“As soon as the wall came down, the flood of porn rushed in like a tsunami”
By Savanah Tillberg, Arts and Culture Editor
The city of Thunder Bay was honoured to host universally acclaimed Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, this past Wednesday for an interview discussion about her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale by local CBC celebrity Lisa Laco. Atwood’s novel follows the story of a young woman forced to serve as a handmaid, which is a woman imposed to carry children for infertile couples, in a newly established totalitarian state.
Laco guided her conversation with Atwood through a series of questions, and opened the floor to audience members later in the evening. The event skimmed a myriad of topics such as sex, femininity, past and present political climates, while featuring bits of Atwood’s personal wisdom throughout the night.
It was quite clear after several minutes of listening to Atwood talk that she’s seen and experienced a great deal in her lifetime. In her responses, which follow, she addresses major historical shifts in Western societal thought, as well as some of the current battles being fought, including those where her novel and its story are being used as a weapon.
Lisa: What I felt that evening watching the Golden Globes was[that] it seemed OK for some reason after Elizabeth Moss winning that prize and saying that it [was] OK for women to talk about the ‘Me Too’ movement and standing united and things like that and…
Margaret: They were going to talk about that anyways. They were already shooting Handmaid’s Tale last November, they started in early September, so on November 9th they all woke up and they said we’re in a different show, because it would have been framed differently had Hillary Clinton won the election – if she had won it would have been ‘look what we just avoided’ as it was so nothing about the show changed, they didn’t re-write anything, they just felt it was different and it was different because it was framed differently so that when it actually launched the timing was uncanny. And I think that that presidential win has something to do with kicking off the women’s march and its kicked off something. and we don’t know where that will eventually lead – but I’m told by people in Hollywood that attitudes have already changed somewhat.
L: That’s gratifying to hear.
M: Well, some people think that history is a steady progression into a glorious future, I don’t think that because I’ve read too much history. Things go, and then you don’t want them to go back… but sometimes they do. So that is, I mean, when The Handmaid’s Tale first came out in 1985 ‘good story Margaret but what an imagination you have’ and this would never happen and that’s why I was very careful to put into it nothing that had not already happened. So, nothing new on the human smorgasbord, I did not make it up. And what people have done—they can do again.
L: One of the themes running through The Handmaid’s Tale was the normalization of society that is anything but normal.
M: No kidding. But we’ve seen that many times in history. Human beings are extremely adaptable, and they do what they can, you know, most people do what they can, to make it through whatever abnormal situation they may find themselves in. So, our central character is not a heroine, you know, she’s a not a person who feels she needs to make big gestures, she, like most people, in those situations, she [thinks] ‘what do I have to do to make it through’ and I think that partly has to do with… People as old as I am, were alive during WW11. And that normal was very different from the normal of 1953.
Atwood touches on some of the monumental political uses of The Handmaid’s Tale, in reference to the protests of anti-abortion legislation in Texas on May 9th, 2017.
M: [On a more serious note,] the appearances of Handmaids in state legislation. And it’s actually a pretty brilliant approach because you can’t be thrown out. You are not making a disturbance, you’re sitting there very modestly, you’re not saying anything, and everybody knows what you mean.
L: That’s so powerful for you.
M: You know, it gives you chills up your spine because you know what they’re protesting. So, the ones in Texas did it first, and they ordered what they thought were some red outfits online, and when they arrived they were pink – and that wasn’t the look they wanted. So, they made a pattern and they sewed them. So that’s what you saw in that first appearance – they’d gone to that trouble to make those outfits.
L: Could you ever, back in 1984, in Germany when you were writing this, think it would resonate this way?
M: I thought we were going in the opposite direction. I thought we were going away from this reality, although I knew there was a possibility we could go towards it because I had been clipping things out of newspapers, and looking at them and they were already people, the push back was already happening. So, there was always that possibility, but they weren’t very organized then. The United States was started as a 17th century puritan theocracy. It’s not a democracy that was not the original idea. The republic didn’t come about until the end of the 18th century. But that foundational puritan theocracy has remained an ideal there, all that time. They never had the Cromwell civil war and the restoration, that never happened there. Its kind of morphed into a century of warfare, which was the 18th century – so they kind of missed the enlightenment.
On a more provocative note, Atwood touches on censorship and the, ahem, branding, decisions for certain pieces of literature, including her own.
L: Has The Handmaid’s Tale ever been banned in any countries?
M: Oh yeah. Bandy-band-band-banned. Umm, yes. Banned-R-Us. So, when it was first published it was still Franco in Spain. Portugal was still under a fascists dictator, because those countries weren’t in the war, those things lasted for a long time. The first Portuguese translation was in Brazil, and the first Spanish translation was in Argentina, because you could not publish that book in Portugal or Spain.
M: Covers. Covers in other countries. So, there was a moment when the wall came down, the cold war wall, and before the wall came down you could get a lot of 19th century classics in those countries, you could get the works of Marx and Lenin, you could get Shakespeare, but you couldn’t get porn. You couldn’t get smutty books. So as soon as the wall came down, the flood of porn rushed in like a tsunami. Literary publishers went into shock, they didn’t know what to do, because nobody was interested anymore in the works of Marx – haha, I don’t know why – because there’s no sex in them! Um, so they started putting covers on books like mine that were a bit, extremely, devious in nature and there must have been some very, very disappointed men in rain coats. But some of those covers were terrific.
L: Do you have them all?
M: Oh, you betcha. I’m a veteran of the paperback revolution of the late 40s and early 50s, when they put smutty covers on everything and they sold them in drug stores – and I think a lot of people became acquainted with the classics that way because they would go in, and here’s this woman and you know, it would be Hemmingway or something. I got my paperback copy of 1984 – a serious work of literature – and it has the woman on the cover with enormous cleavage and Winston Smith looking down the front of it, and this guy in leather gear sort of frowning in the background.
For students who are looking for expert writing advice from a literary master like Atwood, she provided some revolutionary advice for students suffering from writer’s block: “If it’s an academic paper, the problem is probably that you don’t want to do it.”
Hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered at Chapters Book Store to hear Atwood speak and receive the opportunity to have her generously sign their book, making the experience far from disappointing. Atwood’s experiences and world views impact her writing in such a way that exposes the reader to depictions of a raw imagination, anchored in disturbing roots which are often not far from reality. Her interview successfully captured a similar impact. Atwood’s novel has proven itself to be timeless, as it leaves readers questioning the notion of progress in relation to many current societal processes, such as those which involve justice and human rights. Atwood’s work forces her readers to question where we come from as a society, and more profoundly, where we are headed.