Last night, Margaret Atwood came into town to discuss her new book Hag-seed and to also, of course, just generally grace us with her presence. If I had to designate favorite contemporary authors, Atwood is very near the top of my list (though behind China Miéville – whose even I missed a few weeks ago and NO I’m not bitter about it, why would you ask!?). My first experience with Atwood was through her book The Blind Assassin, because there was a time when I was very into narratology and enjoyed looking at books that “did something weird” with narrative structures. The Blind Assassin often came up in conversations, so I decided to pick it up and I ended up really enjoying it. I then proceeded to work my way through her novels and have, by now, read quite a few – though she is so incredibly prolific that I am very far behind on her work. Out of her novels, I would say The Blind Assassin and the MaddAddam trilogy (which is going to be made into an HBO series!) are my favorites.
Needless to say when I heard she was going to be in town, I snapped up a ticket and was looking forward to seeing such an important literary figure in person. And Mags did not disappoint. For instance, she has an incredibly dry sense of humor that I find great; she walked on stage with a pair of winter gloves with glow-in-the-dark skeleton hands on the back and remarked, “You can buy these at gas stations”. And that was how we began the evening.
She spent some time explaining her new novel Hag-seed, which is a re-imagination of The Tempest, and she also touched on the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative that instigated the novel. If you haven’t heard about this initiative yet, I encourage you to take a peek at the project because I think it is really cool and I look forward to seeing all the completed novels. Atwood also did two readings from the text – including a section depicting what I would say was a “rap”, which was AMAZING. She also spent a lot of time discussing the themes behind the book and how it ties into what she sees in The Tempest. It was fascinating to see how she took some concepts, such as revenge, and use the setting or the characters themselves to explore these ideas. I was already intrigued by the novel, but after hearing about her process, I am definitely looking forward to diving in soon.
There was time at the end for a decent amount of questions and it was interesting to get a sense of what people know Atwood for. Most of the questions had to do with The Handmaid’s Tale which she wrote in 1985; part of me wonders what it is like to constantly hear people refer to one text all the time (does it get annoying? Is it kind of cool to see your work stand the test of time?). However, she made a really fascinating connection between The Handmaid’s Tale and what is happening in the current U.S. political environment. Atwood first briefly alluded to Aztec pyramids, saying that when the Aztecs wanted to build a new pyramid they would build on top of the last one, rather than destroying the old one or making one that was completely new. Thus, you end up with pyramids that are built up over time and never go away. This same idea appears in society – we never fully get rid of past belief systems, but instead we construct something on top of them. Periodically, then, that which we built over comes to the surface again. This is the idea that Atwood had in mind with The Handmaid’s Tale. She said that she began by considering what type of totalitarian dystopia would appear in the U.S.; since the U.S. was originally a Puritan theocracy (though no one seems to enjoy remembering this) she decided that the treatment of women in that type of society would be the U.S.’s dystopia. This is why you see sexism appearing, not only in the treatment of women in the public (or private) sphere, but also the type of discourse you see around “women’s issues” or how women’s roles are discussed.
It has been a while since I read The Handmaid’s Tale, but it was great to hear Atwood lay all this out and also tie in what is happening in the U.S. now. What I find fascinating about Atwood is her incredibly sharp perception. I think she is keenly aware of the pulse of society and is able to write books that remain relevant for decades because she hones in on very deep, very stubborn issues. I look forward to reading more of her newer works because I can only imagine that she continued to be as cutting with her gaze; I am happy that I was able to see her in person and hear her talk about writing in her own words. As my friend said, “I know you never should meet your idols, but in this case…it only showed me how amazing she is.”
Very happy I was able to see Margaret Atwood in the flesh and, if she happens to show up in your area, I highly suggest you try to go see her!