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Isabel Allende. Photo: Jessica Chou The Sunday Times.
Isabel Allende. Photo: Jessica Chou/The Sunday Times.

The responsibility of being Isabel Allende, a "visible" female writer

The Chilean just received the 2020 Liber prize — awarded by Spanish publishers to the most outstanding Hispanic-American author.

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Almost four years ago, there was an intense controversy in Spain over the reissue of Reencuentro de personajes, by Mexican writer Elena Garro. On the promotional banner read the following: "Octavio Paz's wife, lover of Bioy Casares, inspiration of García Márquez and admired by Borges."

In other words, the publisher defined Garro as a woman related to distinguished men and not as one of the great writers of her time, which she was.

Advertising was withdrawn a few days later. 

Although it may sound macho and old-fashioned, the truth is that the incident showcased the invisibility of female authors in the so-called 'Latin American boom,' eclipsed by their male colleagues such as García Márquez, Cortázar or Vargas Llosa, who were not known for being either very feminist, equal, or even allies of women. 

Of all the female authors of the boom, Garro and the superb Brazilian author Clarice Lispector to name a few, only one of them became "the woman of the boom." That was Isabel Allende. The only courtesy guest at that select and tiresomely manly club. 

The reason seems to have been the success of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, published in 1982. 

The author would explain that she began writing it during her exile in Venezuela on a Jan. 8 as a long letter to her grandfather who was about to die in Chile. But as the letter grew longer, it ended up being a 500-page manuscript. 

From then on, Allende always began a new novel on Jan. 8. The mixture of discipline and superstition has worked very well for her, becoming, by her own merits, the most widely-read Spanish-language author in the world. 

Allende has shaken the macho shadow that hangs over women authors because who can objectify, gag or ridicule someone who has sold 75 million copies of their works?

After recently receiving the Medallion of Excellence from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in the United States, where Allende has lived for years, Spanish publishers have now recognized her with the 2020 Liber Award in honor of her career. To no surprise, it's an award that has been mostly given to male authors.

The award also values "her effort to reach authors from all over the world and of all ages with different genres ranging from autobiography to fiction, which include the description of important historical events."

Whether we like Isabel Allende or not, her work is a bridge both between cultures and with the past. Proof of this is her latest novel, Long Petal of the Sea. Allende is promoting its English version and the plot is based on the story of the refugees from the Spanish Civil War who arrived in Chile in 1939, aboard the Winnipeg

Next November, Allende will publish Mujeres del alma mía, an autobiographical essay about her history as a feminist, and curious minds want to know: Will she talk about those other forgotten women of the boom? 

With great fame, comes great responsibility.

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