Writer Margaret Atwood gives an interview at Hotel Emma.
Writer Margaret Atwood speaks with the Rivard Report at Hotel Emma. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Margaret Atwood wants to “Make America America again.”

She smiles when she says it, but she’s not entirely joking, and her audience of some 2,500 rapt fans at Trinity University erupts in applause and laughter. They are aware, presumably, of the Canadian writer’s piercing assessment of President Donald Trump, who she described to Vanity Fair as an “inexhaustible subject,” and his ubiquitous #MAGA brand.

They also are likely aware that Atwood, one of the world’s most prolific and acclaimed authors, continually challenges orthodoxies of every stripe through her writing, appearances, and an eclectic and lively Twitter account (1.9 million followers) where her calls for social and political activism – an end to food waste and to plastic #StarbucksTrash “choking the oceans” among others – appear as prominently as those promoting her own work and schedule.

Atwood headlined two recent San Antonio events – a free reading at Trinity, co-sponsored by Gemini Ink and Trinity University Press, and a $100-a-ticket luncheon at the Witte Museum’s Hays Family Center. She read from two of her most acclaimed novels, The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985, and Alias Grace, 1996 – both of which have enjoyed a resounding resurgence and, for a younger generation, first-time discovery due to the books’ recent award-winning adaptions by Hulu and Netflix, respectively.

The place (or places) of women in society, past and present, and their strengths and complexities despite external, sometime brutal restrictions, underlies much of Atwood’s work. Reading in Trinity’s Laurie Auditorium Thursday night, she chose a passage in which The Handmaid Tale’s central character, Offred, (portrayed in the hit Hulu series by actress Elisabeth Moss), describes her spartan room and, by default, its unyielding constraints.

“I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter-proof,” Atwood reads. “It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.”

Atwood’s prose is sharply observed, precise and economical. When she reads aloud, the audience leans forward, so as not to miss a word.

Whether she is speaking onstage after the readings with Trinity literature professor Coleen Grissom, or sitting for a private interview in an elegant Hotel Emma suite, Atwood is expansive, droll, pointed, funny. She has a stand-up comic’s appreciation for a pause. And while dead serious about the subjects she addresses, Atwood plays on the universal reputation of Canadians as self-effacing, nice, and loathe to offend.

Such as when Grissom asks which of her works Atwood is most proud of: “Canadians are not allowed to say what they are proud of,” she demurs. Or, when Grissom flips the question: “Which works do you most regret?” Says Atwood: “Being Canadian, I have to say, all of them.”

Whether onstage in front of thousands or in one-on-one interviews, Atwood, 78, holds forth on a breathtaking range of subjects: Human rights as women’s rights. Her support of feminism (whatever Wave) but her objection to its litmus tests (“There’s been a lot of inter-women warfare, women dissing others without views like themselves. It’s always been counterproductive.”) Totalitarianism, in all its ideological guises. The taking for granted of democracy in the United States. (Yes, she contends, one shouldn’t.)

And more: Amazon “warrior women” – no myth, she explains, as archeologists have proven with battle-scarred female skeletons. How moving from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian life limited women’s opportunities by wedding them to childbearing.

“When agriculture came in, you needed a lot of children to farm,” she explains. A nomadic life, by contrast, allowed no more than two – one to carry, one to lead by the hand.

Also, a sobering litany of how the most repressive regimes across history and ideologies have systematically restricted, if not obliterated, women’s reproductive rights. A recurring theme in Atwood’s works.

“It’s not just about abortion,” she said in a private interview when discussing how states have shrunk access to reproductive services, including abortion, whether through the regulation of clinics or through measures such as Texas’ “sonogram law.” 

“It’s about reproductive rights in general,” she says. “If you don’t want abortion you make contraception available. But if you are going to cut it all off, then you’re going to get Romania under [Nicolae] Ceausescu.”

She pauses, then adds: “That was not a happy story. There were a lot of dead women.”

She was referring to the late Communist dictator who, in the mid-1960s, instituted the infamous Decree 770, a state-enforced population growth program that banned contraception, elevated as national “heroine mothers” women with at least 10 children, and forbade abortions unless women were over 40 and already had four children.

Its perverse legacy was one of the highest abortion rates in the world, the deaths of thousands of women from illicit (often self-induced) abortions and the filling of orphanages with tens of thousands of unwanted children.

One can easily trace the plot line of her most widely read (translated into more than 40 languages) and award-winning novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to real historical events. In it, fertile young women are prized, and imprisoned, to bear children for the barren wives of powerful leaders of a dystopian future United States known as the Republic of Gilead.

Atwood emphasizes that nothing in the book is written without historical precedence. “I did not make anything up. These things have been done, somehow, some time, some place,” she told me, ticking off Ceausescu, Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn policy to increase the Aryan population, and a worldwide history of polygamy, including in the U.S.

Writer Margaret Atwood gives an interview at Hotel Emma.
Writer Margaret Atwood, 78, headlined two San Antonio events last week. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

She noted to her Trinity Audience that current comparisons between her portrayal of women’s subjugation in The Handmaid’s Tale and conservatives’ attempts to restrict women’s reproductive choices are not new; they began when the book was first published more than three decades ago. 

“In the U.S., even then, they said, ‘How long have we got?’ Others said, ‘Don’t be silly Margaret, such a thing could never happen in this country,” Atwood says, pausing. “Ah. Yes.” 

“The constitution hangs between you and totalitarianism,” she continued. “There have to be just laws … enforced by a judiciary that is separate from the government in power… Otherwise you’re not going to be in a democracy anymore.”

But Atwood is not without hope. In the core values of the #MeToo movement, for example, particularly if it leads to systemic changes in law and institutions. And in a growing, passionate response by American students to the fatal shootings of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last month.

“It’s the kids taking the banner and demanding change. That’s what’s changing it,” she said. 

She is a novelist who eschews easy answers, however, so she leaves a listener with a last thought, one reflecting a hint of skepticism as a hedge against history and human behavior.

“The question is,” she asks, referring to students’ movement (or any social movement, really), “will it last?”

Predictably, perhaps, Atwood avoids simple conclusions. Although different from the president, she, too, is an “inexhaustible subject.”

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Beth Frerking

Beth Frerking is the former editor-in-chief of the Rivard Report.