Jul 9, 2014

Women, Gays and the World of the Spirit in the work of Isabel Allende

Despite the sweeping title, these are simply disjointed reflections on one of my favorite authors, whose work has always shown great spiritual depth and insight, coupled with the clenched fist of indignation in the face of injustice towards women and gays and all marginalized groups.

First a word on Isabel Allende's spiritual awakening, which gives great insight into the spiritual dimension of her work:

Taken from Lorette C. Luzajic's Fascinating Writers series. 

When Allende herself encounters the rare-for-her but dreaded writer’s block, she finds an unusual way around it: she drinks a potent shamanic rainforest hallucinogen and disappears into her mind for several days. During this unorthodox excursion, Isabel “crossed through the opening and effortlessly plunged into an absolute void… There was no sensation, no spirit, not a trace of individual consciousness; instead I felt a divine, absolute presence. I was inside the goddess… something I can only define as love, an impression of oneness, I dissolved into the divine, I felt that there was no separation between me and the rest of all that exists, all that was light and silence. I was left with the certainly that we are spirits, and all that is material is illusory.”

Allende says that on that voyage she lost her fear of death.

This remarkable anecdote is far more significant than the loss of writer's block. It testifies to Isabel's own vocation as a witness to the spiritual dimension outside the framework of conventional Christianity. "I was inside the goddess." This is what I have always appreciated about Isabel's work, that she is so open to discerning the validity of non traditional spiritualities, without losing her critical faculties. She is able to appreciate and critique in equal measure, while respecting and incorporating the spiritual dimension into her stories, but spirit seen from a feminist perspective. 

In the previous posting Celebrated Women and Humble Men,  I linked her with Spanish supermodel, River Viiperi, in a reflection on enduring love between famous women and their loving partners, a comparison that was intended to be mind-bending. 

A gender bending portrait of the male if ever there was one. Wow!

Much of Isabel's fiction concerns the struggle to free women and sexual minorities from heterosexual male control over space and power and to create safe, open spaces for women (and by extension all sexual minorities) to express their own desires and achieve their own emancipation. In Latin American culture especially - men tend to dominate the public spaces, women are expected to fade into the background, and gays, well of course, gays must remain well hidden behind closed doors - and transexuals, don't even mention the word. In other words machismo culture assigns women and gays to their own private assigned spaces on the margins as inferior beings. Isabel seeks to break down all of these barriers and to insist that males must learn to defer at times to the equal power of their women partners and to allow them their own space. 

This is one reason I paired her with young fashion model, River Viiperi in the previous posting. When in the public sphere with his partner, Paris Hilton, River must defer to the intense media attention she engenders, step back and allow his partner her own public space.  His own role is as a regulator of the crowds, and even video recorder. It is a subservient position, to be sure,  and it is  remarkable to watch a Latin Male fulfilling this role with such grace, charm and good humor - and with no loss to his self respect. For this, he has received much flack and and an ocean of sexist sarcasm. Wittingly or not, River Viiperi is a feminist ally and a role model for strong supportive males. 

River controlling the ' space' around his partner. 

Isabel in her own position as a feminist author has not had so easy a time herself. As Lorette C. Luzajic says in her wonderful article, "Of Love and Shadows: the Stories of Isabel Allende," at Book Slut:

Despite endless comparisons of her work to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of the Latin American "magical realism" genre, where the mystical merges with quotidian life, Allende is not acknowledged by the Latin boys’ club as a serious writer. Pablo Neruda told her she had too much imagination to be a journalist, and Marquez does not acknowledge her importance -- sad, because the woman’s perspective in this genre of literature is the element that was always missing, the most important one. “I don’t belong to their club,” Allende told Argentinean-born anthologist Alberto Manguel. “In Latin America, women are not respected. You have to make twice the as much effort as a man for half the recognition. And if you are a writer, ten times as much… If a woman had written Garcia Marquez’s brilliant Love in the Time of Cholera, her novel would have been branded mushy, over-sentimental… The male literary community in Latin America would be delighted if women wrote only cookbooks, children’s books… let them not fuck around with the rest, with ‘real’ literature.”

