Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tales of passion by Isabel Allende

Amazing speech by an amazing woman. I'm a fan and The House of the Spirits is a personal favorite. There are several scenes in that book I love. Listening to this speech makes me feel that I now understand where she's coming from.

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 story teller. 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.

Allow me to tell you about my four minutes of fame. One of the organizers of their Olympics Ceremony, of the Opening Ceremony, call 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 can go around the stadium without a walker.

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?". "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.

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 results 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. They only make good former spouses.

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 Prize winner 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 fourteen 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 were forced to receive fifteen 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. But so did most of the flag bearers except Sophia Loren, the universal symbol of beauty and passion.

Sophia is over seventy. 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.

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. But, she didn't say that exactly.

At some point around midnight we were summoned to the wings of the stadium and the loud speakers 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 poufy hair. She walked elegantly, like a giraffe on the African Savana, holding the flag on her shoulder. I jogged behind. On my tiptoes. Holding the flag on my extended arm. So that my head was actually under the damned flag.

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. A place where most men would love to be.

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. 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 it in my heart forever. The keyword of the Olympics. Passion.

So here's a tale of passion. The year's 1998. The place is a prison camp for Tutsi refugees in Congo. By the way, 80% of all refugees and displaced people in the world are women and girls. We can call displaced 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 their umbilical cords 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 sixteen months. And then, by extraordinary luck and the passionate heart of a young American man, Sasha Chanoff, who manages to put her in a US rescue plane, Rose Mapendo and her nine children end up in Phoenix, Arizona where they are 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 had word 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.

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.

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 the privileged 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 don't 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.

Feminism is not dead by no means. It has evolved. If you don't like the term, change it for God's 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's 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's 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's 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 and 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 2/3 of the world's labor, they own less than 1% 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 threaten 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 Mathaai goes to a village in Kenya. She talks to 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 philantrophy. For every dollar given to a woman's program, 20 dollars are given to men's programs.

Women are 51% 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. There 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 specie, 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.

Yes, I would love to have Sophia Loren's long lengs and legendary breasts. But given a choice, I would rather have the warrior hearts of Wangari Mathaai, 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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