Celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood is having a bit of a moment — her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in a world where women have virtually no rights, has found its way back onto bestseller lists thanks to the rise of President Donald Trump; a television adaptation of the book debuts April 26 on Hulu.
Atwood was the keynote speaker at UW-Madison’s Great World Texts, from the Center for the Humanities, which connects high school students from around the state with experts at the university. This year’s program centered around William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which Atwood reimagined for her 2016 novel Hag-Seed. While on campus the 77-year-old author sat down with Isthmus to talk politics, feminism, and the threat of apocalypse.
Margaret Atwood Interview
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why are the humanities important for young people?
My first introduction to Shakespeare was in high school, which I think is a very good age to get familiar with it.
The humanities are about human nature, and that’s one reason why people generally get interested in them. Science and technology are about exploring the physical world and making tools, but what you do with those tools is always going to be a human choice. Therefore, it’s good to have some knowledge of human nature; otherwise you have no context for deciding whether you think the use of a tool is a moral choice, an ethical choice.
How do you feel about the resurgence in popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale?
Even during the last two elections, The Handmaid’s Tale was already a meme. It was already something people were mentioning. And now it really is.
These civil rights that people have worked for, once they’re achieved, we tend to think that’s that and we can move on. But that’s never true. Democracy is always pretty fragile, civil rights and legal entitlements are always fragile, they can be reversed very quickly.
When I published the book in 1985 some people took the “it could never happen here” view, but I’ve never taken that view. Anything can happen anywhere, given the circumstances. If we’re too threatened by anarchy, we will choose authoritarianism, because we think we’ll be safer.
What can you tell us about the upcoming Hulu series?
I’ve seen the first three [episodes], and it’s very strong. It’s pretty shocking, and it goes further than the book did in some directions. Because it’s a television series, it can follow the lives of some of the characters who simply disappear from view in the novel.
You’ve said your work is speculative fiction rather than science fiction, because everything that happens in your novels draws from things that can happen or have happened. How can we avoid a dystopian future?
You mean what can I tell America right now? America’s a very diverse country, so it’s much harder to control than a smaller, more homogeneous entity, like Germany in the 1930s. I don’t think it will be easy for America to roll over for totalitarianism.