"Stories in the World"

Acceptance Speech by Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood
© Jean Malek

It is a great honour as well as a joy to be here with you today, and to have been given this very highly regarded award – the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. I am conscious that I am joining a long list of supremely talented and accomplished and indeed brave international writers, stretching all the way back to 1950. It’s an especial honour because booksellers are, by their very natures, attentive readers – they are therefore among the Dear Readers for whom every writer is writing – the Dear Reader who will find the bottle with the message in it that you, the writer, have thrown into the ocean of words and stories, and will open it, and will read the message, and will think it actually means something. For a writer from a recently colonial country such as Canada – a country where writing, and the arts in general, were not taken seriously until the past few decades—it is almost incredible to me to be receiving this acclaimed honour at your hands.

When this prize was begun in 1950 – surely as a gesture of hope in a world so recently torn apart by the most lethal war in history – I myself was only ten years old, and knew nothing about booksellers, and not much about writing, although I had done some of it. But I had given up my writing ambitions, having abandoned my second novel in midstream at the age of seven. It was literally midstream: the heroine was an ant, and she was on a raft, floating off to an adventure that never materialized. This often happens to novel writers: the beginning, so promising. Then the middle, so daunting or perhaps even boring. And even more so when one’s hero is an insect, though this is a problem that Kafka managed to overcome.

By the age of ten, I wanted to be a painter, or, even better, a fashion designer. I was fond of drawing sophisticated women in elbow-length gloves, with cigarette holders. I had never seen such a person, but I had seen pictures of them. Such is the enchanting influence of art.

But after a few unsatisfactory encounters with an oil-painting set, and some complex adventures with a sewing machine – in other words, after reality had replaced fantasy – by the age of sixteen I was pursuing the path of science – like my older brother, Dr. Harold Atwood, the neurophysiologist, who is here in this audience today. Odd though it may seem, I intended to become a botanist. Plants were silent and easy to observe, and did not bleed when you cut them up, unlike frogs, so I felt easy in my conscience about it. If that had happened, I would be cloning your glow-in-the-dark potatoes right now. But then I suddenly morphed into a writer, and began scribbling furiously. I don’t know why that happened, but it did, and fantasy once more took first place in my life.

Being Canadian, I cannot take personal credit for my appearance on your excellent list. Canadians shy away from taking personal credit. If told we have won something, we look behind us to see who was really meant, since it surely could not have been us. Nor can I take any credit for being an activist, which I am often labeled as being. I am not a real activist – a real activist would view her writing as a conduit for her activism – for her important Cause, whatever it is – and that has not been the case with me. It’s true that you can’t write novels without looking at the world, and that when you look at the world you will wonder what’s going on, and then try to describe it; I think a lot of writing is an attempt to figure why people do what they do. Human behaviour, both saintly and demonic, is a constant amazement to me. But when you write down an account of human behaviour, that account may look a lot like activism, since language has an inherent moral dimension, and so do stories. The reader will make moral judgments, even if the writer claims only to be bearing witness. What may seem like activism on my part is usually a kind of blundering puzzlement. Why DOES the emperor have no clothes, and why is it so often considered bad manners to blurt it out?

So, after thanking you very much for all the nice things you have said about me, I will ascribe this happy moment to luck and to the stars, and to the collusion of my admittedly strange work – especially my strange dystopian work – with the admittedly strange historical moment we are living through.

What is this strange historical moment? It is one of those times when the ground – which only a little while ago seemed steady enough, with seedtime following harvest, and birthdays succeeding one another, and so on – that ground shifts beneath our feet, and mighty winds blow, and we are no longer sure of where we are. Also, we are no longer sure of who we are. Whose face is that in the mirror? Why are we growing fangs? Just yesterday we were filled with such goodwill and hope. But now?

The United States is experiencing such a moment. After the 2016 election, young people in that country said to me, “This is the very worst thing that has ever happened;” to which I replied, both “No, actually it’s been worse,” and also, “No it isn’t; not yet.” Britain is also having a difficult time of things right now, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. And – in a less drastic way, but still – in view of its recent election – so is Germany. You thought that crypt was locked, but someone had the key, and has opened the forbidden chamber, and what will come creeping or howling forth?  Sorry to be so Gothic, but there is cause for alarm on many fronts.

Every country, like every person, has a noble self – the self it would like to believe it is – and an everyday self – the good-enough self that gets it through the mundane weeks and months when everything is going on as expected – and then a hidden self, much less virtuous, that may burst out at moments of threat and rage, and do unspeakable things.

But what causes these times of threat and rage – or what is causing them now? You will have heard many theories about that, and you will doubtless hear many more. It is climate change, some will say: floods, droughts, fires, and hurricanes affect growing conditions, and then there are food shortages, and then there is social unrest, and then there are wars, and then there are refugees, and then there is the fear of refugees, because will there be enough to share?

