Margaret Atwood Threads the Needle Between Past, Present and Future

Margaret Atwood

Source Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

Why you should care

The Testaments, a long-anticipated sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, revisits dystopian Gilead 15 years later.

A 6-year-old Margaret Atwood was entranced by the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. She was drawn not by the violence or conflict, but rather the transformations that characters underwent. Unlike one-dimensional heroines of classic children’s tales, Grimms’ women deployed wit and cunning, and the capacity for evil upended gendered assumptions.

This attraction to and eye for complexity would become a hallmark of Atwood’s and distinguish the more than 50 literary works that have cemented her as a writer of clout. Today, The Testaments — Atwood’s long-anticipated sequel to her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale — finally hit the shelves (after a stumble involving Amazon erroneously shipping roughly 800 copies early, according to publisher Penguin Random House). Her latest novel, which has already been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, revisits the totalitarian dystopia of Gilead, 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood, 79, has long pushed back against the notion that she writes science fiction. She calls it “speculative fiction,” citing time and again that the events in the worlds she creates have happened before. It’s an assertion that grows more chilling considering that handmaids in Gilead are indentured slaves forced to bear children in a rigid theocracy, with modern readers finding new urgency in her work as they see reproductive rights under attack. Atwood writes about an imagined world with strong and often frightening warnings, linking to forces we recognize today, says Sherrill Grace, professor emerita of English at the University of British Columbia.

Atwood never strays from the nuance and subtle gradations that attracted her to dark fairy tales as a child.

Born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada, Atwood moved with her Nova Scotian parents six months later into the wilderness of Quebec. She spent her childhood between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto, and didn’t attend an entire year of school until eighth grade — which she’d later call an advantage, according to a 1978 interview in The New York Times. One of three siblings, Atwood described her parents as voracious readers who offered her a critical brand of support: “They expected me to make use of my intelligence and abilities and did not pressure me into getting married,” she told the Times. Her spunky mother was a tomboy; her father, a scientist and history buff (who wrote “doggerel verses, filled with puns” — but only when he was sick with the flu, she has said).

At Victoria College at the University of Toronto, she studied English, philosophy and French, and wrote for the college literary journal. Atwood pursued graduate studies at Radcliffe College under a Woodrow Wilson fellowship and has taught at several universities, including her alma mater and New York University. She published her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, in 1961 while her inaugural novel, The Edible Woman, came out in 1969. Though she demonstrated an obvious flair for writing at an early age — having committed herself to a professional writing career at just 16 — she’s the first to admit that she’s a flawed speller. That hardly stopped her from garnering a slew of accolades, including the Man Booker Prize (for The Blind Assassin in 2000), the Governor General’s Award and the Franz Kafka Prize, among others. She married and then later divorced American writer Jim Polk, and has been in a long-term relationship with the novelist Graeme Gibson.

Atwood’s body of work often touches on the connections between gender, political power and the environment, but she’s adamantly defied the categories to which others assign her. “For the duration of her career, people have tried to put Atwood in boxes — Female Writer, Feminist Writer, Political Writer, Canadian Writer, Prophet,” writes Sophie Gilbert inThe Atlantic. “The only label she seems to appreciate,” Gilbert adds, is “‘clairvoyant,’ since the world has gone on to graciously prove her right on several occasions.” 

She is also not afraid to get punchy with reporters and has bristled on more than one occasion when asked whether The Handmaid’s Tale is, and was meant to be, a feminist story. “Look up types of feminism. You’ll find 50 of them,” she said in a 2018Variety interview. “Did I always see it as a story with women at the center of it? Yes. Does that make it feminist?” 

In refusing to oversimplify her female characters, she rejects the notion that women writers must uplift the gender through an unambiguous portrait of female strength or unity. “Not all women are nice. Not all women are progressive. Not all women are feminist, however you define the term feminist,” says Grace, noting that Atwood would never jump on a bandwagon. “She’s fully aware of the complexities of human nature and human character.”

And true to form, Atwood never strays from the nuance and subtle gradations that attracted her to dark fairy tales as a child. “I don’t sign blank checks, and I’d like to know what I’m signing up for,” Atwood said in the Variety interview, comparing the broad label of feminism to that of Christianity. “Does that mean the pope? Does it mean evangelicals? Does it mean Thomas Becket?”

The consistency at work in her work, however, is Atwood’s uncanny ability to stay ahead of the curve. There are those who credit George Orwell for writing chilling predictions, but Atwood’s novels are even more startlingly farsighted, argues Grace: “Atwood has been more prescient and more powerful in her warnings and depictions of where the so-called democratic, civilized world is heading.” In a career spanning half a century, her steady focus on gender politics, patriarchal power and environmental degradation could not be more timely as the Amazon burns, reproductive rights are under threat and the political climate is marked by power-mongering and paranoia.

As readers — and fans of the Emmy-winning televised adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale— snap up copies of The Testaments, the question many are asking is whether she foresees the possibility of hope in a sinister world: Will the resistance be strong enough to finally turn the tides of misogyny, repression and environmental destruction?

Not surprisingly, the answer — like all of Atwood’s work — is open to interpretation. 

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