by John Bessai

Margaret Atwood created a  theory about Canadian Literature.  She argues that victimhood is the signature of Canadian culture. For Atwood, one idea implicit in her 1972 publication was that Canadian literature itself needed to survive and, as we know, it certainly did.  Many Canadians, until then, were unaware that there was a fascinating and enlightening discussion to be had about the literature of this country. Perhaps the survival of our literature will lead to the survival of more than Canada and maybe the whole world.

A people’s poet, a master of description and a subscriber to the power of the imagination, Atwood beckons readers to enter where percepts swirl and play like so many objects of light and dark, good and evil, and get all re-mixed into combinations that create incredible scenes.  The great cultural and literary critics have struggled to determine how culture can have meaning in a world fraught with injustice, pain, slavery, elitism and sexism.

For Atwood, ways of perceiving these wrongs and overcoming them are ordinary acts of basic human expression – one person at a time. Characters in Atwood’s prose are constantly playing with the possibility of exploration and risk their comfort zones to explore a broader universe to discover something new about themselves, to find the means to continue to experience the struggle for survival which for Canadians today means building a multicultural society and transforming our lifestyles to address climate change.


…in The Handmaids Tale women are forbidden to read, just as slaves were forbidden to read in the United States during slavery…


Atwood told Shad on CBC’s “Q”, “To love your neighbour you have to love the air in your neighbour’s lungs, you have to love the water that your neighbour drinks, and you have to love the purity of the food that your neighbour is eating and all of those that are your neighbour’s attachment to your environment – so the the environment is not out there, it’s in us, right now, every time you breath in, that is the environment inside you. “

Margaret Atwood’s mastery of what she calls speculative fiction and now even graphic novels series Angel Catbird, Wandering Wenda, a show based on her alliterative children’s books, and currently airing The Handmaid’s Tale television series  speculate and embrace all the tools and technologies that can make it more likely that the reader can become actualized as she has – that a type of literary human can occupy the frontier of the real world.

Atwood remarked “that there is a connection between reaching the very young and adult speculative fiction. “where (sic) Wandering Wenda  joined at the hip with The Handmaid’s Tale is that in The Handmaid’s Tale women are forbidden to read, just as slaves were forbidden to read in the United States during slavery, Wenda is a reading enabler for younger kids.

Enabling reading may be our way to survival.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s brings us into the experience of our patriarchal society that is out of step, even with our worst fears, is thankfully not yet “real”.   We can learn in the imaginary world of Handmaid’s Tale,  a place where one can work out the truth, and experience the options, the pitfalls and the outcomes – and then return to the here and now and insist that what our common sense tells us is real – and then take action before its too late.

Atwood shows us an entry point into a real world criticism – a world where we can arm ourselves with a sense of truth and justice and take part, not as characters in a novel, but in the this world – by recognizing the speculative fiction in our midst. A world of climate deniers and opportunists who have seized control and hold onto power.

What is refreshing about Margaret Atwood is she helps us believe in this world.   If we allow ourselves to go into the imaginary realm we can clarify and work out the possibilities, permutations and combinations that she works out for us so that our own percepts can dwell in the imaginary and then return to the here and now and perhaps agree on how to dwell in this real place, to share it, nurture it, perhaps not destroy it and not stand by while opportunists ruin it.