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Thank you so much. It's really scary to be here among the smartest of the smart. I'm here to tell you a few tales of passion. There's a Jewish saying that I love. What is truer than truth? Answer: The story. I'm a storyteller. I want to convey something that is truer than truth about our common humanity. 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.
In the last 20 years I have published a few books, but I have lived in anonymity until February of 2006, when I carried the Olympic flag in the Winter Olympics in Italy. That made me a celebrity. Now people recognize me in Macy's, and my grandchildren think that I'm cool. (Laughter) Allow me to tell you about my four minutes of fame. One of the organizers of the Olympic ceremony, of the opening ceremony, called me and said that I had been selected to be one of the flag-bearers. I replied that surely this was a case of mistaken identity because I'm as far as you can get from being an athlete. Actually, I wasn't even sure that I could go around the stadium without a walker. (Laughter) I was told that this was no laughing matter. This would be the first time that only women would carry the Olympic flag. Five women, representing five continents, and three Olympic gold medal winners. My first question was, naturally, what was I going to wear? (Laughter) A uniform, she said, and asked for my measurements. My measurements. I had a vision of myself in a fluffy anorak, looking like the Michelin Man. (Laughter)
By the middle of February, I found myself in Turin, where enthusiastic crowds cheered when any of the 80 Olympic teams was in the street. Those athletes had sacrificed everything to compete in the games. They all deserved to win, but there's the element of luck. A speck of snow, an inch of ice, the force of the wind, can determine the result of a race or a game. However, what matters most -- more than training or luck -- is the heart. Only a fearless and determined heart will get the gold medal. It is all about passion. The streets of Turin were covered with red posters announcing the slogan of the Olympics.
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. (Laughter) They only make good former spouses. (Laughter) (Applause)
In the green room of the stadium, I met the other flag bearers: three athletes, and the actresses Susan Sarandon and Sophia Loren. Also, two women with passionate hearts: Wangari Maathai, the Nobel prizewinner from Kenya who has planted 30 million trees. And by doing so, she has changed the soil, the weather, in some places in Africa, and of course the economic conditions in many villages. And Somaly Mam, a Cambodian activist who fights passionately against child prostitution. When she was 14 years old, her grandfather sold her to a brothel. She told us of little girls raped by men who believe that having sex with a very young virgin will cure them from AIDS. And of brothels where children are forced to receive five, 15 clients per day, and if they rebel, they are tortured with electricity. In the green room I received my uniform. It was not the kind of outfit that I normally wear, but it was far from the Michelin Man suit that I had anticipated. Not bad, really. I looked like a refrigerator. (Laughter) But so did most of the flag-bearers, except Sophia Loren, the universal symbol of beauty and passion. Sophia is over 70 and she looks great. She's sexy, slim and tall, with a deep tan. Now, how can you have a deep tan and have no wrinkles? I don't know. When asked in a TV interview, "How could she look so good?" She replied, "Posture. My back is always straight, and I don't make old people's noises." (Laughter) So, there you have some free advice from one of the most beautiful women on earth. No grunting, no coughing, no wheezing, no talking to yourselves, no farting. (Laughter) Well, she didn't say that exactly. (Laughter)
At some point around midnight, we were summoned to the wings of the stadium, and the loudspeakers announced the Olympic flag, and the music started -- by the way, the same music that starts here, the Aida March. Sophia Loren was right in front of me -- she's a foot taller than I am, not counting the poofy hair. (Laughter) She walked elegantly, like a giraffe on the African savannah, holding the flag on her shoulder. I jogged behind (Laughter) -- on my tiptoes -- holding the flag on my extended arm, so that my head was actually under the damn flag. (Laughter) All the cameras were, of course, on Sophia. That was fortunate for me, because in most press photos I appear too, although often between Sophia's legs. (Laughter) A place where most men would love to be. (Laughter) (Applause)
The best four minutes of my entire life were those in the Olympic stadium. My husband is offended when I say this -- although I have explained to him that what we do in private usually takes less than four minutes -- (Laughter) -- so he shouldn't take it personally. I have all the press clippings of those four magnificent minutes, because I don't want to forget them when old age destroys my brain cells.