Nonetheless, Isabel has attained her own special renown as a powerful feminist author and artist, even if she will never be paired with the 'big boys' of Latin American fiction. And she has proven herself to be an ally of all marginalized sexual minorities as well.

First a bit of gossip about Isabel's own personal experience with gay people.

Isabel's son Nicu had been married for some ten years to a Venezualan women named Celia. Upon the birth of their third child, Celia announced that she was really a lesbian and needed to separate from Nicu. She then promplty fell in love with Sally, the fiancee of the son of her husband by a previous marriage. Much to the shock of the whole household and to the consternation of Nicu, both women moved away together. Celia leaves the children to be taken care of by poor Nicu. 

"Isabel not only continues her friendship with Celia, but she even takes the side of Celia and supports her to the annoyance of her son. Before this conversion, Celia was a gay-baiter with very strong views and prejudices. Afterwards, Celia not only practices lesbianism, but actively preaches the advanteges of gay love. She advocates that everyone should try it and says that it is much better than being heterosexual."

Despite the genuine heartbreak of this story, especially for Nicu, there is something resembling a 'comic opera' about this anecdote. That Isabel sides with her daughter in law demonstrates a remarkable tolerance and understanding for alternative sexual experiences. 

Now onto Isabel's gay characters. 

First the criticism:

Isabel's latest book, Ripper, a crime novel set in the San Francisco Bay Area, received mixed reviews and some critical comment for 'gay bashing'. I was surprised to hear this, because I knew of Isabel's sensitive treatment of gay characters in her previous work. However, once I began reading Ripper I had to confess that some of the treatment seemed a bit slapdash. 

Here is a rather harsh criticism from Canada's Amazon. 

I don't want to be a hyper- sensitive politically correct watchdog, but some things must be said. This author's portrayal of LGBT characters is cliched at best and reactionary at worst (save for two female partners who make a brief appearance). We are portrayed as child molesters, self destructive waiters/drag performers (nothing wrong with a drag performer, but it saddens me that some straight people are still only comfortable with a gay man if he is in a dress) and at worst one of fiction's most tired and offensive cliches, a homicidal maniac of a cross dresser (no, it is not the waiter) Put this together with unbelievable premise and unlikely leaps of faith, and you have a novel that simply does not deliver on any of it's promise.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed Ripper, though I admit some of the descriptions of gay folks did seem like caricatures of some of our most embarrassing characteristics. However, I am also thoroughly familiar with Isabel Allende's remarkable treatment of gay characters in her previous fiction, so this made the excesses of Ripper seem like an anomaly

Since this is not an in-depth literary essay, I'm simply going to quote a long passage from her 1986 novel, Of Love and Shadows, to demonstrate Isabel's great sensitivity to the plight of gay people. 

Here is Isabel's description of Mario, the 'elegant and discrete stylist' at the fashion magazine where the lead male character of the novel, Francisco, works for a time and meets the love of his life:

