“The measure of any society is how it treats its women”Michelle Obama, 2016.
It is a bright, wintry Sunday afternoon in Salford. A group of Bee Moor WI members meet to see the creator of the (now) cult classic- The Handmaid’s Tale. The stalwart of English Literature A-level and an essential part of the feminist canon, Handmaid’s has found a new audience, and revived an existing one, in the epic television series; of which a fourth season is about to start production.
Margaret Atwood is about to enter her ninth decade, although you wouldn’t know it. Atwood took the stage to voracious applause. Many at the Lowry on that afternoon had been waiting months to see their literary idol, the creator of several dystopian worlds- always with a terrifying root in reality. Atwood’s interviewer knows only too well. Elif Shafak is a journalist and activist. Shafak has lived in, and writes about, a society where freedom of speech, especially for a woman, has to be fought for. The audience know The Handmaid’s Tale as a work of fiction. Shafak knows it as a reality.
Atwood describes a chocolate box childhood in rural Nova Scotia with books as her teacher and friend. An early obsession with Grimm’s Fairy Tales- tomes that she describes as being ‘truly grim’ and a significant influence on her later works. She decided early, at 16, that she was to write for a living, although she doesn’t describe it as a job.
Soon, the talk turns strictly political. Both Shafak and Atwood exchange views and experiences of fake news, totalitarian regimes, the media in politics (“Obama caught on early to social media. That won him the election. Now Trump has a Twitter account…”) how Atwood decides on voting (“None are good. I always choose the least bad candidate”) and the importance of writers and contemporary commentators in society.
Atwood is acutely aware of her influence on second-wave feminists. She talks about her influences for The Handmaid’s Tale, including the Iranian revolution and Romania’s natalist society under Ceausescu. She discusses the desire of politicians to control women of childbearing age- control them and you control the future, she says. This is the obvious thread throughout her most famous work and of her new book, The Testaments.
The afternoon has already seen an argument about the virtues and misgivings of social media. It is with a wryness that we are asked to use the Twitter hashtag #AskAtwood to pose any questions. Most of these are centred around The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments. Like a rock band- you want to see them play the hits.
Atwood talks with poise and cadence. Her responses have a logos and sageness of a considered and cultured individual. She displays an astute critical eye on a variety of social constructs. It is only here that a flash of her seventy-nine years is evident.
Atwood and Shafak leave the stage to a standing ovation, which is well-deserved.