Singapore Writers Festival: Don't call me an icon, says Margaret Atwood

Canadian author Margaret Atwood is one of a record 10 headliners at the Singapore Writers Festival.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood is one of a record 10 headliners at the Singapore Writers Festival.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB/SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

SINGAPORE - She may be a titan in the literary world, but Canadian author Margaret Atwood would prefer not to be called an icon.

"Icons are generally made of wood and have meaning ascribed to them by other people, and typically during periods of iconoclasm, they get burnt up in fires," she said in a virtual dialogue on Tuesday (Nov 3) during the Singapore Writers Festival.

Her 2019 novel The Testaments opens with a statue being erected, as its subject quips: "Already I am petrified."

"The history of statues is pretty instructive," observed Atwood, 80. When she was writing The Testaments, the Booker Prize-winning sequel to her seminal 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, the pulling down of statues had yet to occupy the headlines, as it did earlier this year when people around the world began toppling the statues of slave-traders and colonisers.

"That's what it is to be an icon: You get a statue made of you, which then falls into disrepute and can easily be toppled. It's so much nicer not to be on a pedestal - much more freedom of movement."

Atwood is one of a record 10 headliners at the festival, which is organised by the National Arts Council and runs until Sunday (Nov 8) in its first fully digital edition with more than 200 programmes.

Over 1½ hours, the grande dame of dystopia bantered with moderator Balli Kaur Jaswal and gamely answered questions from viewers, from her degree of involvement in The Handmaid's Tale television adaptation to the shade of lipstick she was wearing.

Atwood's novels often feel disturbingly prescient, from the erosion of women's rights in The Handmaid's Tale to the viral pandemic of the MaddAdam trilogy (2003 to 2013).

On the eve of a turbulent United States presidential election in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, she and Jaswal discussed structures of power.

"As I was born in 1939, I was a child in World War II and I've always been pretty fascinated by dictatorships," she said. "Part of The Handmaid's Tale came from, 'What if the United States were to have totalitarianism?' And we've come worryingly close to knowing the answer to that in real life."

"I doubt that you're going to get those outfits, picturesque though they are," she added, referring to the red dresses and white bonnets of the Handmaids, a class of captive women forced to bear children for the elite of the Republic of Gilead.

"But the exclusion of women from power and the use of women to be a controlling group within that pattern - you're already seeing some of that."

She recalled how she researched The Handmaid's Tale by visiting Berlin in the 1980s, when the Berlin Wall was still up. "A lot of people died trying to escape over or under the Wall. I also visited East Germany, which was very tight, and Czechoslovakia, which was tight, but you could still talk to people frankly, as long as you did it in a field - not a room, not a car, we just assumed those were bugged.

"I was there when the Wall came down and that was really interesting. I'm interested in how these regimes get into power, but I'm also interested in how they collapse."

Atwood is concerned about how the "extreme right have kidnapped free speech", reversing a previous position in which free speech was considered a leftist ideal and aligning the left with censorship instead.

"The centre has to reaffirm the right to reasonable discourse," she said.

"What you don't want is everybody lining up in some kind of lockstep. That may look utopian at the beginning, but it's going to turn dystopian fairly quickly because once you have an orthodoxy of any kind, then you've got heretics, and once you've gone heretics, you've got burnings at the stake."

Atwood was among the signatories of a controversial open letter published in Harper's magazine in July this year, which argued that the spread of "censoriousness" is leading to an "intolerance of opposing views".

It was signed by more than 150 writers, academics and artists, including Salman Rushdie, J. K. Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell.

She was unperturbed by the backlash to the letter, she said.

"It has to be addressed, or people who otherwise would share common aims start cannibalising one another, and they, in the rush to prove 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most righteous, pure and woke of all?', send Snow White off into the woods to get her heart cut out.

"You actually don't want to destroy people who otherwise would be helpful to you. It's stupid."

She added: "I'm old. I can't be fired. Do your worst. I've been cancelled lots of times by all sorts of people and guess what? I'm still here."

Though, she quipped later, if there is one thing cancel culture is good for, it is getting sexy Handmaid costumes pulled from sale. "They missed the point," she said drily.

Next up for Atwood is the release of her first poetry collection in more than a decade, Dearly, later this month. "More gloom and weirdness," she joked.

Some are "the kind of poems you can write when you're 80 but not 25, when you're not actually able to picture a long span of time", while others are about "zombies, werewolves, sirens and aliens".

She remains "realistically hopeful" for the future beyond the pandemic. "If you're not hopeful, you do nothing. I would call that a state of perennial depression, and that's not a very joyful way to spend your allotted time on this planet.

"People have different ideas of what saving the world would look like, but we can probably agree on some fundamentals. We need breathable air, we need drinkable water - let's not kill the ocean.

"Work towards not having chaos, confusion, fear, anger, social revolution, warlords and dictatorships. That'll do for starters. We will get to the other side."


BOOK IT/IN CONVERSATION WITH: MARGARET ATWOOD

WHERE: Sistic Live

WHEN: Available on video-on-demand until Sunday

ADMISSION: Festival pass, $20 from Sistic

Books by Atwood and other speakers are available at the online festival bookstore at swfbooks.com. For more details, go to this website.

LISTEN TO BOOKMARK THIS! PODCAST