Margaret Atwood: Storyteller With a Cause . . . or Two

Sunday, February 12, 2006

"People who ask me about politics usually start from the ass end backwards," Margaret Atwood has said -- which is to say that some decide she has an agenda and then squeeze all her work to fit it.

But it would be impossible to squeeze Atwood's 35 books into anything resembling a political doctrine. Take her novels: In The Handmaid's Tale , a young woman pits herself against an Orwellian patriarchy that enslaves all fertile females as breeders. In Cat's Eye , girls deal in psychological torture as scarring as Torquemada's rack. In Alias Grace , a housekeeper suspected of murder negotiates a labyrinth of prisons and asylums. Where's the political dogma in that?

Off the page, it's a different story. Atwood can be as ferocious as the avenging Furies. Known by her critics as "Medusa," she dedicates herself to defending the defenseless: She advocates for the welfare of Canada's indigenous people. She protests the plans to transform cities into medullas of power. She fights the muzzling of dissident writers. She has a wicked tongue and a well-honed talent for skewering an adversary. But she draws a line between activism and art.

"Giving a speech against racism is not the same as writing a novel," she has said. "The object is very clear in the fight against racism; you have a reason why you're opposed to it. But when you're writing a novel, you don't want the reader to come out of it voting yes or no. Life is more complicated than that." In other words: Life can't be pinned down so handily.

So it's interesting to note that this writer began as the child of an entomologist -- a collector of butterflies, scholar of insects. She was born in Ottawa 66 years ago and grew up north of the tree line, where her father ventured to collect his specimens. There was no running water, no electricity. "The only radio signal was from Russia," she recalls -- fickle, undecipherable and full of static. There was nothing to do but read.

"Living like that changes your life," she says. "It puts you very close to the basics. Like a hunter, you know what every move will cost. Fall in the water, and it's over. Make a mistake with a polar bear -- and that's it. I'm not saying that it's any different in a city: You're aware in a different way."

It's why she hews to what we can perceive around us. Read an Atwood novel and you're in an eerily familiar world.

Her childhood home was a haven of books. Her mother loved to read aloud. Every evening, she would draw a book from the shelf, and the neighborhood children would gather to listen. "I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be a writer, have the kind of audience that my mother could summon by merely opening the pages of a book."

But hers are not easy stories. Atwood's work forces a reader to see and bridge the difficult connections. Nowhere is this more evident, perhaps, than in her latest novel, Oryx and Crake , a science fiction tale set in a bio-wasteland; or her new book of prose pieces, the mordant The Tent , where nothing is sacred, life on earth is exacting, and fur -- sometimes harrowingly -- flies.

-- Marie Arana


© 2006 The Washington Post Company