I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was around fourteen, on the recommendation of my bookworm cousin. She had been taking a course on Sociology & Creative Writing and so there was a period of my early-teens in which feminist texts and Gothic classics were bequeathed to me. The Handmaid’s Tale had a pretty brutal impact on my imagination, mainly because it didn’t feel as unlikely as a lot of other scenarios I had been reading about (e.g the creation of Frankenstein’s monster). Margaret Atwood had a power with her words in a way that I hadn’t experienced before- she made me genuinely uncomfortable with her depiction of Gilead and also reminded me that the privileges I had as a young woman were not afforded to all women universally. The Handmaid’s Tale was successfully adapted into a film, found itself as a title on the school curriculum and was generally regarded as seminal text in the feminist literature canon. When the television adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, hit the screens a few years ago, the novel was almost resurrected to a new audience.
The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, eagerly anticipated by Atwood’s extensive fan base. Thirty-years after the initial novel was sold, the impact is as profound as ever. To cater to the masses of die-hard fans, there was a national marketing campaign on the eve of The Testaments’ official release in the UK and events across the globe, drawing comparisons to the hysteria observed during Harry Potter releases. There were midnight releases of the novel (accompanied by ominous figures wearing the infamous Handmaid’s outfit), exclusive readings from Atwood herself (limited appearances) and an intimate, live Q+A in the evening (broadcast at over 1,300 cinemas across the country). I watched the screening of the event from the National Photography Museum in Bradford, as the site is host to a Pictureville Cinema (according to the website, this cinema is, ‘one of only three public venues in the world that can still show 3-strip Cinerama’).
The Q+A with Atwood was hosted by reporter Samira Ahmed and primarily focused on the process of developing The Testaments and its cultural significance as a publication in 2019. In between questions, the screening featured a few live excerpts from The Testaments, read by actresses Ann Dowd, Sally Hawkins and Lily James.
Let it be known that the years have been kind to Atwood- watching the screening, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact the prolific author remains smart, sharp and witty with her responses, showing no signs of decline or slowing down. Both with questions pertaining to professional and personal spheres, she gave measured and articulate insights, often redirecting Ahmed’s questions with her answers and changing the tangent of the conversation. It was a thoroughly entertaining affair that garnered laughs, understanding nods and occasional winces from the audience I was a part of (a pretty impressive impact considering we were thousands of miles away in a remote cinema.)
Of the thematic inspiration behind The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood remarked that general events in the eighties signified a shift towards Gilead (the totalitarian state within the novel) and this was her primary focus whilst writing. An avid reader of titles such as 1984 (George Orwell) and Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), Atwood was sought to write The Handmaid’s Tale in a similar dystopic tone yet with the crucial subversion of writing from the female point-of-view. Initially, Atwood had tried to put the concept aside in favour of another writing project but she soon found herself bored with the task and returned to the ‘weirdness’ of The Handmaid’s Tale. Living in Berlin at the time, Atwood began by taking handwritten notes (she acknowledges that all her novels begin this way) before typing up a rough manuscript on a German typewriter. Often self-deprecating and rousing chuckles from the audience, Atwood described herself as a notoriously ‘bad typist’, leading to her manuscripts often being sent on to be amended by professionals. It was reassuring to hear that even professional writers have their quirks and unconventional rituals pre-publication, especially as a novice who favours handwriting over typing.
Atwood revealed that over time, she had often thought about continuing the narrative from The Handmaid’s Tale but felt that the changes she’d observed in the world marked a shift away from Gilead. Additionally, the continuation of Offred’s narrative seemed impossible, so Atwood simply shelved the notion and continued with her other projects. However, her willingness to resurrect the idea of a sequel was sparked by significant events such as 9/11, the financial meltdown, Bush administration and ‘3 Wise Republicans’ which all seemed to suggest that society was naturally taking a shift towards the totalitarian scheme of Gilead again.
