earrings and colorful scarves into hysterics that lasted until the end of the evening.
She gave the overflowing crowd the sense that they were talking to one of their own, to an old friend who had returned from success even more grounded and interesting than when she first left. She told the audience that they had to get together with other women. Isolation, she said, was the formula for weakness. As a young woman, she herself felt out of place until she became connected with a group of five Chilean feminists.
“When I was in my twenties I felt I didn’t fit in anywhere. I met these women and I realized I wasn’t alone. I’m a bitch, but there are others like me. The connection gave me a sense of empowerment,” said Allende.
This empowerment, she said, is particularly important in a society where women have to make twice the effort of any man to get half the recognition.
Currently, Allende, who believes that great books come out of moments of crisis and fear, is working on a trilogy, a series of works for young adults. Although her first two books were set in fantasy plots, she says that the last will take a sharp turn as she is inspired by what goes on in the world.
“I am writing a book that is difficult to write and maybe difficult to read. If the times were not what the are, maybe the book would be different,”she said.