Atwood at Eden Mills Writers' Festival 2006, Blackwattle Bay
|Born||November 18, 1939
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
|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, CC, O.Ont, FRSC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian author, poet, critic, essayist, feminist and social campaigner. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history; she is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature, 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. While she may be best known for her work as a novelist, she is also an award winning poet, having published 15 books of poetry to date. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which were an interest of hers from an early age. Atwood has also published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, Playboy, and many other magazines.
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Atwood is the second of three children of Margaret Dorothy (née Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist, and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist. 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 in sixth grade. 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 (honours) 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 (1969-70), York University in Toronto (1971-72), and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.She is not a good author.
The Economist called her a "scintillating wordsmith" and an "expert literary critic", but commented that her logic does not match her prose in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a book which commences with the conception of debt and its kinship with justice. 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 has been replaced by a more thorough conception of debt.
The Handmaid's Tale received the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year, in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.
Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to The Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." and on BBC Breakfast explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled among advocates of science fiction, and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed.
Atwood has since said that she does at times write science fiction, and that Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake can be designated as such. She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, while admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth", and said that science fictional narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.
Atwood’s contributions to the theorizing of Canadian identity have garnered attention both in Canada and internationally. Her principal work of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, is considered outdated in Canada but remains the standard introduction to Canadian literature in Canadian Studies programs internationally. In Survival, Atwood postulates that Canadian literature, and by extension Canadian identity, is characterized by the symbol of survival. This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of “victim positions” in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the “victor/victim” relationship. The "victor" in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim Atwood’s Survival bears the influence of Northrop Frye’s theory of garrison mentality; Atwood instrumentalizes Frye’s concept to a critical tool. More recently, Atwood has continued her exploration of the implications of Canadian literary themes for Canadian identity in lectures such as Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995).
Atwood’s contribution to the theorizing of Canada is not limited to her non-fiction works. Several of her works, including The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Surfacing, are examples of what postmodern literary theorist Linda Hutcheon calls “Historiographic Metafiction”. In such works, Atwood explicitly explores the relation of history and narrative and the processes of creating history.
Ultimately, according to her theories in works such as Survival and her exploration of similar themes in her fiction, Atwood considers Canadian literature as the expression of Canadian identity. According to this literature, Canadian identity has been defined by a fear of nature, by settler history and by unquestioned adherence to the community.
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. She divides her time between Toronto and Pelee Island, Ontario.
In March 2008 it was announced by Atwood, via television hookup between Toronto and Vancouver, that she had accepted her first chamber opera commission. 'Pauline' will be on the subject of Pauline Johnson, a writer and Canadian artist long a subject of fascination to Atwood. It will star Judith Forst, with music by Christos Hatzis, and be produced by City Opera of Vancouver. 'Pauline' will be set at Vancouver, British Columbia, in March 1913, in the last week in the life of Johnson.
Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term. 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 by installing awnings and skylights that open, and by not having air-conditioning. She and her partner also use a hybrid car when they are in the city.
Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope."
Short fiction collections
Atwood has won more than 55 awards in Canada and internationally, including:
Why is it
of the careful moulding
round the stonework archways)
that in this time, such
elaborate defences keep
things that are no longer
and you leave behind you a heroic
trail of desolation:
slaughtered by the side
of the road, bird-
skulls bleaching in the sunset.
I am also what surrounds you:
scattered with your
tincans, bones, empty shells,
the litter of your invasions.
I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.
and when you set out the poison
I piss on it
to warn the others.
we should be kind, we should
take warning, we should forgive each other
Instead we are opposite, we
touch as though attacking,
the gifts we bring
even in good faith maybe
warp in our hands to
implements, to manoeuvres
though the real question is
whether or not I will make you immortal.
But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics.
for every year of peace there have been four hundred
years of war.