Margaret Atwood: “The ordinary is deeply sinister”
September 27, 2015

When I first read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck for English class in high school, I remember being bored by a long passage about a turtle crossing the road. It was an incredible book, but I just remember feeling irritated and wanting to jump to the plot, get to the action and see what was going to happen to the people living in the Great Depression, rather than focus on a painfully slow description of a turtle.

Now, I want to go back and re-read that bit about the turtle because it’s that slice of everyday ordinary that now, I can really appreciate. I think of this Steinbeck passage now because of what Margaret Atwood said at the first-ever Kew Gardens Literary Festival called Write on Kew.

Write on Kew 2015

Write on Kew 2015

She told us “the ordinary is deeply sinister.”

Margaret Atwood signing "The Heart Goes Last" at Write on Kew 2015 literary festival

Margaret Atwood signing “The Heart Goes Last” at Write on Kew 2015 literary festival

Steinbeck was trying to tell me something with that turtle, and all those years ago I probably missed the point, and, perhaps, there was something sinister at play that I didn’t clearly understand. Perhaps a foreboding allusion to the plot or literary symbol that I didn’t grok. Also, I think I’ll really appreciate that the passage was a bit like a colourful painting, all rich in depth of detail. This is something that amazing authors do so well and a skill that I’m now, finally, really appreciating, as I re-discover books.

Note to self: must re-read The Grapes of Wrath.

Now back to what Margaret Atwood said, because, I like to think, while she was not making a point about turtles, she has proven, in her more than 40 books and many poems, short stories, essays and articles that maybe we should pay attention more to the ordinary, and look closely at what may be a darker side. Her comment made me think of the food I buy, and how I recently learned that my salad ingredients have a journey to my plate that is filled with human misery, and that my avocados are struggling to grow in the face of climate change.

The ordinary world around us is indeed a place where a dark side lurks of haunting consequences. We drive a car, ride a bus, fly in an airplane or eat something that may not have had a happy life and all these everyday actions have a sinister impact on Earth. Our use, our ordinary events, have layers of what indeed may be sinister origins or can bring about sinister consequences.

It is her thought-provoking words that make you pause, go hmmmm and reflect about the world around you, that attracted

Kew Gardens during sunset at Write on Kew literary festival 2015

Kew Gardens during sunset at Write on Kew literary festival 2015

more than 600 people to come and listen to Margaret Atwood’s wise insights. She shared her in-depth knowledge of writing, of feminism, and even of chickens, jars and eggs.

It was 1985 when Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale hit the bookshelves, propelling her writing into the public spotlight with the challenging ideas of a future, terrifying world for women. Journalist Mariella Frostrup introduced Margaret Atwood with the description of being the “dystopian doyenne” of literature, and her newest book The Heart Goes Last looks like it fulfils all the features that win her such a title.

Margaret Atwood explained how her new book started as a series of instalments on an online storytelling platform called Byliner. The tale is of a couple caught up in economic and social upheaval, which we find at the start of the book to be living in their car. When they see an advertisement for something called the Positron Project they decide to join this ‘social experiment’ enticed by the promise of stable jobs and a home of their own. As the story unfolds Positron proves “less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.” I’m just starting to read this exciting new book. See reviews for it in The Guardian and The New York Times. (I won’t be peeking at reviews yet, as I prefer to draw my own conclusions from a book and to be surprised at where a storyline goes.)

What fascinates me about Margaret Atwood so much is that not only does she write about the near future in a most believable way, she is already participating in it with some of the projects she is involved with. She’s written a work of fiction that will not be seen for 100 years for the Future Library. She also, according to Wikipedia, is a bit of a tech pioneer, being the inventor of something called the LongPen.

Seeing her in person, her sense of humour really came across during the interview, it was hilarious to hear about her reading a blog post (on Gizmodo) about a man who had sex with furniture.

When pressed about her thoughts on feminism, she informed us that there have been three waves of feminism, being:

  • Women got on the boat.
  • Self-definition, where it was about equal pay for equal work.
  • In the current, third wave of feminism, women are concerned about violence, murder, and rape.

Violence against women is certainly a concern for me and very personal indeed. In August 2009 a large man hit me in the face

When my eye was punched, August 2009

When my eye was punched, August 2009

after I scolded him for riding his bicycle on a busy sidewalk, in Shepherd’s Bush. He violently punched me in the eye. It was the first time I’d ever experienced this kind of physical assault. He got away. For weeks afterwards I was traumatized, and frightened. I developed a huge black eye, and everyone who saw me was very shocked at what happened. Now, I try to keep my mouth shut in such situations, for fear of another violent encounter. So many women live in fear of such attacks, and worse, I hope this third wave confronts the issue in a way that brings a safer world for women.

You know there were so many gems of quotes and insights that Margaret Atwood shared, please let me tell you a little more of what she talked about:

She kicked off by saying you should never be determined to have a good time, because then you won’t. True that. I used to also tell my friends all the time not to tell me something was going to be “fun” because you really never can know if it will be fun until you get there and have the experience.

On advising other writers: “I don’t embrace digital technology, I explore it. Then, I tell you if it is good for writers.”

She advised that bad speculative fiction is a result of people not reading Shakespeare. Note to self: Read more Shakespeare.

When quizzed about her environmentalism she explained about how she was taught about the biology of the planet and that “its just a fact, if we will kill the ocean we will stop breathing.”

I got up the courage to ask Margaret Atwood a question about whether or not she ever freaks out with some of the future scenarios she imagines. She was so kind to look me in the eye and let me know that, no, she doesn’t freak out.

I was also incredibly nervous to meet her during the book signing, but she was so kind – and she seemed interested to hear that I write cli-fi books. She kindly agreed to sign my copy of The Heart Goes Last with a note of go cli-fi!

Go cli-fi!

Go cli-fi!

I’ve written this here blog post, to let a lot of my friends around the world who are Margaret Atwood fans know a little more about what it was like seeing her in person. Some of you have been asking me what she was like. I hope you’ve enjoyed my accounting of her appearance in London – and be sure to read her newest book!