The Chilean American author Isabel Allende was a feminist long before she knew what the word meant. At the age of three, she saw her mother, Panchita, abandoned by her father and left to raise their three small children alone. Panchita moved back to her parents’ house in Santiago, where her father immediately took control of her finances. Following the annulment of her marriage, she was excommunicated by the church. Observing her mother’s disempowerment, the young Isabel railed against male authority. In her new book, The Soul of a Woman, she recalls her resentment as “an aberration in my family, which considered itself intellectual and modern but according to today’s standards was frankly Paleolithic.” Such was her fury, her mother took her to a doctor, suspecting colic or perhaps a tapeworm.
Allende, now 78, says she was frustrated on Panchita’s behalf but also at her refusal to stand up for herself. “She thought you couldn’t change what God had made this way,” she tells me. “When she saw me so willing to go out there and fight, she was scared and thought I would be ostracised. She was also worried I would never catch a husband. In my generation in Chile, if you didn’t have a formal engagement by age 23, you were a spinster.”
Allende ended up marrying three times, and never gave up the fight for equality. In 1967, she co-founded the feminist magazine Paula, where she found she “could channel that anger into action”, and wrote a series of satirical columns on the patriarchy called “Civilize Your Troglodyte”. Later she switched to writing novels examining family, history, displacement and the lives of women. On publishing her first book, the 1982 bestseller The House of the Spirits, she was celebrated as a new feminist voice in a male-dominated literary landscape. Dozens more books followed, including Daughter of Fortune, Inés of My Soul and City of the Beasts, which have been translated into more than 40 languages. In 2014, Barack Obama awarded her the presidential medal of freedom, America’s highest civilian honour. She has sold 75m books.
Allende is talking from her home in California, where she has been based since 1988 (she became an American citizen in 1993) and where she now lives with her third husband, Roger Cukras. Visible behind her are pristine white shutters with sunshine blazing through the slats. Lockdown, she says, has not made her slovenly – “I get up every morning around six. First I have a cup of coffee, then a shower and then I put on full makeup as if I was going out to the opera. I get dressed and put on high heels, and then I climb the stairs to this attic where I work. I won’t see anyone, not even the mailman, yet I dress up for myself.”
Allende married Cukras two years ago, and remains sweetly astonished by this fact – “Are you kidding? I didn’t anticipate having sex again, let alone getting married! I separated from my [last] husband when I was 72, and everyone said: ‘Are you crazy? Why are you divorcing in your 70s?’ I’ve never been scared of being alone, because I am self-sufficient. But then Roger appeared in my life. He is a profoundly decent and kind man, and you don’t find them so often.”
The seed of The Soul of a Woman, a reflection on womanhood that is part-memoir, part-polemic, was planted when she delivered a lecture at a women’s conference in Mexico City. “I started thinking about the trajectory of my life as a woman and as a feminist,” she says. Along with documenting her early family life, the book contains elegant and illuminating reflections on youth, ageing and objectification (“feminism has not saved us from that servitude”). Elsewhere, she looks at reproductive rights and sexual violence, and lays out her definition of feminism as “not what we have between our legs but what we have between our ears. It’s a philosophical posture and an uprising against male authority.”
Particularly touching are her reflections on her relationship with her grandchildren, who identify as non-binary. “When they introduce me to their friends,” she writes, “I now ask each one about their preferred pronouns.” I tell her that is rare for someone of her generation. “It is,” she agrees. “But you know, things change and they change for a reason. You have to adapt. When young people question, it always seems too much, it seems extreme. But in this struggle, wonderful things happen. New ideas, new art, new creativity. We are pushing history.”
Looking back at her childhood in Chile, Allende recalls a patriarchal society that was “very successful at depicting feminists as these angry bitches who didn’t shave their armpits. And a lot of young women [absorbed] that idea. Though they would not have given up the rights that their mothers and grandmothers obtained with a lot of struggle, they didn’t want to be called feminists. What I used to say then, and I still say, is: ‘You don’t like the word, don’t use it. Change it. It doesn’t matter. Just do the work.’”