It is financial imbalance, others will say: too few rich people control too much of the world’s wealth, and they are sitting on it like dragons, and causing large financial disparities and resentments, and then there will be social unrest, and wars, or revolutions, and so forth. No, say others: it is the modern world: it is automation and robots, it is technology, it is the Internet, it is the manipulation of news and opinion that is being done by an opportunistic few for their own advantage: the army of Internet trolls and astroturfers, for instance, who took such pains to influence the German election, and, it seems, the similar Russian efforts in the United States via Facebook. But why are we surprised? The Internet is a human tool, like all others: axes, guns, trains, bicycles, cars, telephones, radios, films, you name it – and like every human tool it has a good side, a bad side, and a stupid side that produces effects that were at first not anticipated.

Among those tools is possibly the very first uniquely human tool: our narrative capability, enabled by complex grammar. What an advantage stories must once have given us – allowing us to pass along essential knowledge so you didn’t have to find our everything for yourself by trial and error. Wolves communicate, but they do not tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Stories, too, can have a good side, and bad side, and a third side that produces unanticipated effects. As a writer of stories I am supposed to say how necessary they are, how they help us understand one another, how they build empathy, and so forth – and that is true. But because I am a writer of stories, I am also aware of their ambiguities and dangers. Let us just say that stories are powerful. They can change the way people think and feel – for better or for worse.

So what is the story we are telling ourselves about this present moment and its tribulations? Whatever the cause of the change we are living through, it is the kind of moment when the rabbits in the meadow perk up their ears, because a predator has entered the scene.

Along will come a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or even a wolf in wolf’s clothing, and that wolf will say: Rabbits, you need a strong leader, and I am just the one for the job. I will cause the perfect future world to appear as if by magic, and ice cream will grow on trees. But first we will have to get rid of civil society – it is too soft, it is degenerate –– and we will have to abandon the accepted norms of behaviour that allow us to walk down the street without sticking knives into each other all the time. And then we will have to get rid of Those people. Only then will the perfect society appear!

Those people vary from place to place and from time to time. Maybe they are witches, or lepers, both of whom were blamed for the Black Death. Maybe they are Huguenots, in eighteenth century France. Maybe they are Mennonites. (But why Mennonites? I asked a Mennonite friend. You seem so harmless! We were pacifists, he answered. In a continent at war, we set a bad example.)

Anyway, the wolf says:  Do as I say and all will be well. Defy me, and snarl snarl, gobble gobble, you will be crunched into tiny bits.

The rabbits freeze, because they are confused and terrified, and by the time they figure out that the wolf does not in fact mean them well but has arranged everything only for the benefit of the wolves, it is too late. 

Yes, we know, you will say. We’ve read the folktales. We’ve read the science fictions. We’ve been warned, often. But that, somehow, does not always stop this tale from being enacted in human societies, many times over.

Here I must apologize to the wolves. I used your name, dear wolves, only as a metaphor. Please don’t swarm me on social media, with messages such as: You Privileged Human Idiot! What do you know about the inner lives of wolves, you anthropocentric élitist snob? Have you ever had your paw caught in a trap? If it weren’t for us wolves you’d be over-run by deer and rabbits, and then what?

Point taken. And I realize that you wolves are kind at heart, at least to other wolves, or at least to wolves of your own pack. I have experienced your polyphonic music, and find it haunting. Perhaps I should have used dinosaurs; but they would have been less well understood and possibly not as entertaining. That is always a consideration, for storytellers. We are a devious lot, and given to frivolous decision-making.

*

This little fable I have concocted comes from my deep past – from the time when I was a young child growing up in the northern Canadian wilderness, far from villages and towns and cities, but quite close to rabbits and wolves. Up there, when it was raining, there were three forms of activity: writing, drawing, and reading. Among the books I read was the collected, unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tales – complete with the pecked-out eyes and the red-hot shoes. My parents had got it by mail order, and when they saw what was inside it, they worried that this book might warp their children. It probably did warp me. It must have warped me in the direction of being a writer, for without Grimm’s Fairy Tales – so crafty, so compelling, so complicated, so frightening, so many-layered, but with notes of hope at the ends of the stories that are heartbreaking, because so unlikely – how could I ever have written – you know I am going to say this – how could I ever have written The Handmaid’s Tale?

The cover of the first United States edition is suggestive. There are the two Handmaids, in their red garments, resembling two Red Riding Hoods with their baskets over their arms. There behind them is a high brick wall – like THE wall, the famous Berlin wall. And there are the shadows of the two women cast on the wall – and these shadows are the shadows of wolves.

I began writing that novel in West Berlin, in the year 1984 – yes, George Orwell was looking over my shoulder – on a rented German typewriter. The Wall was all around us. On the other side of it was East Berlin, and also Czechoslovakia, and also Poland – all of which I visited at that time. I remember what people said to me, and what they did not say. I remember the meaningful pauses. I remember the sense that I myself had to be careful of what I said, because I might unwittingly endanger someone. All of that made its way into my book.

