Literary legend Isabel Allende is one of the most successful authors of our day and yet, also someone who has experienced tremoundous hardship and suffering.
As a child she moved regularly and as she entered adulthood she was oppressed by a the structure of a patriarchial society, which confined women ‘a la casa’. After the Chilean government was overthrown by the Pinochet dictatorship, she began to help those on the ‘wanted list’ to escape Chile safely. However, she too soon became part of that list after the assissination of her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, who was the then Chilean President. She was forced to flee her homeland and lived in exile in Venezuela.
In Venezuela, she wrote her debut novel – ‘La Casa de los Espiritus’ – and from there, she began to flourish as a writer. In fact, she assigns the more liberal Venezuelan society to her ability to pursue her writing career due to the repression she would have otherwised faced if she had conformed to ‘la ama de casa’ image ingrained in Chilean society. Her novel ‘Eva Luna’ gives an insight into the colourful and vibrant life which she experieced in an economically booming Venezuela – what she recognised as a sharp contrast to the controlling society of a struggling Chilean disctatorship.
Allende’s impact goes beyond the pages of her novels. Her daughter Paula died of a rare disease and to help her process her grief she began to write about her trauma. These writings culminated into a memoir and the proceeds from the book were channelled into the ‘Isabel Allende Foundation’, which was a charity she established to help women in society. Allende explained that in less-developed societies, helping women would help the family, which would in turn help the community and so begin to transform society.
Allende’s most recent novel – ‘The Long Petal of the Sea’ – again draws on her personal experience of being a refugee. She tells the story of refugees who were forced to flee from Franco’s dictatorship in Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and were shipped to Chile. In Chile, they were welcomed into society and so began to flourish and formed (along with their descendants) some of the best professionals in Chile. It is what Allende describes as a ‘positive’ tale of refugees. However, after Pinochet came to power in Chile, the very same refugees were forced to flee, like Allende, once again. The struggles she recounts in the book take an ‘eye-witness’ form which makes her novel even more fascinating and poignant.
Isabel Allende is more than an author – she is a mouthpiece for both the past and continuing injustices women and refugees face in society.
She is a true literary legend.
Alice is a second year Law with Spanish student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.