The Saturday Read ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’ by Rebecca Mead

What if you had reached the “Gold Watch and Goodbye” phase of your career only to be catapulted back into the spotlight by current events?

That seems to be what’s happening to Canadian author Margaret Atwood as her ‘new’ literary sensation, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, originally published in 1985, leads the literary fiction category on Amazon and is number ten on The New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction list. A film version of the book will begin streaming on Hulu next week. And earlier this week Ms. Atwood was included in the list of  Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

The Saturday Read is Rebecca Mead‘s multi-dimensional profile ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’.

The ‘Gold Watch and Goodbye’ career reference is evident as Ms. Mead brings us along on a March evening when Ms. Atwood received the National Book Critics Circle lifetime-achievement award. In her closing remarks the author asked, “Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did this lifetime go?”

The profile offers a panoramic view of this one lifetime; from one writers beginnings to mentor and evangelist for new writers.

“Atwood was born in Ottawa, but she spent formative stretches of her early years in the wilderness—first in northern Quebec, and then north of Lake Superior. Her father, Carl Atwood, was an entomologist, and, until Atwood was almost out of elementary school, the family passed all but the coldest months in virtually complete isolation at insect-research stations; at one point, they lived in a log cabin that her father had helped construct.”

In college she switched majors from philosophy to literature. She challenged the traditional canons of British and American literature with an argument for Canadian literature and its dominant theme of survival.

“Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else.”

She was an established writer before “the sometimes divisive years of second-wave feminism” and wrote an essay giving voice to colleagues.

“It’s not finally all that comforting to have a phalanx of women . . . come breezing up now to tell them they were right all along,” she wrote. “It’s like being judged innocent after you’ve been hanged: the satisfaction, if any, is grim.”

“Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes…

Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a sense of self-determination, and with a critical distance on codes of femininity—an ability to see those codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as necessary conditions to be accepted unthinkingly. This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be.”

It’s the fearless questioning that has resonated over time and reintroduced readers to the classic ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ this spring.

Rebecca Mead’s profile of the thoroughly modern, septuagenarian writer is required reading as a companion to the novel.

“In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “make margaret atwood fiction again.”

 

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@latimesfob this weekend:

The Handmaid’s Tale from Page to Screen: Margaret Atwood & Bruce Miller in Conversation with Mary McNamara, Conversation 2063 Sunday, April 23 @2:30PM in Bovard Auditorium on the University of Southern California campus

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