Margaret Atwood at a demonstration in 1988
|Born||November 18 1939
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
|Writing period||1960s to present|
|Genres||Romance, Historical fiction, Speculative fiction, Dystopian fiction|
|Notable work(s)||The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, Surfacing|
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, Order of Canada (November 18, 1939 - ) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, teacher, and environmental activist. Since 1961, she has published 17 books of poetry, 16 novels, 10 books of non-fiction, eight collections of short fiction, eight children's books, and one graphic novel, as well as a number of small press editions in poetry and fiction. Atwood has won numerous awards and honors for her writing, including the Man Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Governor General's Award, Franz Kafka Prize, and the National Book Critics and PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Atwood is also the inventor and developer of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate remote robotic writing of documents. A number of her works have been adapted for film and television, increasing her exposure.
Many of her poems have been inspired by myths, and fairy tales, which were an interest of hers from an early age. Her early poems revealed her love of nature born of her early experiences in the wilderness of northern Quebec. Her later novels reveal her left-leaning sensibilities, including a distrust of religion and a critique of the excess materialism of consumer society. Her primary emphasis, however, was on the role of women in contemporary society. Titles like The Edible Woman and Surfacing use the metaphors of cannibalism and drowning to express the obstacles that prevent women from achieving success and happiness in contemporary society. Her best known work is The Handmaid's Tale which depicts a dystopian society governed by religious fundamentalists.
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Atwood is the second of three children of Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist, and Margaret Dorothy Killiam, a former dietitian and nutritionist. Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was 11 years old. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957.
Atwood began writing at age six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honors) and minors in philosophy and French.
In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for 2 years, but never finished because she never completed a dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance” in 1967. She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967-68), the University of Alberta (1969-79), York University in Toronto (1971-72), and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.
In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk, whom she divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto. In 1976 their daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, was born. Atwood returned to Toronto in 1980, dividing her time between Toronto and Pelee Island, Ontario.
Atwood's first book of poetry, Double Persephone, was published as a pamphlet by Hawskhead Press in 1961, winning the E.J. Pratt Medal. While continuing to write, Atwood was a lecturer in English at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, from 1964 to 1965, Instructor in English at the Sir George Williams University in Montreal from 1967 to 1968, and taught at the University of Alberta from 1969 to 1970. In 1966, The Circle Game was published, winning the Governor General's Award. This collection was followed by three other small press collections of poetry: Kaleidoscopes Baroque: a poem, Cranbrook Academy of Art (1965); Talismans for Children, Cranbrook Academy of Art (1965); and Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, Cranbrook Academy of Art (1966); as well as, The Animals in That Country (1968). Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969. As a social satire of North American consumerism, many critics have often cited the novel as an early example of the feminist concerns found in many of Atwood's works.
Atwood taught at York University in Toronto from 1971 to 1972 and was a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto during the 1972/1973 academic year. A prolific period for her poetry, Atwood published six collections over the course of the decade: The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), You Are Happy (1974), Selected Poems 1965–1975 (1976), and Two-Headed Poems (1978). Atwood also published three novels during this time: Surfacing (1972); Lady Oracle (1976); and Life Before Man (1979), which was a finalist for the Governor General's Award. Surfacing, Lady Oracle, and Life Before Man, like The Edible Woman, explore identity and social constructions of gender as they relate to topics such as nationhood and sexual politics. In particular, Surfacing, along with her first non-fiction monograph, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), helped establish Atwood as an important and emerging voice in Canadian literature. In 1977 Atwood published her first short story collection, Dancing Girls, which was the winner of the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction and the award of The Periodical Distributors of Canada for Short Fiction.
Atwood's literary reputation continued to rise in the 1980s with the publication of Bodily Harm (1981); The Handmaid's Tale (1985), winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and 1985 Governor General's Award and finalist for the 1986 Booker Prize; and Cat's Eye (1988), finalist for both the 1988 Governor General's Award and the 1989 Booker Prize. Despite her distaste for literary labels, Atwood has since conceded to referring to The Handmaid's Tale as a work of science fiction or, more accurately, speculative fiction. As she has repeatedly noted, "There's a precedent in real life for everything in the book. I decided not to put anything in that somebody somewhere hadn't already done."
