Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s prescient science fiction has made her an icon of modern dissent.
On 16 March dozens of Israeli women wore deep-red cloaks and white bonnets to a protest against their government’s judicial-reform plans. They weren’t the first demonstraters to do so. Conceived by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood for her best-selling 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the outfit has become a fixture of anti-government demonstrations around the world. In the novel, a repressive regime requires “handmaids” – women who are considered the property of the state and forced to bear children – to wear these bonnets and cloaks; since the release of the book’s hit 2017 television adaptation, the “modesty costume” has become a symbol for activists who see parallels between Atwood’s dystopia and their own lives.
“It’s a visual way of protesting,” says the 83-year-old author, speaking to monocle in a book-lined boardroom in the Toronto headquarters of her publisher, Penguin Random House. “People can put on this outfit and get into legislative chambers, and they can’t be kicked out for causing a disturbance because they’re silent.”
Atwood is a prolific writer whose work has spanned poetry, novels, children’s books and graphic novels; her latest collection of short stories, Old Babes in the Wood, was published in March. Over the years, she has also become a sort of guiding figure for her readers. Consuming her views on everything from the US Capitol attack to the sanitisation of Roald Dahl’s work, they look to her for advice about how to navigate these turbulent times.
She tells monocle about the morning after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. “We were still filming the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale and there was a lot of, ‘Oh, no! It’s all coming true!’ from people [working on the show] who had never been through really hard times,” she says. “They thought that this was the worst thing that had ever happened. I said, ‘No, actually it’s not. It can get a lot worse.’”
In several ways, it already has. From the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark Roe versus Wade court decision that protected the right to have an abortion to the banning of books from schools and libraries in several parts of the US, authoritarianism seems to be on the rise. Atwood has personal experience of it. The American Library Association lists The Handmaid’s Tale as one of the country’s most regularly banned books; to illustrate the point, Penguin Random House even produced a special edition of the novel made from fireproof paper and filmed the author blasting it with a flame-thrower.
Atwood knows that these aren’t new problems. “Since when have we not had authoritarian people trying to get rid of writing that they didn’t like?” she says. “It’s very old stuff. But it is a symptom of a creeping authoritarianism in some parts of the US.”
Government-mandated restrictions that are disguised as “protective measures” – from Tennessee’s ban on drag shows to the hurdles to accessing gender-affirming healthcare across the US – don’t surprise Atwood either. “People go too far and when they realise that they don’t really like the results, it can be hard to claw back from that,” she says. Politicians with totalitarian tendencies “want to keep things static”, she warns. “They’re at the top and they want to stay there.”
But for Atwood, change is inevitable. “I channel Charles Dickens: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” she says. “A lot of things have become worse but [the current political landscape] is also energising people who otherwise would have been sitting there saying that nothing ever happens to take countersteps. You can’t say that nothing ever happens any more.”
1939: Born in Ottawa.
1969: Publishes her first novel, The Edible Woman.
1976: Co-founds the Writers’ Trust of Canada with her partner, Graeme Gibson, and three others to promote the country’s new writing.
1985: The Handmaid’s Tale is published.
2000: Wins the Booker Prize for her novel The Blind Assassin.
2006: Launches the Longpen, a mechanical invention devised to enable authors to sign copies of their books remotely.
2019: Named a Companion of Honour to Queen Elizabeth II for her services to literature and also wins the Booker Prize a second time for The Testaments, the long-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
2021: Canada’s national postal service unveils a postage stamp in her honour.