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Margaret Atwood awarded the 2017 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade

The Canadian author, essayist and poet Margaret Atwood was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade today at a ceremony attended by roughly 1,000 invited guests in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt. The speech honoring this year’s recipient was given by Austrian writer Eva Menasse.

Margaret Atwood
© Jean Malek

In her acceptance speech, Atwood focused on the power of storytelling and the role played by writers in disturbing times. “Stories are powerful. They can change the way people think and feel – for better or for worse,” Atwood noted. She argued that there is no clear explanation as to why human beings engage in art and tale telling: “What is it for? Learning, teaching, expressing ourselves, describing reality, entertaining us, enacting truth, celebrating, or even denouncing and cursing?” The one thing that is clear, she suggested, is that human beings have been creating art ever since they became recognizably human.

Atwood also noted that we are living in an “admittedly strange historical moment” and in a time of “threat and rage.” She illustrated the situation by relating a fable about a wolf who convinces the rabbits to sacrifice their civil society and peaceful co-existence by promising them a perfect world; of course, the rabbits eventually realise they’ve been deceived and are gripped by confusion and fear. Atwood argued that we are now facing a tense social climate, social injustice and an ever-increasing threat to the environment and nature, and suggested that the citizens of every country must ask themselves the same question: “What sort of world do they want to live in?”

According to Atwood, today’s artists can play an important role: “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.” She also asserted that stories are always addressed to the people reading or listening to them, which makes these recipients essential to the very act of creation: “A book is a voice in your ear,” she noted. “The message – while you are reading it – is for you alone.”

In her laudatory speech, Austrian writer Eva Menasse argued that Atwood’s work is particularly suited to showing “the guise in which literature must appear in order to achieve a political effect. In fact, her work shows how scrutiny of political and social issues can be introduced without bending literature or weighing it down.” Menasse described Atwood’s stories as “realistic, true and always paradigmatic. Above all, they reveal to us other possibilities. They show us that possibilities lie everywhere and in all things. Simply by living, we constantly make decisions that destroy possibilities, day by day, year by year. Only in writing can we bring such possibilities back to life, that is, shed a light on the alternatives and laugh and cry about what might have been.”

Heinrich Riethmüller, Chairman of the Börsenverein (German Publishers and Booksellers Association) called Atwood “an artist who admonishes us and draws our attention to issues of freedom and peace.” He argued further that “Atwood’s poems sharpen the way we look at life in all its facets, uncertainties, contradictions and beauty. Her novels open our eyes to how bleak the world becomes when we fail to fulfil our obligation to work in the service of peaceful coexistence. And it is precisely for this – the vigilant consciousness driving her literary and poetic work – that we have gathered here to honour her today.”

First launched in 1950, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade has been awarded by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association on the final day of the Frankfurt Book Fair ever since. Among the previous recipients of the Peace Prize are Amos Oz, Albert Schweitzer, Astrid Lindgren, Václav Havel, Jürgen Habermas, Susan Sontag, David Grossman, Liao Yiwu, Navid Kermani and, in 2016, Carolin Emcke. The Prize is endowed with a sum of €25,000.