'I decided I was beautiful - for the simple reason that I wanted to be.'
Upon my first reading of Eva Luna, the protagonist vibrantly swam in my teenage imagination. All soft skin and defiant gaze, she was a citizen of both the physical world and the mystical. I was captivated by lyrical prose and characters who refused to be limited by reality's laws (signature styles of Allende, as I later discovered), and I met a woman who knew herself, and did as she wished.
Oh, it may not seem so revolutionary on paper. But to my sixteen-year-old mind, Eva Luna was a high priestess of female empowerment.
Let me introduce you. In an unidentified Latin American country, she is born after her servant mother straddles a Native Indian on his deathbed (who is thereby miraculously healed). As a child she refuses to obey, and as a grown woman, she takes a guerrilla leader as a lover and becomes known for her illustrious storytelling skills. Inspired by unconventional women; existing in a sphere of subverted power – a whores' revolution, a love affair with an ugly immigrant – Eva Luna is just one in a long line of the strong female characters which feature in Allende’s novels.
Reading this steamy tale for a year 11 English class, I was awed by the feeling of being recognised. This was more than empathy for a protagonist; it was the sense that Allende was calling forth a spirit within me that had yet to unfurl.
I believe one of the most powerful things a young woman can do is make educated choices and refuse to apologise. Through ideal models of femininity, our society breeds women who are passive, accommodating, and serving. We are programmed to step into our pre-determined roles as carers and nurturers, as teachers and mothers. While these things are not bad in themselves, there is great pressure to enact this social script and sacrifice selfish desires. A true woman must put herself and her own wishes aside in order to fulfill her destiny as helper and supporter.
Author Claire Messud calls this expectation of feminine grace 'The Woman Upstairs'. In her 2013 novel of the same name, protagonist Nora Eldridge deals with this self-sacrificing performance of femininity. 'We're the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting...in our quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are....We're completely invisible.'
Eva Luna, daughter of a maid and a gardener, could have become invisible. But when she moves to the city as a teenager, she chooses a different path:
'I looked at my hands roughened by domestic chores; I ran them over my face, feeling the shape of the bones...Enough, enough enough! I took the paper with the name of the boardinghouse for young ladies from my pocketbook, wadded it up in my fist, and threw it out the window.'
In an interview, Susan Sontag said, 'Reading set[s] standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals.' In contrast to a passive femininity, Eva Luna set some new standards for me; Allende's writing changed the way I thought about myself as a woman.
As well as this, Allende entered me into the sisterhood of defiance of the patriarchy ('Men are arrogant, always telling you what to do. It's better to say yes to everything and then do whatever you please'); she taught me that feminine sexuality is not to be protected, guarded, shameful, or won ('I came to know my body; I learned that I had been born for that enjoyment...'); she revealed that we must make decisions only for ourselves ('I became a woman, and for the first time steered my own course').
In short, Eva Luna was a badass bitch, as a friend of mine would say, and this opened up my adolescent self to a bad-assness of my own. Allende's feminism – of a woman who wholly rejects the complacency of the Woman Upstairs – echoes within me still, almost ten years after first encountering the text.
In Eva Luna, Isabel Allende taught me to forge my own path; she gave me permission to decide 'I am beautiful', and she called me to a new consciousness of womanhood.
Lou Heinrich is the Literature & Books Editor at Lip Mag, and writes about pop culture and women. She will be appearing at the Emerging Writers' Festival Amazing Babes event with some other excellent writerly ladies. Find Lou on twitter here.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.