He had delicate hands and a spirit inclined towards fantasy, a quality his father had tried to beat out of him. Drastic measures had not, however, cured his effeminate manerisms or altered his inclinations. As a child, if the family turned their backs for an instant, he slipped away to entertain himself in solitary pastimes that provoked pitiless ridicule: he gathered stones from the river and polished them for the pleasure of seeing the colors shine: he scouted the dismal landscape looking for dry leaves to arrange in artistic compositions; he was moved to tears by a sunset, wanting to capture it forever in a line of poetry or in a painting he could imagine but felt incapable of realizing. Only his mother accepted his peculiarities, seeing them not as signs of perversion but as evidence of a soul that was different. To save him from his father's merciless floggings, she took him to the parish priest to enroll him as an assistant to the sacristan, hoping to disguise his womanly gentleness among the skirts of the mass and offerings of incense. The boy's mind always wandered from his dog Latin, however, diverted by the golden particles floating in the light that streamed through the church windows. ... When his father learned of these visits, he led Mario by the ear to the mine whorehouse, accompanied by his two older brothers. There, with a dozen men impatient to spend their Friday wages, they waited their turn. Only Mario noticed the filthy, faded curtains, the stench of urine, and Lysol, the infinite desolation of the place. Only he was moved by the melancholy of those women exhausted by wear and the absence of love. Threatened by his own brothers, when his turn came he tried to play the macho with the prostitute, but she needed only a glance at the boy to see that he was destined for a life filled with mockery and solitude. She was moved with compassion when she saw him trembling with revulsion at the sight of her naked flesh, and she asked the men to leave them alone so she could do her job in peace. As soon as the others left, she bolted the door, sat on the bed beside Mario and took his hand.

"This isn't something you can be forced to do," she said to Mario, who was weeping with terror. "Go away, far away, boy, where no one knows you, because if you stay around here they'll end up killing you."

In all his life he had never received better advice. He dried his tears and promised never to spill them again over a manliness that in his heart he did not desire.
What a remarkably sensitive portrait of a young gay man, the only young male capable of seeing the "infinite desolation" of the brothel and "the melancholy of those women exhausted by wear and the absence of love."

Shortly after meeting Francisco for the first time, Mario falls deeply in love with the heterosexual young man. Here is Isabel's remarkably sensitive description of their first dinner together in Mario's apartment:

Francisco saw two goblets beside an ice bucket where a bottle of champagne was cooling; he noticed the soft lights, smelled the aroma of the wood fire and incense burning in a bronze censer; he heard the jazz from the hi-fi speakers, and realized he was the only guest. For an instant he was tempted to turn and walk out, to avoid raising any hope in his host's heart, but his desire not to hurt Mario, to gain his friendship, won out. As he looked in Mario's eyes, Francisco was moved by a mixture of pity and sympathy. He searched among his gentlest emotions for the one most appropriate to give to the man who was timidly offering him his love. He sat down beside Mario on the raw-silk sofa and accepted a glass of champagne, calling on his professional experience to help him steer through uncharted waters without doing something foolish. It was a night they both remembered. Mario told Francisco his life story, and delicately hinted at his growing passion. He anticipated a refusal, but he was too moved not to voice his emotions; no man had ever appealed to him so strongly. Francisco combined virile strength and assurance with the rare quality of gentleness. Mario did not fall in love easily; he distrusted stormy affairs, the cause of much unpleasantness in the past. He was prepared this once, however, to risk everything. Francisco also talked about himself and , without overtly saying so, communicated to Mario the possibility of sharing a solid and deep friendship, but never love. Through that long evening they discovered shared interests, laughed, listened to music, and drank champagne. In a burst of confidence forbidden by the most elementary caution, Mario spoke of his revulsion for the dictatorship and his desire to oppose it. His new friend, able to read the truth in his eyes, offered his secret in return. When they said goodbye, shortly before the hour of curfew, they exchanged a firm handshake, sealing a pact of solidarity.

Another remarkable passage and I dare say one that could only have been written by a woman. I rest my case about the sensitivity of Isabel Allende towards her gay characters in fiction. This is a woman of great insight and compassion into the plight of marginalized human beings, a woman who views the myriad forms of human love across gender boundaries through the eyes of the loving divine mother goddess. 

Viva Allende


Monica Vespuci said...

Another beautiful, inspiring post, Jayden, thank you. Isabel's amazing spiritual experience explains so much. And you managed to slip River in there -

Jayden Cameron said...

Thanks Monica, glad you enjoyed it. I'm going through all her novels now one by one. I'm sitting by the river now near Krivoklat enjoying the view - and the Czech beer before beginning three weeks of summer camp with wild rambunctious Czech teenagers. Going to be a wild time in the dorms for sure!