Margaret Atwood on truth, tyranny, hope and ‘Burning Questions’

Margaret Atwood is prolific. She’s written 72 books ranging from essays to novels to short stories to poetry, and graphic novels and children’s books, including this new one.

“Burning Questions” is the third volume of collected essays she’s put together in her lifetime: previous volumes spanned 1960 to 1982 (“Second Words”) and 1983 to mid-2004 (“Moving Targets”). This one spans mid-2004 to 2021 — in case you’re counting, that’s 60 years of essays and writing collected, curated.

“It is odd,” she said in a phone conversation from her Toronto home. “But live long enough and you’ll feel odd, too.”

A lot happened on the international stage: the aftermath of Sept. 11, the 2008 financial crash, the Obama years, the Trump years; in professional terms, the publication of her “MaddAddam” climate change trilogy; the TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” (both books that make her look like a prophet); and, in personal terms, the death of her husband of 46 years, Graeme Gibson, in 2019; her own 80th birthday.

One thing we learn: Atwood has given a lot of speeches over the last 20 years. These 50 pieces she’s chosen to include in the book, among them various essays and “occasional pieces” as the title calls them, include addresses to a variety of organizations — “I’m very pleased to be delivering this tribute in honour of the Department of Forestry’s centennial” — remembrances (of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski), introductions to books, pieces about the pandemic, poetry, storytelling. Which brings us to a burning question: why do people everywhere tell stories?

“We are a storytelling species,” she said.

Storytelling is, as her famous quote goes, about the power of the word, but it’s also about “the power of the plot: this happened, then that happened, then this happened, then this happened. It’s very powerful.”

The power to construct?

Making stuff up, she said, is probably the “most important part of our human tool kit.” That power to imagine often leads to our power to enact.

As conversations with Atwood tend to, the one we’re having meanders and spans all manner of things: from Crisco shortening and special cookbooks for middle class women learning how to bake without butter during the war — working class people already knew how to cook on the cheap — to taking out the garbage to changing the cat litter.

These clearly are not the burning questions she looks at in these essays, although when we have conversations we always talk about seemingly trivial things. They are trivial in the grand scheme of things, but they are also the little details of which life — and conversations and sometimes ideas — are built.

So talking about birds leads to talk about feeling close to nature, leads to talk about Omicron, leads to Atwood noting that, despite what we’re experiencing right now, “it’s been worse with the world, generally speaking. There have been worse plagues. The world political situation has been worse, although we seem to be sneaking up on that.”

We eventually end up in Ottawa, where we do address one of those burning questions: Is democracy in peril? And what do we mean by democracy anyway?”

The city was on the tail end of a few weeks of so-called “Freedom Protests.” “People need some pretty quick education about what is a democracy and what is a tyranny,” Atwood said. “And if you don’t want a representative democracy what is it, what do you want? Spit it out. Let’s hear it … And what is your definition of tyranny? Because, guess what, we’re not living in one.”

Atwood has always had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly — she makes people think, question; she insists on intellectual diligence. If protesters or politicians are going to engage in rhetoric without leadership, we’d better figure out pretty quickly how we’re going to engage. Which brings us to another one (two) of the burning questions, when considering whether to believe in something: Is it true? And is it fair?

“By true we mean verifiable,” Atwood said. “Now, if I’m saying 1,000 angels are dancing on the head of a pin, I can’t prove that there are or are not angels, or how many might be dancing on that pin at any given time. It’s a belief … truth is verifiable or disprovable.

“People are confusing belief with truth, they’re confusing unsubstantiated opinions with truth. And the goal is general distrust and the general distrust has certainly been encouraged and, indeed, to some extent manufactured by a lot of pretty outrageous lies. That is a dictator’s playbook. Left or right, it doesn’t matter.”

The book closes with two short pieces, both about conservationists, both written in 2021: one about Barry Lopez and his writing about the Arctic, and the other about Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Trilogy.”

Carson “is one of the major grandparents of environmental movements today,” Atwood writes. “We human beings owe her a vast debt, and if we make it to the twenty-second century as a species it will be due in part to her.”

Atwood recalled as we chatted when Carson first came out against the insecticide DDT — she was “subjected to an enormous amount of propaganda, some of which was quite misogynistic.” To Carson’s persistence, she said, we owe the fact that there are still, most noteworthily, eagles and hawks on the planet.

It’s a hopeful story.

“If you’re not hopeful, it’s game over right there,” she said.

Without hope, we wouldn’t do anything. “Think of five people floating on an iceberg … one of whom has the ability to spear fish, and the others are lying around doing nothing. So you want that person with the ability to spear fish to be hopeful.”

Hopeful enough to figure out how to spear the fish, catch it and feed it to the rest of the people floating on the iceberg with them.

“If they don’t try nothing will happen. If we don’t try we’re kind of sunk. If we do try we have a chance. In order to try we have to have hope. So there’s no point not having hope. It is an inbuilt human quality anyway. We are inherently hopeful.”

Mmm, I said. Sometimes it can be easy to give in to cynicism.

“That’s just an excuse to go and get drunk,” she said.

And we laughed.


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