The Testaments is differentiated from its predecessor by its multi-faceted accounts of living before, during and potentially post-Gilead. At the heart of the novel’s theme, Atwood states that her curiosity was drawn to how the regime would have successfully coerced educated women towards the cause. To explore this further, she gave the first narrative voice to Aunt Lydia who opens the novel and provides insight as to her memories of a pre-Gilead identity. Likening her previous stature to that of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Atwood delved more into the birth of totalitarianism and how this would have presented a split within pre-Gilead between opportunistic people who see a way forward for themselves versus those who genuinely believe in the ideology. The second narrative voice belongs to a young girl in Gilead, who sees only propaganda TV and isn’t allowed to read. The last narrative voice is assigned to a girl living outside of Gilead, aware of its existence yet none-the-wiser as to what the authentic lived experience within the state is like.
The debate as to whether Atwood’s works fall into the category of dystopic fiction or speculative fiction is longstanding due to Atwood’s ability to create worlds similar, yet so alien, from our current climate. Deep in the underbelly of all her stories, there’s a commentary on environmental, political and feminist issues that forces readers to critique the notion of progress in our modern society.
The Q+A offered nuanced questions that addressed both Atwood’s literary talents and her salient opinions on pressing global issues. Atwood didn’t hold back with her responses, proclaiming the environmental crisis to be the paramount issue above all others. She simply asserted that, “giving up is not an option” and that there’s great importance in solidarity, as this can force positive action. Atwood additionally noted that environmental instability leads to social unrest and that this tends to affect the most vulnerable in society, namely women and children. Suddenly, the issue was framed as a feminist one and forced us viewers to consider the parallels between humanity and the systematic oppression of the environment against men and the systematic oppression of women.
When Ahmed asked about the generational divide in addressing the environmental crisis, Atwood remarked unfavourably of the complacency in older generations, cynically stating that, “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” She also took the time to applaud the awareness efforts of the younger generations, led by the voices of those such as Greta Thunberg. Atwood’s message to the audience was surprisingly positive towards the end of the evening, she stated that she is personally more optimistic now than she was 50 years ago. This, in part, could be due to the fact that the very young people who are currently being ostracised for their rebellion will soon be able to vote for policies that will address the preservation of the environment so politicians should therefore, “take note” rather than alienate this demographic further.
Ahmed touched upon the controversy of the Handmaid costume being worn as a statement by women in official protests against governmental policies. Of the visual impact that the costume had achieved, Atwood gave her approval, drawing similarities between the oppression of women in Gilead and a world where we have, “Men in dark suits making decisions about people who are not them.” She never lost her steeliness as she discussed the trials and tribulations faced by women who seek agency, at long last, over their own bodies. I think the power of Atwood’s speech was in her refusal to simply comply to the narrative that things have irrevocably progressed; she remained fixed to the idea that there is a long way to go before we can proclaim that we have overcome gender disparity.
When asked about her status as a feminist, Atwood dismissed the label and instead responded that she wants “better times for all”, emphasising the need for a balance along all intersections. She referred to absolute power as the direct cause of exploitation, namedropping Epstein, Kavanaugh and Weinstein as examples of what can happen when people rise to the top and are protected by status and wealth. However, of male sexual predators preying upon young girls, Atwood also cynically remarked that, “this isn’t new”. Atwood’s tone was a firm reminder to all those of a younger generation in the audience; systematic inequalities are deeply embedded at the heart of our society and it is going to take a persistent rebellion to change that.
Following the Q+A, Atwood concluded the event with the reading of a poem she’d written entitled ‘Spelling’. The poem draws upon imagery such as women burning on the stake, women’s legs being tied together so they cannot give birth and women locking themselves away to prioritise careers, sacrificing motherhood in the process. The poem was a powerful ode to the women who were never entitled the right to express themselves and those women to come, who will face the same battles with fresh faces. Atwood’s message is that we should give voices to the voiceless and this resonated for a moment or two after she’d finished reading before the crowd burst into applause, both onscreen and within the screening I was part of.
It’s safe to say one of my favourite authors is the real deal and, even after all these years, has still got it. I can’t wait to read The Testaments and look forward to hearing about other people’s responses to the novel and the series.
Thanks for reading!