She was fired from a job as a translator for changing the female characters' lines to make them sound smarter and more independent.
Isabel Allende uses marvelous realism, personal anecdotes, and historical events to write stories that feature strong female characters. She is the most read Spanish-language female author in history, and out of her more than 20 published titles, at least two have been turned into movies: The House of The Spirits (1993) and Of Love and Shadows (1994). Allende was fortunate enough to live in a few countries here and there, in addition to attending to private institutions where she was taught English. However, she grew up without a father figure because he went missing when she was just a child, and this resulted in her mom becoming a leading character in her life. Consequently, she's always given female characters the spotlight. In fact, when she was working as a translator many years ago, she was fired for changing the lines of female characters to make them sound smarter and more independent. She hated the portrayal of submissive and dependent woman in stories. For this reason, her books are a reflection about the patriarchy and the importance of gender equality.
The House of the Spirits (1982)
This was the novel that launched Allende’s career, and it was also her debut book. The story started as a letter to her grandfather, who was in gravely ill. Allende hoped that her letter would lift her grandfather's spirits and keep him alive. This letter turned into a book eventually, and it illustrates a Latin American family composed of three generations. Overall, Allende narrates the story of Clara and Esteban (typical alpha male stereotype), and their marriage. Clara possesses mystical powers, which she uses to predict the future. Despite Esteban’s financial success, he is unable to oppress Clara, and it seems as if his wish were to feel superior to all the women in his life. There are many other characters that interact with the main characters, and some are said to be real-life historical figures with hidden identities.
Daughter of Fortune (2000)
This book became very valuable for Allende since she struggled “to define the role of feminism in her life.” It takes place in the early 1840s, in Chile, where a young girl is raised by English Anglican siblings who found her at their doorstep when she was just a baby. The few first chapters of the book focus on her childhood until she falls in love with a man and becomes pregnant. After that, he goes to California, where word has it there is an abundance of gold. Eliza goes after him with the help of a friend hoping to reunite with him and start a family. She loses her baby on the way, deals with the ugly side of America, and disguises herself as a man in other to be with the man she loves. Allende later wrote a sequel of this book, called Portrait in Sepia.
Eva Luna (1987)
This book became a very acclaimed title worldwide, and it is Allende’s third publication. It follows the life of an orphan little girl who grows up in an unknown South American country – due to its socio-political description some argue it's Chile, but its geographical imagery suggests it’s Venezuela. The little girl is Eva Luna, and the book narrates her struggle growing up seeking shelter from place to place and dealing with different characters. Some wish to help her out, while others want to take advantage of her. Allende later compiled a book of short stories narrated by the same character.
Island Beneath the Sea (2009)
In this novel, Allende takes us away from South America and leads readers to the Caribbean: Saint Domingue, modern-day Haiti. The story unfolds in the 18th century, when sexual abuse was a common practice for female slaves. The main character, Tete, is a mixed-race girl who has been bought by a French sugar plantation owner and his wife. Over four decades, Tete serves as the personal slave for the owner’s wife as well as a sex slave for the French man. She also gives birth to illegitimate children of his, and they are born into slavery from the very beginning. Other issues addressed by Allende in this book are abortion, oppression, identity, and self-liberation.
Maya’s Notebook (2011)
In this book, Allende sets herself apart from historic tales and takes on a contemporary coming-of-age story. The story is narrated by Maya, who flees Chile and moves to America. There, her life takes a dangerous path of addiction, where she engages in drug-abuse and alcoholism, among other things. She even has to be placed in a rehab program, and the police is looking for her for being involved in gang activities. Some say that Allende used personal experiences in this book –just like in her other works– to create the story. She too was forced to flee Chile when dictator Pinochet threatened her life, and had no choice but to seek asylum in Venezuela.
Allende never stops surprising readers. In 2014, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and in 2017, she published her newest book, In the Midst of Winter. Her stories are always different; every book she writes transports readers to a different era, place, and conflict, with new characters. She also hints at social and political non-fiction details in her stories, and the only similarity her novels share are female characters who grow stronger as you flip through her novels' pages. They learn from their mistakes and become stronger and more independent people. There is always something to take away from her novels as well as from her own life experiences.
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Cover photo by Peter Morgan / Associated Press