#100PENMembers No. 45: Isabel Allende

This International Women’s Day we celebrate Isabel Allende, feminist, free expression advocate and PEN Member, as well as a trailblazing and truly international author.

Photo Credit: Hester Lacey/FT

Born in Lima, Peru, Allende spent time in Santiago and Lebanon as a child. Her books have been published in 35 languages and sold 67 million copies.

Her life as a writer started at Paula Magazine, the first Chilean feminist publication which she ran with a group of four other female journalists.

The job gave me a focus and a voice. It also gave me a language to express my anger, and for the first time, I felt like my anger served a purpose.

‘It was the first time that issues like abortion, infidelity, prostitution, and domestic violence were written about in Chile. These things were not even touched on before—at least not in public. It shook society.’ Allende continues to be an outspoken feminist campaigner in the US and on issues affecting women, particularly migrant women, across South and Central America.

Following the 1973 coup in Chile, in which her cousin – former President Salvador Allende – was assassinated, she fled the country and lived for 13 years as a political refugee in Venezuela. 

These years of exile and hardship had a huge influence on Allende’s writing and on her activism. Speaking at the US National Book Awards in 2018: ‘I write to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories. If we listen to another person’s story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred. Because we realize that the similarities that bring us together are many more than the differences that separate us.’

In fact, just as her writing represents, perhaps, an attempt to reconcile these feelings of displacement and not-belonging from her time as a refugee, so too her work with PEN represents these concerns.

A vocal supporter of PEN’s 2017 Make Space campaign – which marks the latest stage in the organisation’s century of work with refugees and the displaced –  Allende commented that, It’s very easy to create a sense of hatred when you talk numbers, but when you see the faces of people, when you look at them in the eye one by one, then the whole thing changes, and that’s what art and literature can do.’

For her, literature and organisations like PEN can create this sense of belonging, of shared humanity and of understanding. 

In recognition of both the international reach of her work and of her outspoken campaigning for refugees and migrants but also for women, in 2016 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN Centre USA (West) for her feminism, her commitment to social justice and her take on the 1973 military coup in Chile. Previous recipients have included Joan Didion, Francis Ford Coppola, Octavia Butler and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She also won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2010 and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. She said this final accolade from the US, her home for decades, made her feel at last as though she belonged there and had been accepted.

A lifelong supporter of PEN, she is a member of the PEN Writers circle: ‘writers who believe that literature and freedom of expression are at the heart of a strong vibrant society. They support PEN International’s activities to ensure that silenced unheard and unknown voices are connected to readers and writers everywhere.’

Her latest book, The Soul of a Woman ‘isn’t quite a memoir and it isn’t quite a feminist manifesto’ according to its author and came out in the UK last week but launches with a PEN America #PENOutLoud session with Concepción de León at 8pm ET today. What a perfect Mother’s Day or IWD present for a superb woman in your life!