Anyone who has watched The Handmaid’s Tale (which is pretty much everyone) will know that Margaret Atwood wrote the book it was based on in response to her concerns about the rights of women.
More than two decades later, she is no less worried about gender equality.
However, when she spoke in Melbourne on Sunday, the message that she wanted to get across to audiences was about climate, not gender.
When asked by interviewer Virginia Trioli about one point she would like to make loud and clear, she explained that it was that if the oceans died, so would people.
Trioli followed up by asking whether this was her big concern, and Atwood replied that it was everyone’s concern.
Given the accuracy of some of Atwood’s predictions about politics and society in her books, including The Handmaid’s Tale, the cry for action is hard to ignore.
However, when asked whether political inaction on climate change made her angry she said, “At this age, I don’t get angry. I get annoyed.”
In a two-hour discussion about everything from the role she played in the blockbuster television series (apparently she has little power, but does get the process and reasons behind it explained to her), to what she does after one of her interviews (sometimes she goes out for a nightcap with her team and other times she retires to her hotel room), Atwood revealed a person who is firm in her beliefs and unswayed by popular opinion.
When asked whether she felt pressure to write The Testaments, the follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, in a certain way, she said that her age meant that her brain was set in cement, so she was not to be swayed in what to write.
She said the nature of writing also meant it was difficult to be influenced by others, as reading is a solitary activity, and so her audience was not in the room with her when she wrote.
Interestingly, when quizzed by Trioli about the tragedy of Hannah Baxter and her children, she blamed mental illness, rather than simply condemning domestic violence as her interviewer and much of the audience expected her to do. It offered an insight into Atwood’s unwillingness to give the audience and interview exactly what they expected.
As with any high profile speaker who visits Australia, it was not surprising that Trump made his way into the room. Atwood commented on the autocratic tendencies of the President, and how, in times of disaster, populations tended to vote for strength and stability, rather than more social causes. She said this usually had a negative impact on women.
Like Trioli, I think most members of the audience leaned in when Atwood was asked about her favourite books, however everyone was disappointed when she replied that she never named her picks as, “The author might be listening.”
However, she is currently reading and enjoying Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, tweeting:
“Reading Too Much Lib @UQPbooks by Melissa Lucashenko. Dark, funny, no punches pulled, many thrown.. #aboriginalaustralians #Indigenous love the #crows featured ..”
And, ultimately, for this grand dame of literature, it was all about the crows (she loves to birdwatch), the ocean life and the state of the planet.
At one stage, Atwood took aim at the ‘wellness’ craze, saying that individualistic pursuits like yoga won’t matter once humans have no oxygen to breathe. I can imagine that a lot of the women of my generation in the audience felt more than a little chastened by the remark, and it was one of many that was direct and acerbic, but that no-bullshit attitude was what was so impressive about this author who definitely does not feel the need to behave like a sweet little old lady. Her propensity to ‘say it how it is’ is refreshing, and at times, a little intimidating for her interviewer.
But there was also praise – Atwood said there were plenty of positive projects happening around the world (although she did not point out any particular government for their approach), and said she had confidence and admiration for the next generation of teens who are speaking out and marching in the streets for the climate, and the 10-year-olds who are there to back them up.
It is a campaign she continues on Twitter, yesterday writing: “Kill the natural world and people will die too. It is the ground of our being.” in response to a campaign to save the Endangered Species Act.
As not just an author, but also a social and cultural commentator, Atwood has few equals. We’d be fools not to listen.