Like many people I have loved Isabel Allende‘s work for a long time. Her work has always typified what is powerful about “saga” books – books that span a lifetime or two, often in one family. I learned so much about Chile and its politics from her novels, but it was her ability to craft strong female characters which ensured my total devotion. Her stories capture heartbreak, political oppression, misogyny, mysticism, love, and endurance in a way that I have not seen from any other novelist. I think The House of the Spirits is probably my favorite work of hers. If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to give it a try.
Anyway, I was surfing TED Talks (do you know about TED Talks? They are videotaped speeches or lectures from some of the world’s leading artists, writers, scientists and thinkers and I’m addicted) and came across one entitled “Isabel Allende tells tales of passion.” Color me there!
It’s a sad fact that lyrical writers are often quiet or lackluster public speakers, but Allende does NOT fall into that category. She spoke for about 20 minutes about passion using the story arc of her experience as a flag bearer in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Observing herself surrounded by athletes who embodied the very idea of passion as their driving force, she expounded upon the theme of living a passionate life. Her personal experience of the Olympics provided wonderful levity while showcasing her charm and humor. This humor provided an emotional respite from the harrowing tales of women working to save their families or others from desperate situations (warning: you probably will need a tissue for a few of them). But she uses these stories as inspiration and I certainly came away inspired.
There are definitely some nuggets of wisdom for any student of literature or any writer in this talk. Take this gem for example (the words in parenthesis are the audience reaction as noted by the transcription):
Heart is what drives us and determines our fate. That is what I need for my characters in my books: a passionate heart. I need mavericks, dissidents, adventurers, outsiders and rebels, who ask questions, bend the rules and take risks. People like all of you in this room. Nice people with common sense do not make interesting characters. (Laughter) They only make good former spouses. (Laughter)(Applause)
She mentioned that she had no need to make up the strong women characters in her novels – she was surrounded by them, so she simply observed the women around her and used them as inspiration. She also took the time to connect her feelings about women and passion into her personal passion for feminism, noting how for many young women in the West, there is a feeling that feminism is outdated or passe while in actuality, feminism, defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men” is needed everywhere, but particularly in the areas of the world where women and children make up the majority of the poor. She quoted the statistic that 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children.
Some readers might think that this famous author discussing feminism has nothing to do with reading romance fiction, but think for a moment. How many novels are about women leaving a past filled with violence (usually at the hands of a man) behind? Or going up against a government or villainous entity determined to silence her? While we might not think of a romance heroine’s journey as one of feminism, often it is, at its core, about that individual recognizing that she is an equal to the people around her and especially to the men in her life. Even if the heroine is totally actualized and empowered, sometimes our heroes (particularly in historical fiction) must take the time to undergo an evolution in which they realize that the woman in their life is a partner and an equal. It doesn’t mean that they are the same, but that, in their differences, they are each intelligent people worthy of respect. Food for thought!