Below is an excerpt from Isabel Allende’s 2008 Ted Talk “Tales of Passion.” Here, Allende speaks of stories and writing, femininity and feminism.
All stories interest me, and some haunt me until I end up writing them. Certain themes keep coming up: justice, loyalty, violence, death, political and social issues, freedom. I’m aware of the mystery around us, so I write about coincidences, premonitions, emotions, dreams, the power of nature, magic.
Passion lives here. Isn’t it always true? 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. They only make good former spouses.
So here’s another tale of passion, and this is a sad one. The place is a small women’s clinic in a village in Bangladesh. The year is 2005. Jenny is a young American dental hygienist who has gone to the clinic as a volunteer during her three-week vacation. She’s prepared to clean teeth, but when she gets there, she finds out that there are no doctors, no dentists, and the clinic is just a hut full of flies. Outside, there is a line of women who have waited several hours to be treated. The first patient is in excruciating pain because she has several rotten molars. Jenny realizes that the only solution is to pull out the bad teeth. She’s not licensed for that; she has never done it. She risks a lot and she’s terrified. She doesn’t even have the proper instruments, but fortunately she has brought some Novocaine. Jenny has a brave and passionate heart. She murmurs a prayer and she goes ahead with the operation. At the end, the relieved patient kisses her hands. That day the hygienist pulls out many more teeth. The next morning, when she comes again to the so-called clinic, her first patient is waiting for her with her husband. The woman’s face looks like a watermelon. It is so swollen that you can’t even see the eyes. The husband, furious, threatens to kill the American. Jenny is horrified at what she has done, but then the translator explains that the patient’s condition has nothing to do with the operation. The day before, her husband beat her up because she was not home in time to prepare dinner for him.
Millions of women live like this today. They are the poorest of the poor. Although women do two-thirds of the world’s labor, they own less than one percent of the world’s assets. They are paid less than men for the same work if they’re paid at all, and they remain vulnerable because they have no economic independence, and they are constantly threatened by exploitation, violence and abuse. It is a fact that giving women education, work, the ability to control their own income, inherit and own property, benefits the society. If a woman is empowered, her children and her family will be better off. If families prosper, the village prospers, and eventually so does the whole country.
What kind of world do we want? This is a fundamental question that most of us are asking. Does it make sense to participate in the existing world order? We want a world where life is preserved and the quality of life is enriched for everybody, not only for the privileged. In January I saw an exhibit of Fernando Botero’s paintings at the UC Berkeley library. No museum or gallery in the United States, except for the New York gallery that carries Botero’s work, has dared to show the paintings because the theme is the Abu Ghraib prison. They are huge paintings of torture and abuse of power, in the voluminous Botero style. I have not been able to get those images out of my mind or my heart. What I fear most is power with impunity. I fear abuse of power, and the power to abuse. In our species, the alpha males define reality, and force the rest of the pack to accept that reality and follow the rules. The rules change all the time, but they always benefit them, and in this case, the trickle-down effect, which does not work in economics, works perfectly. Abuse trickles down from the top of the ladder to the bottom. Women and children, especially the poor, are at the bottom. Even the most destitute of men have someone they can abuse — a woman or a child. I’m fed up with the power that a few exert over the many through gender, income, race, and class.
I think that the time is ripe to make fundamental changes in our civilization. But for real change, we need feminine energy in the management of the world. We need a critical number of women in positions of power, and we need to nurture the feminine energy in men. I’m talking about men with young minds, of course. Old guys are hopeless; we have to wait for them to die off. (Laughter) Yes, I would love to have Sophia Loren’s long legs and legendary breasts. But given a choice, I would rather have the warrior hearts of Wangari Maathai, Somaly Mam, Jenny and Rose Mapendo. I want to make this world good. Not better, but to make it good. Why not? It is possible. Look around in this room — all this knowledge, energy, talent and technology. Let’s get off our fannies, roll up our sleeves and get to work, passionately, in creating an almost perfect world. Thank you.
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