For her, that work involves helping others, acknowledging one’s privilege in terms of education, technology and healthcare, and understanding how easily these things can disappear. “In a pandemic the first people to lose their jobs are the women,” she says. “They are stuck at home raising the kids because there is no school. Sometimes they are in a situation in which their abuser is in the house, and there are no resources because everything is locked down, and they will be the last ones to recover. Women have to be very alert, vigilant, because we can lose everything.”
Allende undoubtedly knows about loss. In 1973 her cousin, the socialist presidentSalvador Allende, was toppled by Pinochet during a violent coup and killed. She was blacklisted by the government and fled with her husband and two children to Venezuela, where they stayed for 13 years. She endured further trauma in 1991 when her daughter, Paula Frias, fell into a coma from porphyria and died a year later, aged 29. Afterwards, Allende wrote a memoir, Paula, though after it was published, she says she was “stuck. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do anything. I felt this emptiness inside.”
To distract her from her grief, her husband and a friend decided to take her to India. There, while driving through Rajastan, they had car trouble. While they waited for it to be fixed, Allende got talking to a group of local women – while they didn’t have a common language, they were able to communicate. When it was time to leave, a young woman handed her a small parcel of rags. “She insisted I open it and inside I saw it was a newborn baby,” she recalls. “It must have been a day old – its umbilical cord was still raw.” The driver intervened, handed the baby back to the woman, and hurried Allende into the car. “When I asked why the woman was trying to give away her infant,” she says, “he told me: ‘It was a girl. Who wants a girl?’ And that clicked something in my heart.”
When she got home she set up the Isabel Allende Foundation. “The mission was to help girls like her, that little baby that I couldn’t help. And women like that mother who felt the only chance for her baby was to give it away.” The foundation focuses on health, education, economic independence and protection from violence. Since 2016, it has expanded to assist refugees, particularly those along the southern border of the US. All the profits from her memoir, Paula, went to the foundation, which has continued to take a slice of her book earnings ever since.
Allende says that for years she wanted to write a romance novel, but failed every time because she didn’t believe in the male characters she was writing. “I get started and then I begin laughing, and you can’t write that style tongue-in-cheek,” she says. “You have to believe that there are virgins with green eyes and big breasts that will attract a rich CEO who is disillusioned with love. I have never seen that in my life, so I don’t believe in it.” When she does introduce a male character into her books with romantic intent, she says, “I kill him somewhere around page 112, because I soon find I can’t stand the guy. If you wouldn’t want him in your life, why would you impose him on your protagonist?”
When she wrote The House of the Spirits, she had no grand plan. “I didn’t have a role model, and I didn’t know if my book was going to be read by anyone, let alone published. It was written on impulse with great innocence.” By then, her first marriage was collapsing and she was working as an administrator in a school in Caracas. She wrote at night, at weekends and during the holidays. The book started out as a letter to her dying grandfather and ended up as a fictionalised story of her family.
Twenty-five books and nearly 40 years later, Allende has learned to plan, but only a bit. “My plan is that if I’m still alive on 8 January, I start on a new book. Although that doesn’t mean that every year I start a new book, because maybe I haven’t finished the previous one.” Given we are speaking in mid-January, does this mean she’s a week into a new book? “I am,” she nods. Can she tell me anything about it? “Of course not,” she laughs. What she will tell me is that she doesn’t always have an idea before she starts. “Half the job is to show up,” she says. “You show up and you open your mind and heart, and something will happen. I have learned in years of writing that I have to be patient. I can write about anything except politics and football, so I know that if I give myself time, and I relax, it will happen. If I’m tense and calling the muse desperately, the muse won’t come.”
In The Soul of a Woman, Allende paints a beatific picture of life in her 70s – “I am in a splendid moment of my destiny,” she writes. She tells me she is a natural optimist and, having seen great change in her lifetime for women, believes that men and women will, in time, have power in equal numbers. Ending the patriarchy, she says, will require “a jump in evolution. It will be a completely different civilisation, and I will not see it. Like all revolutions, we start with great anger and a feeling of injustice that we need to make things right. And we fight like crazy without always knowing where we are going. But you continue to work for that final goal, and it will be achieved. We will do it, I’m sure.”
• The Soul of a Woman is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.