Margaret Atwood’s handmaiden carries a lot of weight on her shoulders. Atwood’s dystopian – that’s the agreed-upon Homeric, it seems — novel The Handmaid’s Tale is summoned as a cautionary tale, an “antiprediction,” about a host of evils perceived as bedeviling the United States of today. There’s intolerance, religious extremism, authoritarianism, anti-feminism, pollution, even a little file-drawer bias.
As Northumbria University’s Claire Nally recently wrote for The Conversation, “[I]t’s hard to ignore the book’s many themes, which are oddly resonant with our post-Trump world view.” But even as The Handmaid’s Tale, now a popular series on the streaming service Hulu, contains multitudes, more so does Atwood, who, as even a casual reader of the novelist will surmise, is a woman of parts.
Among those parts is a concern for free expression and respect for science journalism, two themes Atwood expounded on in an article in the newest edition of Index on Censorship. In the article, interviewer Jemimah Steinfeld quizzes Atwood on free speech and importance of reputable information being publicly available.
“I think the most important issues swirl around journalism,” Atwood told Steinfeld. “Take fake news, that’s very much an issue. Mainstream media, however much you deride them, they’re at least accountable.”
In a sense, Atwood has made a career out of the counterfactual, albeit not the fake and certainly not the unaccountable. The 77-year-old Canadian is known best for speculative fiction thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake and for awards like the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction in 1987 and nominations for the Nebula and Prometheus. But in addition to 15 books of poetry, the majority of her books are more traditional novels or historical novels like Cat’s Eye, the Booker-winning The Blind Assassin, and Surfacing.
As Offred, the central figure in Handmaid’s, writes at one point: “It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.”
Presumably, the mainstream media’s flavors and colors are predicated on, at a minimum, observable and even measurable phenomenon. But efforts to unpublish inconvenient flavors and colors, say environmental data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, do concern her. The author has witnessed such censorship of data before, and not in dystopia, but in Ottawa.
“We went through that with the [Stephen] Harper government here in this country for about eight or 10 years. He was shutting down and destroying records… He was not interested in having that information out there,” she recounted. “Even though we were paying for them with public money, they weren’t allowed to talk with us. It’s pretty frightening.”
Her remedy, or at least a portion of it, is to fight for the free exchange of information, especially from research. “That’s why it’s important not to shut down science communication because that’s where a lot of the solutions are going to come from. Censoring D.H. Lawrence is one thing, and we couldn’t get Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Canada until I was an undergrad, but censoring science communication is really important not to do.”
That focus on free expression has implications for people on the left, too, she continues in the interview. As the right often points out in defending its own prerogatives, free speech does not always equal comfortable speech. Atwood told Steinfeld that in an age of trigger warnings and safe spaces that university students no longer know how to debate. “I think,” she said, “it’s less well understood. People have kind of forgotten what a debate is; an argued, respectful, well-presented point-of-view instead of name calling.”
The idea that the university, the home of enlightened and free speech, could become a den of intolerance is something Atwood – who has received 24 honorary degrees — explores in Handmaid’s. “The immediate location of the book,” Atwood wrote in The New York Times, “is Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard University, now a leading liberal educational institution but once a Puritan theological seminary. The Secret Service of Gilead is located in the Widener Library, where I had spent many hours in the stacks, researching my New England ancestors as well as the Salem witchcraft trials.” And yes, one of those 24 honorary degrees is from Harvard.
Those fears (or perhaps her term of ‘antipredictions’) lodged, Atwood is enthusiastic about today’s youth as a whole. “We were getting a line that young people were apathetic and weren’t into politics, and that turns out not to be true.”