Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

“Once Upon A Time…” with Margaret Atwood

Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen


The opening of the pre-festival literary revelry featured the marquee event with a featured author who needs little introduction, even among the Tim Horton's crowd (well, sort of). Margaret Atwood is, with all due respect to Alice Munro, the grand dame of Canadian literature; and the list of awards with which she has been honoured throughout her long career as a novelist, poet, and essayist is lengthy. It was no surprise then that as I arrived to the event, I was just one among hundreds of others, all abuzz with excitement, who turned up to watch her be interviewed by CBC’s Alan Neal (host of the Radio 1 program “All In A Day”).


From the syllable, Atwood demonstrated her confidence and ease with her audience, and began things on an endearingly intimate note by pointing out that the venue, a church, merited a hymn. And so, unselfconsciously and in a somewhat shaky, childlike voice, she sang a hymn that, in her newest book MaddAddam, was sung by the 'God’s Gardeners' characters. Adding in her own sound effects as she went, she encouraged the enthusiastic audience to join her for the last note.


Never having previously experienced any of her public speaking or interviews before, this little performance struck me as incongruent with her reputation as an outspoken feminist, environmentalist, and award-laden writer. However, it meshed well with her recent comment in a New York magazine interview that at her age (73), “you’re neither an honorary man or a dishonorary woman; you’re an elder.” If such is the case, then she appeared to be relishing in the social freedom granted by her new role. She repeatedly joked about her age by introducing her anecdotes with the phrase “Once upon a time…”, and referring to people under the age of 60 as “kids.”


She selected a couple of short excerpts to read from MaddAddam , the final book in the dystopic “Oryx and Crake” trilogy, and instantly captivated the audience through the voices of her created characters and the storytelling mastery for which she is celebrated. Within minutes of beginning her interview with Neal, her ease and disarming charm provided a striking contrast with his apparent nervousness. He jumped from topic to topic and posed questions that did not leave much room for Atwood to speak about some of the larger issues that are brought up in the book or what she hopes her audience will take from it.


However, here and there, she still managed to discuss those things that are quite clearly, closest to her heart. She spoke with some degree of passion about her commitment to changing the way that we use and live in the natural environment, and bookended the evening with her thoughts and comments about the environmental damage that society is currently causing.


It is in fact, this preoccupation and passion of Atwood’s that is one of the driving forces in the plot of this trilogy, which is set in a future just beyond the world as we know it, in the age after a human-caused ecological catastrophe meets the near-elimination of the human race through a virus created in a laboratory. The themes in this trilogy are quite distinct from her first (and only other) foray into the realm of science fiction (and science fiction it is, despite her prim insistence that the trilogy not be classified as such) was with her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale , in which she describes a world where women are valued for their capacities as wives and as childbearers, but nothing more.


While The Handmaid’s Tale also describes a dystopic world, the reasons that Atwood chooses to use for the eventual and total breakdown of society as we know it are very different from those that she chooses in MaddAddam. Although still using her fiction as a mouthpiece for causes about which she is passionate, Atwood switches gears slightly from a strong focus on feminist issues to things like corruption within the corporate structure, environmentalism and increasing moral ambiguity in scientific research.


I must admit that I have yet to read the book MaddAddam. However, if it is anywhere near as delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking as its author revealed herself to be during her interview, then I look forward to the experience immensely.