In conversation with Margaret Atwood

I'm going to a lot of great shows this year, but In Conversation With Margaret Atwood at the Christchurch Town Hall, has to have been one of the most exciting.

This was my first time in Christchurch Town Hall, since it reopened after earthquake restoration in March 2019. It's a stunning venue. There were men in the audience!

Radio New Zealand presenter Noelle McCarthy interviewed Margaret, who has been writing for sixty years; the much-decorated author of over fifty books including poetry, non-fiction and graphic novels (did you know?).

McCarthy did a sterling job in my opinion of wrestling the conversation back on track, which isn't easy. Books were definitely discussed. I'm pretty sure McCarthy had read some. The audience were also able to forward questions to Atwood, using a great new innovation on Twitter : #askAtwood.

I certainly didn't expect to laugh so much - a lot of Atwood's material highlights what is wrong with the world; particularly the place of women.

How has the place of women been subverted?

Up to about the Bronze age, says Atwood, women had equal places and power in many societies. As wheat farming began to create a surplus of food, it enabled the establishment of a  hierarchy in society, and the need for an army to protect the source.

Archaeology has noted that at about this time, men began to eat more meat to fuel the body for carrying weapons and armor, while women were restricted to eating a diet primarily of wheat.

The Handmaid's Tale was written in the nineteen eighties - a decade of push-backs against the women's rights movements of the 'seventies.

The Handmaid's Tale

It depicts a future America where women have been stripped of their civil rights. Why has this book experienced a resurgence of popularity thirty five years later?

Atwood points to 'a perfect storm' of events - U.S Stock Market Crash 2010 , 9/11 , and the 2016 election of Donald Trump:

"Instead of a book about 'look what we avoided,' it became closer to reality in a number of countries."

She highlights Trump's attempts to subvert the rule of law and the free press, undermining the American constitution, as symptoms of a move to install an autocratic government.

"When people get scared, they will trade in civil liberties for an illusion of safety."

Atwood highlights repeating cycles in history (such as Hitler's easy rise to power) where 'wickedness,' or 'chaos', has been held to blame for society's ills, for which 'blood must spill' according to the current regime - witch hunts and purges; which is supposedly followed by a 'golden age.'

When this doesn't happen, the establishment asserts that there must be treachery within and the cycle begins again, enabling the rise of an authoritarian regime which will 'tidy' the chaos.

It's not so much about religion, but belief systems, says Atwood. Rhetoric and beliefs were ripe before Trump, she says.

Atwood sees Trump as 'overtly hostile to the idea of women as independent thinking persons', citing the 'witch' label unleashed on Hilary Clinton during the 2016 Election. A repeat of the seventeenth century?

Pointing to the lack of prenatal and antenatal care, along with anti-abortion legislation as examples, Atwood highlights how the American administration has begun to squash women's constitutional rights:

"Some U.S. States have gone right back to Gilead."

Atwood famously claims there is nothing in 'the books' (The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments), that hasn't happened in history. The scenes where people are herded into a football stadium? "That happened in Chile," says Atwood.

In the hugely popular sequel to the Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments (released thirty-four years after its sister), the awful actions of the Aunt-we-love-to-hate, Lydia, are offset with a more sympathetic, confessional depiction of her character.

The Testaments

Atwood says herself that the way Ann Dowd played her in the recent popular television series began to inform her character development for the already begun Testaments, which looks at Aunt Lydia's background and motivations. 

Sympathetic to her 'girls' Lydia does not seek absolution, but to bring the whole show down with her. It's a bit of a juxtaposition given her brutality in season three of the TV series, but Atwood emphasises that 'it's a show,' where she has no veto power. 'And remember, fifteen years have passed in Gilead.'

Lydia's Testament is not the end, however, there is a post script in which a future society questions if it could ever happen again. Sadly history has proven the opposite, says Atwood, here dropping into one of the funny moments that framed the evening, impersonating Churchill:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Hopefully for many readers who have rediscovered Margaret Atwood, these books will be only the start of reading her liberated, questioning views of our futures and our pasts.

One of my particular favourites was her first book, The Edible Woman. Published way back in 1969, the main protagonist mulls over the possibility of alternative options in life as her wedding approaches and she is expected to leave work to manage a home. Considering the idea of not marrying? Scandalous! In this she discusses the idea of disassociation, without labelling it hysteria.

The Edible Woman

I'm reading Oryx and Crake: a triology set in a dystopian future in which humans and animals have been genetically modified, but chaos (actually nature) has taken over. Science fiction commenting again on what is already happening.

Oryx and Crake

What's next for Margaret Atwood? Dearly, her latest book of poetry, is due for release this November.

June Osborne (series three, The Handmaid's tale): "It's okay to hold onto a sliver of someone... if it's all you have..."

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