While reviewers and critics have been tempted to read autobiographical elements of Atwood's life in her work, particularly Cat's Eye, in general Atwood resists the desire of critics to read too closely for an author's life in their writing.
During the 1980s, Atwood continued to teach, serving as the MFA Honorary Chair the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 1985; the Berg Professor of English, New York University, 1986; Writer-in-Residence, Macquarie University, Australia, 1987; and Writer-in-Residence, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, 1989. Regarding her stints with teaching, she has noted, "Success for me meant no longer having to teach at university."
Atwood's reputation as a writer continued to grow with the publication of the novels The Robber Bride (1993), finalist for the 1994 Governor General's Award and shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and Alias Grace (1996), winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, finalist for the 1996 Booker Prize, finalist for the 1996 Governor General's Award, and shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction. Although vastly different in context and form, both novels use female characters to question good and evil and morality through their portrayal of female villains. As Atwood noted about The Robber Bride, "I'm not making a case for evil behavior, but unless you have some women characters portrayed as evil characters, you're not playing with a full range." The Robber Bride takes place in contemporary Toronto, while Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction detailing the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood had previously written the 1974 CBC made-for-TV film The Servant Girl, about the life of Grace Marks, the young servant who, along with James McDermott, was convicted of the crime.
In 2000 Atwood published her tenth novel, The Blind Assassin, to critical acclaim, winning both the Booker Prize and the Hammett Prize in 2000. The Blind Assassin was also nominated for the Governor General's Award in 2000, Orange Prize for Fiction, and the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002. In 2001, Atwood was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. Atwood followed this success with the publication of Oryx and Crake in 2003, the first novel in a series that also includes The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), which would collectively come to be known as the MaddAddam Trilogy. The apocalyptic vision in the MaddAddam Trilogy engages themes of genetic modification, pharmaceutical and corporate control, and man-made disaster. As a work of speculative fiction, Atwood notes of the technology in Oryx and Crake, "I think, for the first time in human history, we see where we might go. We can see far enough into the future to know that we can't go on the way we've been going forever without inventing, possibly, a lot of new and different things." She later cautions in the acknowledgements to MaddAddam, "Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory."
In 2005 Atwood published the novella The Penelopiad as part of the Canongate Myth Series. The story is a retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope and a chorus of the twelve maids murdered at the end of the original tale. The Penelopiad was made into a theatrical production in 2007.
On November 28, 2018, Atwood announced that she would publish The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, in September 2019. The novel features three female narrators and takes place fifteen years after the character Offred's final scene in The Handmaid's Tale.
In early 2004, while on the paperback tour in Denver for her novel Oryx and Crake, Atwood conceived the concept of a remote robotic writing technology, what would later be known as the LongPen, that would enable a person to remotely write in ink anywhere in the world via tablet PC and the Internet, thus allowing her to conduct her book tours without being physically present. She quickly founded a company, Unotchit Inc., to develop, produce and distribute this technology. By 2011, Unotchit Inc. shifted its market focus into business and legal transactions and was producing a range of products, for a variety of remote writing applications, based on the LongPen technologies and renamed itself to Syngrafii Inc. As of September 2014, Atwood is still Co-founder and a Director of Syngrafii Inc. and holder of various patents related to the LongPen technology.
Atwood has written thematically diverse novels from a number of genres and traditions, including science fiction/speculative fiction, space opera and Southern Ontario Gothic. She is often described as a feminist writer, as issues of gender often (but not always) appear prominently in her work. Her work has focused on Canadian national identity, Canada’s relations with the United States and Europe, human rights issues, environmental issues, the Canadian wilderness, the social myths of femininity, representations of women’s bodies in art, women’s social and economic exploitation, as well as women’s relations with each other and with men. In her novel Oryx and Crake and in recent essays, she has demonstrated great interest in (and wariness of) unchecked biotechnology.
Her first collection of poetry was Double Persephone (1961). The Circle Game (1964), her second, won the Governor General's award for poetry. Of Atwood's poetry collections, the most well-known is perhaps The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), in which Atwood writes poems from the viewpoint of Susanna Moodie, a historical nineteenth-century Canadian pioneer on the frontier.