This book was published in 1985 in Canada, and in 1986 in Britain and the United States. Although my rule for it was that I could put nothing into it that human beings had not done, somewhere, at some time, it was regarded by some critics with disbelief. Too feminist, yes, with all its talk of controlling women and their never-ending bodies, but also too far-fetched. It could never happen there – not in the United States – because then, during the Cold War, wasn’t the United States viewed as a power for good? Didn’t it stand for democracy, liberty, and freedom – however imperfectly enacted on the ground? Confronted by closed systems such as the Soviet Union, America was open. Confronted by top-down tyrannies, America promised the dream of opportunity, based on merit. Even though America had some very sinister history to overcome – weren’t those the ideals? Yes. They were.

But that was then. Now, some thirty-odd years later, this book has returned, because suddenly it no longer seems like a far-fetched dystopian fantasy. It has become too real. Red-clad figures are appearing in state legislatures in silent protest at the laws being enacted there, largely by men, to control women. Their aim seems to be to push back the clock, to the nineteenth century if possible. What sort of world do these legislators want to live in? They want a very unequal one: so much is clear. An unequal one in which they themselves will have more power, and other people will have less. If you put the ants in charge of the picnic, the ants will rearrange the picnic for themselves: there will be no people, only egg sandwiches and cookies. The ants at least know what sort of a world they want to live in, and they are very frank about it. Ants are not hypocritical.

The citizens of every country must ask themselves the same question: what sort of world do they want to live in? Being of a Plutonian and sinister cast of mind, I would reduce that sentence to:  Do they want to live? Because, drawing back from our human picture – drawing back so that the borders between countries disappear, and the earth becomes a blue marble in space, with much more water on it than land – it is evident that our fate as a species will be determined by whether or not we kill the oceans. If the oceans die, so will we – at least 60 percent of our oxygen comes from marine algaes.

But I will try not to depress you too much. There is hope, there is hope: brilliant minds are already at work on such problems. But meanwhile, what is an artist to do? Why make art at all, in such disturbing times? What is art, anyway? Why should we be bothered with it? What is it for? Learning, teaching, expressing ourselves, describing reality, entertaining us, enacting truth, celebrating, or even denouncing and cursing?  There’s no general answer. Human beings have engaged in the arts – music, visual imagery, dramatic performances – including rituals – and language arts, including tale telling – ever since they have been recognizably human. Children respond to language and music before they themselves can speak: those capabilities seem to be built in. The art we make is specific to the culture that makes it – to its location, to its driving energy system, to its climate and food sources, and to the beliefs connected with all of these. But we have never not made art.

For a great many centuries, art was made in the service of the rulers – the kings, the emperors, the popes, the dukes, and such. But ever since romantic and post-romantic times there has been a different expectation of the artist. Surely she or he should speak truth to power, tell the stories that have been suppressed, give voices to the voiceless. And many writers have done that; it has frequently gotten them into trouble, and sometimes it has got them shot. But create they must. They have written in secret, they have smuggled their manuscripts out of unsafe places at risk to their lives. They have arrived from afar, like the messenger in the Book of Job, fainting from exhaustion, to say: I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

To tell thee. To tell thee, Dear Reader, singular. A book is a voice in your ear; the message is – while you are reading it – is for you alone. Reading a book is surely the most intimate experience we can have of the inside of another human being’s mind. Writer, book, and reader – in this triangle, the book is the messenger. And all three are part of one act of creation, as the composer, the player of the symphony, and the listener are all participants in it. The reader is the musician of the book.

As for the writer, his or her part is done when the book goes out into the world; it is the book that will then live or die, and what happens to the writer is at that point immaterial, from the point of view of the book.

Any award winner in the arts is the temporary representative of all the practitioners of that art, and of the community that allows that art to exist – those who have gone before, those from whom we ourselves have learned, those who have died before they were recognized, those who have had to struggle against racial discrimination to find their writing voice, those who have been killed for their political views, and those who have managed to live through periods of oppression and censorship and silencing. Then there are those who never became writers at all because they were not given the possibility – such as the many North American and Australian and New Zealand story-bearers and oral poets from indigenous cultures of the past and even the present. Doors are opening for such voices all around the world; but other doors are being closed. We need to pay attention to that.

So to my teachers, both dead and alive, by whom I mean the very many writers in my life and library; my readers, into whose hands I have entrusted my stories; to all my publishers, who have not considered my work a waste of paper, and who have taken a chance on me; to my agents, companions on this journey; and to all those friends and professionals who have helped and supported me over the years, including my family, both immediate and extended, my mother, a wonderful reader-aloud – thank you for those gifts you have given me.

A gift should be returned or passed on – it should pass from hand to hand, like a book. Let us hope for a world in which such gifts remain possible. Let us not close the doors or silence the voices. One day I will be walking along a beach, or inside a bookstore, and I will find a bottle, or a book, and I will open it, and I will read the message to me from you – yes, you out there, a young writer who perhaps has just been published. And I will say: Yes. I can hear you. I can hear your story. I can hear your voice.

Thank you all, very much, again.