What do you do when Margaret Atwood comes to your country for a talk, but she’s doing it more than 300kms away from your city and on a school night? You ask for the Friday off work and travel 300kms, of course.
Every year since 2014, the city of Porto hosts the wonderful Fórum do Futuro/Forum of the Future, an event that gathers artists and thinkers from all around the world for performances and talks about contemporary society. This year, among the guest thinkers, was the brilliant Margaret Atwood, one of the biggest rockstars of the literary world.
I first ran into her ten years ago, not through books but on Twitter – of all places. It was only after that I discovered and fell in love with her writing and quirky wit.
Writer, curator, event and film producer Gareth Evans was in charge of the kick-off. Pacing back and forth while shifting his gaze between his feet and the audience, as someone trying to learn a new dance, he spoke of the “marine quality of the Portuguese language”, with “the calm lull of the gentle tide embedded” in it – and of vinho verde, as you do.
“Tonight’s guest needs no introduction.” Long pause. He jokes about how people always say that before introducing someone, and goes on to present Atwood, who enters the stage with her ever-present and ever-famous Handbag.
She treats us to a PowerPoint presentation entitled MyThologies in my Writing, and delivers it far better than most of what I’ve experienced in the casual-corporate-IT world I inhabit outside of this page. Towards the end, the author reveals she hates PowerPoint with a passion (a hate, I’m convinced, that all of Humanity share).
In my unlived life, I was an illustrator.
Atwood takes us through a collection of her own drawings, paintings and doodles, since childhood and all throughout her life – all of mythical figures, going from the standards, such as mermaids, to her own creations, such as the hen-looking creature hatching the egg of words, or a version of herself with a fish tale: “neither fish nor flesh”.
The presentation continues with a sequence of pictures of her parents and early childhood in the Canadian woods. These are so personal that you can’t help feeling grateful – and a little moved – for her generosity. For those who’ve read Surfacing, the landscape and the cabin and the canoes will seem a lot like déjà vu.
Most children were afraid of bears. I was afraid of flush toilets. It was very scary: things vanished.
Question-time showed the enormous impact her writing has on the new generation. More than once, before the actual question was asked, there was heart-felt praise and admiration spoken by nervous voices, saying how her books saved their lives or how such-and-such quote had moved them. It was a sight you’d expect more from teens meeting their favourite singer – but that’s what inner rock-stardom is.
When asked why artists are usually the voice of protest and the ones who speak up, she reasons that “artists don’t have jobs, so they can’t be fired”. Everyone else will always be risking their livelihood – artists will “only get hate mail”.
To the inevitable question around the mythical writer’s block, Atwood replies with another question: “Is there such a thing as writer’s block or is the story just not working?” She describes how a 200-page draft was completely discarded because it simply wasn’t working, or how giving up on a novel where all she had was character development but no story opened up room for her to start working on The Handmaid’s Tale.
The MaddAddam trilogy shook me to the core more than Handmaid did – in part because of its rawness and of how alive all the characters are – but I’m thrilled with how a red dress and white bonnet with wings have become a symbol of resistance to the same degree as the Guy Fawkes mask became a symbol of revolution after (the movie’s adaptation of) Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.
Margaret Atwood may well be one of the great living geniouses of our time. Not only in her writing and tremendous sense of humour, but in the all-encompassing knowledge she, very calmly, shares and a never-ending engagement with technology and the overall Evolution of things.
If you’re ever trying to survive in the wilderness after civilization has been destroyed, never doubt that Margaret Atwood is the person you’d want to have around as a guide.