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Isabel Allende, Loung Ung and the Power of Memoir

It’s mind-numbing. Four hundred thousand dead and 2.45 million displaced in Darfur; 5.4 million dead in fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998; epidemic levels of violence against women and children. With the constant repetition of such statistics of devastation, what can move us to action?

At an upcoming Women & Courage conference at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, Isabel Allende and Loung Ung will cross paths. These two extraordinary writer/activists demonstrate that the most direct and powerful way to comprehend human suffering is through compelling, first-hand accounts.

Two daughters of exile, Allende and Ung present a study in similarity and contrast. After happy, affluent childhoods, both fled their countries, Chile and Cambodia, after watching them disintegrate into violence, struggle and genocide. And both later wrote memoirs of suffering and survival, stories of personal courage.

But from here their stories diverge. In the 1970s, Isabel Allende was already a journalist and young mother when the violent overthrow of her father’s cousin, Chile President Salvador Allende, occurred. She helped many young leftists evade the Pinochet death squads before a series of threats forced her family to flee to Venezuela. Her best-selling first novel, House of Spirits, drew on her experiences then.

A generation younger, Loung Ung was only five when the violent 1975 Khmer Rouge regime forced her family of nine to flee Phnom Penh for the Cambodian countryside. Posing as peasants, they lived through every human’s worst nightmares. First They Killed My Father is the memoir that tells her wrenching story of labor camps, starvation, attempted rape and the loss of her family. Ung and one brother eventually made their way to the United States, where she ultimately became a human rights activist. Her second memoir, Lucky Child, tells the story of the challenges of her new life juxtaposed with those of her sister who remained in Cambodia.

Today, as U.S. citizens, Allende and Ung value their freedoms, but view the American media with critical eyes.

“It seems to me we are living in a time in which fear is used as a tool in the media, entertainment, culture, and politics,” says Ung. "I think right now, it takes courage to live a life of hope. A life of insights. A life of family. And to not buy into this fear that we’re being sold.”

Allende doesn’t mince words. “The media could do a much better job, that’s for sure, especially the media that targets women. Human rights? They couldn’t care less! Their message to women is all about consumerism, looking sexy and pleasing men in bed. And yet they have the potential to make profound changes for the better in women’s lives.”

Allende, an avowed feminist, has drawn liberally from her story and those of her family for her novels, but her first memoir, Paula, written amidst the storm of emotion provoked by her daughter’s illness and death, has an extraordinary intimacy and authenticity. Calling a memoir “an invitation into another person’s privacy,” she has a new one just out, The Sum of Our Days.

“I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the ‘message,’ even if I am not even aware that there is one, is conveyed better in this form.”

Similarly, Ung feels that memoirs “connect the humanity in us.” She explains, “We often hear about many hundred thousands killed in Darfur, and two million in Cambodia. All these big numbers. Memoirs bring it down to a family, a face… it breaks down that barrier of what is Cambodia, Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Darfur—down to a father, a mother, a brother, a sister. How I missed my mother—is that very different from how your children miss you? How I long for my father’s touch on top of my head is not different from any other child’s longing.”

Ung’s story is searing. Told with simplicity and drama from a child’s point of view, it includes events that are simply beyond the bounds of our comfortable western experience. At one moment, after Ung’s father has been taken away and executed, her mother picks her three strongest children—including Ung, who is at this point seven years old—and essentially says to them, go away; go off in three different directions; say that you are an orphan; get lost so that you can survive. Ung’s emotionally devastated mother then remains with her smallest, weakest child. Grief-stricken and starving, they both will be executed by the Khmer Rouge. Ung—tiny, clever, rebellious—comes across as extraordinarily courageous, the ultimate survivor. Yet Ung sees what is universal in her story.

“As a child, it took courage to survive the war that I was in,” she says. “As a young girl, it took courage to be true to my brown skin in a sea of white children. … It takes courage for all of us to be a woman, a mother, a sister; to be together in a society that is breeding so much fear.”

Allende agrees: “Women have always been courageous. … They are always fearless when protecting their children and in the last century they have been fearless in the fight for their rights. In times of conflict, war, poverty or religious fundamentalism, women and children are the first and most numerous victims. Women need all their courage today.”

Both Allende and Ung, in the context of the Omega conference on Women & Courage, are issuing a call to action for all women. The message begins with the awareness that we all need to call on the “everyday” forms of courage, and to support each other in that.

“We get so caught up in all these different issues—whether it’s the economy, the war, oil crisis, or the election—that sometimes we forget about the challenges women face every day. It’s important to come together and to re-connect on that level,” says Ung.

And from Allende, “Sisters: talk to each other, be connected and informed, form women’s circles, share your stories, work together, and take risks. Together we are invincible. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

And both Allende and Ung call for activism. Allende (who founded her own women’s advocacy organization, called The Isabel Allende Foundation) sees a distinct role for senior women, who have education, resources and have been empowered by the women’s movement. “Our role as grandmothers is to protect young women and children, to work for peace in every way and at every level, and to improve the quality of life for everybody, not just the privileged.”

“Overall, I think the more team members we have—be it memoir writers, journalists, peace corps volunteers—to go out there and report on human rights issues in the world, the better,” says Ung, who’s been active on behalf of a variety of causes affecting her homeland, as well as for the elimination of land mines around the world. “Ultimately, I think our goal is the same; to create a safer and better world for all of us.”

“Our role is to dream a better world,” says Allende, “and to work courageously to make that dream possible.”

For extended interviews with Isabel Allende and Loung Ung, click on their names.

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