Daily Archives: September 21, 2015

A Tale About Me, My Coworkers, and Margaret Atwood

As a fairly recent newcomer to Pittsburgh (four years last month, which might as well be four minutes when talking with native yinzers), our city’s vibrant and exciting literary scene is something that continuously impresses and surprises me.

The novelty of this should be worn off by now, given that my employer is one of the organizations that contributes mightily to this bookish culture of awesomeness that we have going on in the ‘Burgh.

But maybe it’s because I work for the Library that I revel in this so much.

We’re incredibly lucky to have access to so many prominent writers who regularly visit Pittsburgh. We work closely with our friends at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, who offer events such as the Monday Night Lecture Series, PA&L Kids and Teens and Authors on Tour, a new collaborative initiative between our two organizations that presents authors who are on a national publicity tour, either with a new hardback or recent paperback book release, to Pittsburgh audiences.

After one such gathering, a coworker and I were chatting about upcoming concerts lectures.  (Um, why yes, I absolutely do consider literary lectures by writers I love to be akin to rock concerts.)

Anonymous Coworker dropped a name of someone who was “a strong possibility” for an upcoming appearance. That’s all he divulged, but that was enough to sustain my hopes.

Lo and behold, Anonymous Coworker was correct … and on October 21, none other than MARGARET ATWOOD will be here. In Pittsburgh. At the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall.  FOR. REAL. If you don’t believe me, go here. I’ll wait.

(I was right, wasn’t I?  You’re welcome.)

When I started fangirling like nobody’s business at my desk, Anonymous Coworker #2 confessed that she wasn’t quite sure who Margaret Atwood was.

(She is not, I should mention, my coworker who does not believe in the very real phenomenon that is Mercury Retrograde.  Which we happen to be in right now, thank you very much.)

“You don’t know who Margaret Atwood is?” I gasped.

I then started putting my college English degree to good use by pontificating about the prescient genius that is The Handmaid’s Tale, which I consider to be one of the best books ever written.

The Handmaid's TaleSet in the not-too-far-off-in-the-foreseeable-future society that is the Republic of Gilead (formerly, the United States), Margaret Atwood’s 1987 novel is one of the count-’em-on-one-hand books I’ve read more than once.  It’s a chilling story, a thought-provoking novel about so many things: women’s rights, the influence of religion in society, relationships, politics, identity, betrayal, forgiveness, power and control. There are so many themes running through these pages. Indeed, that’s one of its criticisms: some say that Atwood’s prose tries too hard to have the book serve as commentary on too many issues.  But that’s part of what makes a novel a classic, in my view, and I truly believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a classic.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college, around 1989, shortly after it was published. Offred made a strong, immediate impression on me, one that I remembered when I re-read the novel in 2011.  I remembered that Offred had once been married and had a child. I remembered her relationship to and her purpose for the Commander and that Offred wasn’t her name.

“My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.”

What’s striking about The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s description of life before the Republic of Gilead — We were a society dying of too much choice.” — as well as specific events leading up to the formation of the Republic of Gilead. (“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”)

A mention of the president being assassinated was particularly chilling, given the political climate today, as well as the mention of a catastrophic, tragic event (9/11?) that befell the country.  The pollution of the rivers and dying off of the fish was poignant, too, given environmental disasters like the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast.

Another thing that caught me off guard was how much Offred, before, was like so many women today.  She was a wife and a mother.  She worked full time.  She went grocery shopping.  She wore a bathing suit. And just like us, these everyday simple things that comprised her life were taking place amid a culture of sensationalism and a media smorgasbord that thrived on constant diet of the outlandish.

“The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.” 

Sound familiar?  Probably, because most of us are also living the kind of everyday lives where our actions don’t make the news.

For all of the oppression and denial of freedoms contained within The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the primary messages is a hopeful one: even though there will always be people hell-bent on silencing another, there will always be ways to make yourself heard.

“Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.” 

So, this post is for my coworker who isn’t familiar with Margaret Atwood.  And maybe for you, too, if The Handmaid’s Tale is one that you haven’t read either.

And when I think I am starting to forget, I’ll re-read it one more time.

For more information about Margaret Atwood’s appearance on October 21, visit Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at http://pittsburghlectures.org/special-events/margaret-atwood/

ETA 10:21 a.m.: this event has sold out.

~ Melissa F., who is trying within the next 30 days to read every single thing Margaret Atwood has ever written


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