Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood“It wasn’t me who made it up, it was people.”

As heard on The Marian Finucane Show

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Praise be. It’s easy to imagine faithful followers of Margaret Atwood raising their eyes to literary heaven and giving thanks at the news that she’d penned a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It seems the judges of the Booker Prize agree. In a show of defiance worthy of a rebellious handmaid, the Booker judges chose to flout the 1993 regulation that only one author could be honoured with the prize and awarded it jointly to Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. With truckloads of awards to her name, including a previous Booker Prize win, 79-year-old Atwood was self-effacing about her success when she spoke to Brendan O’Connor on The Marian Finucane Show.

“I’ve been very experienced at not winning the Booker.”

The word ‘dystopian’ is rarely left out of any commentary on Gilead, the fictitious location of The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel.  Atwood insists that every element of the oppressive Gilead regime is firmly rooted in this world. Her travels in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago provided material on the atmosphere of fear under a brutal regime.

“I didn’t want anybody saying you have a dark, deep twisted emotion making this stuff up. So my news to you is that it wasn’t me who made it up, it was people. This was people doing things to other people.”

Atwood gently reminded Brendan during their chat that living under a reign of terror would challenge even the best of us.  She still believes in resistance, based on personal experience of those who stood up to the Nazi regime.

“I’m old enough to have known people who were in various resistance movements during the war and they took big risks. They were quite frequently young, so young that they did yet have families. I think young people are more idealistic and more risk-taking than older people with lots of young children.”

Margaret Atwood’s faith in young people is also evident in her support of the Extinction Rebellion movement. As the daughter of a research scientist who spent much of her childhood collecting insects in the woods, Atwood has a pretty direct way of summing up the climate crisis.

“If we kill the oceans we will stop breathing.”

The timing of the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale has everything to do with current events, Atwood told Brendan O’Connor. Times have changed, she says, from the days when Gilead seemed a distant possibility. Financial insecurity makes people more conservative, she thinks, and more willing to trade freedom for security.

“Probably you won’t get Gilead with the outfits, but you will certainly get the rollback of the rights of women, because that’s what those kinds of regimes do.”

Atwood points out the she doesn’t think Christianity itself is to blame for totalitarian regimes like Gilead. She’s personally agnostic about religion, but still sees value in the biblical idea of “love your neighbour”. Her view is that Christian fundamentalists in the real world, like the founders of Gilead, ignore this message.

“These people are not neighbour lovers. They don’t really love their neighbour very much at all.”

You can hear what Margaret Atwood reveals when she gives Brendan O’Connor a mini palm reading as well as much more about her views on feminism, climate change, and the future of democracy in the full interview here.

The Testaments is published by Chatto and Windus.

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2019

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