“What of your works are you most proud of?” asked the CBS Sunday Morning correspondent, Martha Teichner, of Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood.
“I’m Canadian and we don’t DO PRIDE, we only do ‘what has embarrassed me less’!” came the instantaneous, satiric, ironic repost, from the laser-witted author.
Her most recent work of fiction, The Testaments, comes out this week, another offering nominated for the eminent Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller.
Other Canadian cultural nuggets from the fertile, courageous and irrepressible imagination include:
· “The dialogue of the deaf,” in reference to the threatened separation from Canada of the sovereignist movement in Quebec, decades ago.
· “Survival,” the central theme of Canadian Literature, from a book she wrote in the early stages of her long and honourable life as imaginative ‘guru’ of the nation
· “People who think that progress is a one-way street and only ever goes in one direction have no read a lot of history. You cannot count on the yellow brick road leading to the City of Oz!” in a CBC interview with Laura Lynch on CBC’s The Current. (An obvious and unsheathed barb at American cultural credo of the road to the perfect union.)
· “The servitude of fertile women required to bear children for powerful men and their barren wives,” the central theme of The Handmaid’s Tale, her novel that has provoked so much conversation including television and movie reproductions.
However, it was her penetrating and unforgettable moment in a small coffee shop in northern Ontario before she was an internationally renowned writer, after perusing a sheef of yellow rumpled pages on which some fragments of “poems” were typed, that is etched indelibly in my memory: “When are you going to leap off the cliff?” she inquired.
I was reminded of that moment when I learned that she had kept notes from the early nineties for a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, without disclosing them to her publisher until 2017. In the same “Current” interview, Atwood indicates the nervousness of her publisher, as well as her own, at her intention to write a follow-up:
“It’s high-wire act, and would I fall off?” she is quoted as saying.
High-wire acts, of verbal utterances, penetrating the veil of secrecy, of denial, of profound honesty and through ironic and frequently acerbic phrases that simply cannot be erased from the memories, and the imaginations of her millions of readers, have been both the menu of her “literary feasts” and the nutrition of much of the more authentic conversation of what it really means to be a Canadian.
Her most recent, “we don’t DO PRIDE” but only reference “what embarrasses us less” on an American network is another in a long line of cogent, and microscopically magnified observations that depict some of the significant differences between Canada and the United States. Parsing the phrase, one glimpses an eye and an attitude that is both a echo of hymnody and a scathing insult, given how Canadians are portrayed as “hiding” our pride, and in false modesty deferring to “what embarrasses us less”….so deeply has the protestant credo of modesty, humility and self-effacing inverse snobbery (especially in reference to the “bravado” of a significant component of American consciousness) penetrated the Canadian psyche.*
That “fiction” is defined as a piece of writing that is not “true” in the narrow sense of the factual, empirical, court-room evidence frame of that word, becomes so hilariously ironic and limited from the perspective of the more penetrating and profound truth that fiction actually discloses. Like the best and most revered writers of the ages who disclose, both through their own “courageous leaping off the cliff,” those truths to which many are either unprepared, or willing or unable to let loose into their public discourse, and even into their private acknowledgements of the confessional Atwood risks it all each and every time she sits at whatever is the instrument of her “pen and ink” currently and throughout her life.
Giving permission, based only on those pieces of evidence that have already been documented in history, if not necessarily from the specific period of history with which the current “work of fiction” is concerned, is only one of the dictums to which she, and other writers worthy of the appellation, are committed.
To Ms Lynch, Atwood says unequivocally, under the rubric of her own “high-wire act” sanction, “I made a rule for myself, which was nothing goes in for which there is not a historical precedent.”
And it is her penetrating wisdom, imagination, and courageous “leaping off the cliff (or the high-wire)” not only of what might be “embarrassing” politically or culturally, but also of what might even be potentially personally dangerous, preparing the “safety net” of historic evidence, into which to embed her “fiction” that provides a new “take” on some themes to which human nature has apparently clung for centuries.
It is not only ironic and tragic that a writer of fiction, like Atwood, is both supported and encouraged to utter truths to which millions take exception if the same stories were to appear in the daily headlines, under the cloke of fiction, while, the current Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, Catherine McKenna, faces physical, verbal and emotional violence while walking on the street in her home city of Ottawa, with her children, and now needs personal private security. McKenna’s defect is to fight openly, courageously and even somewhat imaginatively for the preservation of the environment when faced with climate change and global warming, thereby threatening the jobs and income of some workers whose foresight extends to the next pay day, excluding the potential demise of the global environment as we know it.
Fortunately, both for Atwood, and for the rest of us, fiction, even the most ugly and most demeaning pictures of both what “has been” and “is” in the pages of her novels, does not preclude either Atwood or her also courageous, and liberating publisher. The dangers of Atwood’s dystopia, in her own word, “a warning,” nevertheless, merit deep and open and conscious deliberation from as many thoughtful readers, leaders and prophets.
It is the voice of prophecy, so long ago abandoned by the ecclesial establishment in the west, that continues to provide the needed “CPR” for a culture that is suffering what can only be considered analogous to the unconscious patient on the gurney in the emergency room. And while, at first glance, there appears to be little or no direct connection between the dystopia of “female enslavement” and the climate crisis, both depend on a deep and profound disassociation even insouciance about “the other” first from a male perspective on women, and then from the perspective of primarily a male perspective of denial of responsibility for pollution and gassing future generations.
It is not an accident, nor is it to be discredited, that researchers, again highly courageous and creative, at Cambridge, were reported to have studied “male testosterone” as one of the primary influences on the economic collapse in 2008, through the generation and production of credit defaults. It is a similar bravado, not exclusive to the male gender, but predominantly dependent on male insecurity, even neurosis, on which both female enslavement and climate paralysis are legitimately hung.
The world needs to be and to express deep and profound gratitude to both Atwood and McKenna for their respective, although applied in different and separate theatres, courage, imagination and indisputable care and concern for the long-term future of the human species.
*Her partner Graeme Gibson, when asked during a poetry day, about his view on dissecting a poem, by a grade twelve co-ed, responded without skipping a breath, “You have to murder to dissect!” another penetrating critical observation that has stayed freshly embedded in memory for the past half century.