I want to carry in my heart forever the key word of the Olympics -- passion. So here's a tale of passion. The year is 1998, the place is a prison camp for Tutsi refugees in Congo. By the way, 80 percent of all refugees and displaced people in the world are women and girls. We can call this place in Congo a death camp, because those who are not killed will die of disease or starvation. The protagonists of this story are a young woman, Rose Mapendo, and her children. She's pregnant and a widow. Soldiers have forced her to watch as her husband was tortured and killed. Somehow she manages to keep her seven children alive, and a few months later, she gives birth to premature twins. Two tiny little boys. She cuts the umbilical cord with a stick, and ties it with her own hair. She names the twins after the camp's commanders to gain their favor, and feeds them with black tea because her milk cannot sustain them. When the soldiers burst in her cell to rape her oldest daughter, she grabs hold of her and refuses to let go, even when they hold a gun to her head. Somehow, the family survives for 16 months, and then, by extraordinary luck, and the passionate heart of a young American man, Sasha Chanoff, who manages to put her in a U.S. rescue plane, Rose Mapendo and her nine children end up in Phoenix, Arizona, where they're now living and thriving.
Mapendo, in Swahili, means great love. The protagonists of my books are strong and passionate women like Rose Mapendo. I don't make them up. There's no need for that. I look around and I see them everywhere. I have worked with women and for women all my life. I know them well. I was born in ancient times, at the end of the world, in a patriarchal Catholic and conservative family. No wonder that by age five I was a raging feminist -- although the term had not reached Chile yet, so nobody knew what the heck was wrong with me. (Laughter) I would soon find out that there was a high price to pay for my freedom, and for questioning the patriarchy. But I was happy to pay it, because for every blow that I received, I was able to deliver two. (Laughter) Once, when my daughter Paula was in her twenties, she said to me that feminism was dated, that I should move on. We had a memorable fight. Feminism is dated? Yes, for privileged women like my daughter and all of us here today, but not for most of our sisters in the rest of the world who are still forced into premature marriage, prostitution, forced labor -- they have children that they don't want or they cannot feed. They have no control over their bodies or their lives. They have no education and no freedom. They are raped, beaten up and sometimes killed with impunity. For most Western young women of today, being called a feminist is an insult. Feminism has never been sexy, but let me assure you that it never stopped me from flirting, and I have seldom suffered from lack of men. (Laughter) Feminism is not dead, by no means. It has evolved. If you don't like the term, change it, for Goddess' sake. Call it Aphrodite, or Venus, or bimbo, or whatever you want; the name doesn't matter, as long as we understand what it is about, and we support it.
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.
Wangari Maathai goes to a village in Kenya. She talks with the women and explains that the land is barren because they have cut and sold the trees. She gets the women to plant new trees and water them, drop by drop. In a matter of five or six years, they have a forest, the soil is enriched, and the village is saved. The poorest and most backward societies are always those that put women down. Yet this obvious truth is ignored by governments and also by philanthropy. For every dollar given to a women's program, 20 dollars are given to men's programs. Women are 51 percent of humankind. Empowering them will change everything -- more than technology and design and entertainment. I can promise you that women working together -- linked, informed and educated -- can bring peace and prosperity to this forsaken planet. In any war today, most of the casualties are civilians, mainly women and children. They are collateral damage. Men run the world, and look at the mess we have.
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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Author and activist Isabel Allende discusses women, creativity, the definition of feminism -- and, of course, passion -- in this talk.
Novelist Isabel Allende writes stories of passion. Her novels and memoirs, including The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, tell the stories of women and men who live with passionate commitment -- to love, to their world, to an ideal. Full bio »