Margaret Atwood speaks on dystopia, imagination at Zellerbach Hall

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Ketki Samel/Staff

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On Thursday, under a gray sky outside Zellerbach Hall, two women stood cloaked in floor-sweeping red dresses, elongated, face-shielding bonnets fixed on their heads. They ushered excitedly chattering students into the auditorium where Margaret Atwood was soon to take the stage.

Atwood delivered this year’s On the Same Page keynote address, titled “The Handmaid’s Tale Escapes from Its Book.” The UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Sciences created On the Same Page in 2006 to provide students with a worldview-changing work to consider. Past selections have included the “Hamilton” soundtrack, “Lincoln at Gettysburg” by Garry Wills, and Ansel Adams’ photographs of UC campuses. Each year, various events and forums are hosted that expand upon the selected topic, giving students the ability to expand their knowledge outside of the classroom.

Originally considered a work of highly imaginative, although historically-founded, dystopian fiction, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has once again risen to the forefront of public consciousness. In February 2017, it topped Amazon’s best-seller list more than three decades after its original release in 1985. In the novel, Atwood creates a universe in which the United States, renamed the Republic of Gilead, is controlled by a theocracy. The majority of women are infertile because of pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. The few women who are capable of reproducing, known as handmaids, are put into the service of the men who run the country to act as child-bearing vessels.

As Atwood took the stage, the near-capacity audience sustained a long, spirited cheer. The Canadian author has become a source of wisdom, and the novel an example of a possible dystopian future. “She is so inspiring,” one enthusiastically clapping audience member exclaimed as Atwood planted herself behind the lectern.

With oversized, red, wire-framed glasses perched on her long, thin nose, Atwood launched into a series of “commonly asked questions” and answers about the Hulu TV adaptation of the novel. She repeatedly drew laughs from the audience by cracking puns in a monotone that belied her quick-witted humor, lifting her eyes to the audience and momentarily allowing a playful grin to spread across her face. Although the tone of her address was lighthearted, the message was one of resistance, perseverance and activism in the face of the current administration’s attempts to walk back reproductive freedoms.

Donald Trump’s constant threats to Planned Parenthood, Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Jeff Sessions’ role as the United States Attorney General, and so many other events in the past year and a half have exposed the fragility of women’s reproductive rights in America. The resurgent popularity of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” now an Emmy award-winning TV show, reflects the fear that many women have about the future of their reproductive rights.

The novel, though fiction, is capable of inducing dread in its readers. It has stayed relevant for the past several decades because each component has roots in historical precedent and unsettling ties to our present trajectory. Atwood explained, as an example, that the complete illegality of reading for women in Gilead was inspired in part by the same rule for slaves in the 19th-century United States. Atwood also revealed that she holds the show’s writers to the same stringent standard of historical accuracy that she used when writing the book. Atwood attributed the success of the Hulu series to the fact that the show constantly maneuvers the now-thin line between fact and fiction. When this statement triggered sympathetic sighs from the audience, Atwood quipped, “Next time, vote.”

Atwood’s willingness to engage with the audience is exemplified in the way “The Handmaid’s Tale” has grown with and been developed by its audience. Atwood addressed the popular theory among readers that the narrator’s real name, which she was forced to shed for the possessive “Offred,” is June. Savvy readers deduced that this was her name by closely analyzing specific scenes. Atwood denied that June was originally intended to be the narrator’s name, but then added that “it works,” so she was willing to accept it. This, the author claimed, shows that her work has broken “out of its box … its novel.” It grows with the imagination of the readers.

The continuing growth of this decades-old novel is a testament to Atwood’s ability to draw from the past to predict the most fear-inducing version of the future. Readers of any age, but ours in particular, are able to draw parallels between the dystopian vision of  “The Handmaid’s Tale” and their own continually metamorphosing worlds. As Atwood concluded her question-and-answer session, the crowd broke into uproarious applause. Whoops and cheers erupted from the standing audience, and a small smile played across Atwood’s face. She gave a wave and walked off the stage. She didn’t give answers to life’s most pressing questions, but she did provide an hour of sarcastic witticisms, sharp critiques and insightful commentary.

Contact Keats Iwanaga at [email protected].