Margaret Atwood explores fears and freedom in Ann Arbor talk, and she's not afraid to say so
Author Margaret Atwood walked on stage Friday amid her fervent Ann Arbor fan base while wearing black gloves painted with white bones outlining the skeletal structure of her hands.
Oddly, the creepy style choice seemed to fit.
An author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays, Atwood is arguably most well-known for the dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Her writing is funny but distinctly eerie — a fact audience members approached with a kind of fascination. Both Atwood's fictional dystopias and the current U.S. presidential race were recurring questions and commentary woven through her hour-long talk at Rackham Auditorium, both of which she said hinted at a theme of frightening fantasies turned into realities.
“I am not one of those people who believes it couldn’t happen here,” Atwood said of the possibilities her dystopian works pose.
Known for taking the deepest fears humans carry into her work, Atwood said freedom manifests itself in her new novel "Hagseed," a retelling of Shakespeare's “The Tempest”, in the form of physical freedom: The main character of the novel is an on-the-run teacher of literature at a correctional facility who is tasked with directing a play to be performed by the prisoners.
“The last three words of the play are ‘set me free,’ ” Atwood said. “You don’t say ‘set me free’ unless you’re not free, so then you have to ask yourself, ‘By what is Prospero imprisoned?’ The other theme is revenge. Revenge is when you think you are owed something, and you become obsessed by it. You are not free while you are bent on revenge. The whole original play is built around those kinds of ideas, so it seemed very natural for me to explore that.”
“Hagseed,” which is written from a male’s perspective, explores the “open doors” or unresolved issues of the original play within the new setting of a prison system as a meditation on revenge and freedom — she said everyone in the novel was imprisoned at some point, in one way or another.
Many of her books explore one’s ability to gain freedom from fears, as well as the obsessive hold revenge can take on a person — at one point, she deadpanned to the audience, “You know credit cards make it easier to do that, right?” referring to cutting off a woman’s access to money as a means of controlling women.
For female students in the audience, Atwood’s works feel particularly relatable, Lexi Ialungo, an LSA and Engineering senior, said.
Lexi Ialungo, an LSA and Engineering senior, said for female students in the audience, Atwood's work feels particularly relatable.
“A lot of her books are about women in their 20s, which is perfect for us,” she said. “That female perspective is really important — it’s been formative for me.”
University alum Alexandrea Burchfield noted the significance of Atwood’s choice not only to write her novels from female perspectives, but also to write about women’s issues and fears.
“Before (reading Atwood’s works) I had never identified with a character so much,” she said. “Even though it’s not something I’m going through, it was like, ‘Oh, I can see myself in this person.’ It was probably because issues like abortion and getting access to things, intersex issues and just a lot of things I deal with on a daily basis — obviously in an exaggerated scope because it’s a dystopian novel — but those are all combined into a narrative I find interesting.”
Her Shakespeare adaptation isn’t all the famed author is working on lately and Atwood’s updates to the crowd on new projects were met with gasps of excitement. Two of her novels are being turned into TV shows — “The Handmaid’s Tale” is being adapted by MGM and Hulu, and “Oryx and Crake” is being adapted for a show on HBO, in which she has a brief cameo role.
Atwood kept audience members laughing throughout the show. They erupted into applause at the news of Atwood’s upcoming projects and in response to her readings, which were more like a performance — Atwood sings and uses different voices when reading her characters. Ialungo described her personality as quirky and “very secretly funny.”
“You don’t quite expect it when you see her but then she slays the entire time,” Ialungo said.