My favourite thing about author Margaret Atwood is not just that she can draw you into a book like a kid is drawn to a candy store, but that she is unabashedly cheeky, funny and outspoken while she’s at it.
Her body of work spans several genres, including fiction, poetry and critical essays. Back in the 1970s, she even worked as an underground comic artist and wrote for the magazine Kanadian Kulture Comics under a pseudonym. In close to 50 years of writing, there's no barrier she hasn't broken.
Pick up anything Atwood has written, and it's like getting glimpses into different aspects of her personality (there are so many!). But she's not one for stereotypes, constantly rolling with the times like a rockstar.
Over the years, the 76-year-old has embraced technology with a zeal not common among writers her age. A self-confessed supporter of e-books, Atwood has said, “Paper isn’t important. It’s the words on them that are important."
She even launched a gadget called the LongPen, a remote controlled pen that allows her to sign books digitally, in 2006. She has also taken to social media with enthusiasm, and her Twitter feed is filled with gems like "Bag milk is huggable. Especially when warm." This was in response to a tweet questioning the existence of bagged milk.
The first Atwood I ever read was not a novel. It was not even a book for children. It was a poem titled The Landlady, which spoke of landladies who were everywhere, “intrusive as the smells”, “solid as bacon”, a presence that she, as a tenant, could not escape. Her words conjured up an image of a short, large lady with a face big enough to step on, walking down a hallway with big, thundering steps. A presence larger than life itself and dominating enough to induce hysteria.
In a speech in 1995, while addressing an audience in Wales, she said, "Never mind the fact that all the really stirring poems I’d read... had been about slaughter, mayhem, sex and death – poetry was thought of as existing in the pastel female realm, along with embroidery and flower arranging". True enough, Atwood's writing is splattered with hysteria, sex and death, issues that were previously thought of as strictly "masculine".
Reading Atwood is no walk in the park. More often than not, she will leave you with a feeling of impending doom. An Atwood protagonist is often a traumatised individual and, through her writing, she has the ability to make the readers feel this trauma within themselves. "Men often ask me, why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation,” Atwood said in 1990 during an interview.
The fiction writer
Her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has gained the status of a cult classic, lays out an engrossing world of complete feminist dystopia. Written in 1985, it follows the story of Offred, a woman living in a futuristic society run by religious fundamentalists.
This is a world where women’s freedom is almost non-existent and the seemingly empowered women characters themselves have internalised the patriarchal culture that rejects women as nothing more than child bearers. The Handmaid’s Tale is a truly disturbing read for any woman.
The issue of women’s rights and sexuality is close to Atwood’s heart. However, even though she is described as a “feminist author”, her work is contradictory when it comes to issues related to feminism. On what she perceives to be feminism, she had once said, “Does feminist mean large unpleasant person who’ll shout at you? Or someone who believes women are human beings? To me it’s the latter, so I sign up."
Her first published novel, The Edible Woman, too talked about gender, domestic life for women, reproductive rights, and food! Food is ever present in an Atwood novel and the politics of food is a recurring motif in her work. She says authors use food as a metaphor to “reveal character, slimy as well as delectable, or provide metaphors or jumping-off points into the ineffable and inferno”.
Even in The Blind Assassin, food and eating is present in the titles of the chapters – “The Bread Day” , “Carnivore Stories”, “The Soda” . The characters who populate her books are always hungry, sometimes even violently so. The hunger represents the desires of male and female characters; the former desire openly while the latter more secretly (almost shamefully).
Maybe it is the motif of food, hunger, madness, hysteria, or all of those, but Atwood's language and power of expression is a global one, resonating with readers world over. "The artist evokes," says Atwood. For her, it doesn't matter what she feels but what her art makes others feel.
And even at 76, Margaret Atwood writes with so much passion that you cannot but believe she has a lot more left to tell us.