Margaret Atwood talks history, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ and hope

GRAPHIC BY SERENA JOHNSON/GRAPHICS CENTER

Margaret Atwood sat cross-legged in a long black skirt and blouse with a bright pink collar and cuffs to match her lipstick. She was surrounded by about 20 students having hushed conversations and glancing at her in anticipation while she pulled a blackberry off of a skewer with her teeth. “Ok,” she said, and glanced around the room at each student. “Who’s going to start?”

The students quickly cast their eyes down at the suggestion of kicking off a conversation with an author who has been dubbed an “oracle” by many. But Atwood broke the ice by just talking, unprompted. 

After almost three years of rescheduling, the best-selling author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” visited USF this month as part of the Paul J. Getty Distinguished Visiting Speaker series by the Honors College. The 82-year-old spent her afternoon and evening on the Hilltop, first mingling with a group of Getty Scholars over tea and hors d’oeuvres before the highly anticipated moderated conversation with MFA in writing Professor Laleh Khadivi. 

As a well-known dystopian writer and cultural critic, the day could have been marked by a heavy mood through discussions of Roe v. Wade, the environmental crisis, and the fragility of democracy. But Atwood’s aura was not one of dread or cynicism. 

“She was exactly who I thought she was going to be,” said Isabelle Kemp, a fourth-year critical diversity studies major. “She has a reputation of being harsh and mean, but she’s actually very down to earth and herself. She jokes around and she’s not a people-pleaser.”

On many occasions during the main event, Atwood had the audience laughing and snapping their fingers with approval. Khadivi asked Atwood about her cameo in the pilot of the Handmaid’s Tale, where she plays an aunt who slaps Offred, the show’s protagonist played by Elizbeth Moss. 

“We had to shoot that scene four times and Elizabeth kept turning around and saying, ‘you have to hit me harder,’” Atwood said. “I have a cameo in the ‘Alias Grace’ series too. I play a character named ‘Unpleasant Woman.’”

Khadivi followed up by asking Atwood what appeals to her about playing the villains that she herself has written. Atwood spoke in a harsh whisper with a witchy inflection and asked, “What’s your question dear?” 

“That threw me off,” Khadivi said in an interview with the Foghorn. “It’s hilarious if you’re in the audience but when you’re on stage it’s like, ‘where did Margaret Atwood go?’”

Atwood not only slipped into a villainous voice during the talk, she also asked if the audience was “up for gruesome” before going on tangents about zombie fan-fiction and “Waterloo Teeth” (human teeth collected from the deceased at the Battle of Waterloo to be used clinically as false teeth).

When asked about how her work often draws from history and the news, Atwood said that she never writes a story that hasn’t happened sometime in someplace. The elements of her stories never reach “beyond the scope of what we know human beings are capable of,” she said. 

She also said that writing transcends time and space because you’re never writing at the same time that somebody is reading and you’re never sure where your writing is going to end up. 

“Right now I’m getting a lot of feedback from people in Iran,” Atwood said. “Was I writing for people in Iran? Not necessarily. Is that now resonating with them? Yes.” 

Atwood spoke about two projects of hers that look into the far future. The first, “Practical Utopias” is an eight-week project that started in late September and challenges artists to design a future that is “better than what we’ve got.” The societies they design must be carbon neutral or carbon negative, scalable so that people could actually build them, and attractive enough that they would want to, Atwood said. At the end of the eight weeks, the creators will share their worlds virtually with Atwood and other special guests. 

Bringing up the second project, Atwood leaned forward in her seat. Every year for a period of 100 years, a writer from around the world will deposit two copies of a secret manuscript in the Oslo Public Library in Norway. The “Future Library Project” began in 2014 and was designed by Katie Paterson, a Scottish visual artist. The writers cannot reveal to anyone what is in the manuscript except for its title. 

One thousand trees were planted in the project’s first year that will grow for the 100-year period — long enough to make the paper to print the anthology of all of the manuscripts in 2114. Atwood was the first writer to deposit a manuscript, “Scribbler Moon,” at the library.

“It’s a very hopeful project because it assumes there’s gonna be a Norway, there’s gonna be people, the trees will grow, the people will be able to read, the people will wish to read,” she said. “There’s not much pressure on me, but quite a lot of pressure on the writers that will be around when 100 years is up.”

Author

  • Zoe Binder

    Zoe Binder is a fourth-year English and environmental studies double major.

    zebinder@dons.usfca.edu Binder Zoe

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