As a literary critic, she is best known as author of the seminal Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), which is credited with sparking renewed interest in Canadian literature in the 1970s. She also wrote several television scripts, The Servant Girl (1974) and Days of the Rebels: 1815-1840 (1977).
The Handmaid's Tale is Atwood's best known work. A dystopian novel, it was first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985. The novel explores themes of women in subjugation, and the various means by which they gain agency, against the backdrop of a totalitarian pseudo-Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government in the near future. Sumptuary laws (dress codes) play a key role in imposing social control within the new society.
The Handmaid's Tale won the Governor General's Award for 1985, and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It has been adapted numerous times for stage, screen and most recently television.
The Handmaid's Tale comprises a number of social critiques. Atwood sought to demonstrate that extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism. The novel presents a dystopian vision of life in the United States in the period projecting forward from the time of the writing (1985), covering the backlash against feminism. This critique is most clearly seen in both Offred's memories of the slow social transformation towards theocratic fascism and in the ideology of the Aunts.
Immediately following the overthrow of the government, but before the new order had completely changed things, women begin to lose whatever freedoms they had previously enjoyed. Atwood pictures revivalism as counter-revolutionary, opposed to the revolutionary doctrine espoused by Offred's mother and Moira, which sought to break down gender categories. A Marxist reading of fascism explains it as the backlash of the right after a failed revolution. Atwood explores this Marxist reading and translates its analysis into the structure of a religious and gender revolution. "From each according to her ability… to each according to his needs," echoes the famous phrase of Marx's in the Communist Manifesto, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Atwood translates the statement on class and society into one about gender roles.
Atwood mocks those who talk of "traditional values" and suggest that women should return to being housewives. Serena Joy, formerly a television preacher with a high public profile, has been forced to give up her career and is clearly not content. The religious and social ideology she has spent her entire long career publicly promoting has, in the end, destroyed her own life and happiness.
However, Atwood also offers a critique of contemporary feminism. By working against pornography, feminists in the early 1980s opened themselves up to criticism that they favored censorship. Anti-pornography feminist activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon made alliances with the religious right, despite the warnings of sex-positive feminists. Atwood warns that the consequences of such an alliance may end up empowering feminists' worst enemies. She also suggests, through descriptions of the narrator's feminist mother burning books, that contemporary feminism was becoming overly rigid and adopting the same tactics as the religious right.
The Economist called her a "scintillating wordsmith" and an "expert literary critic," but commented that her logic doesn't match her prose in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Atwood claims that this conception is ingrained in the human psyche, manifest as it is in early historical peoples, who matched their conceptions of debt with those of justice as typically exemplified by a female deity. Atwood holds that, with the rise of Ancient Greece, and especially the installation of the court system detailed in Aeschylus's Oresteia, this deity was replaced by a more thorough conception of debt.
Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory. Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson are currently members of the Green Party of Canada and strong supporters of GPC leader Elizabeth May, whom Atwood has referred to as fearless, honest, reliable and knowledgeable. In the 2008 federal election she attended a rally for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and stated that she would vote for the party if she lived in Quebec. In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.
Atwood has strong views on environmental issues, such as suggesting that gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers be banned, and has made her own home more energy efficient—including not having air-conditioning—by installing awnings and skylights that open. She and her partner also use a hybrid car when they are in the city.
During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood came out against the deal. Her opposition included an essay she wrote opposing the agreement.
Atwood is a winner of more than 5 awards in Canada and internationally. These include the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award seven times, winning twice. Atwood is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history. While she is best known for her work as a novelist, her poetry is noteworthy.
Atwood has been vice-chairman of the Writers' Union of Canada and president of International PEN (1984-1986), an international group committed to promoting freedom of expression and freeing writers who are political prisoners. Elected a Senior Fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto, she has sixteen honorary degrees, including a doctorate from Victoria College (1987), and was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2001. Her literary papers are housed at the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
Atwood has also published short stories in numerous publications, including Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, Playboy, and many other magazines.
Atwood is scheduled to publish a new novel in 2009. The book's title was initially reported in some media as God's Gardeners, although Atwood later confirmed that this was not the intended title.
Short fiction collections
Wheel-show (1978-1981) for Times Magazine
All links retrieved August 14, 2018.
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