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Author Margaret Atwood Shares Her Wit And Wisdom With The Goucher Community


On Friday, April 12, Goucher held the 2024 Meyerhoff Lecture, hosted by esteemed Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Atwood has written over fifty works, but is most famous as the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, a seminal piece of dystopian literature that gained a new prominence with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the release of an equally acclaimed television adaptation on Hulu the following year.

This lecture, delayed from its original date in November for undisclosed reasons, was created in 1980 by Jane Bernstein Meyerhoff ‘45 and her husband Robert E. Meyerhoff. The lecture has previously been given by a wide variety of well-known figures, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jane Goodall, Garry Kasparov, and even Robert F. Kennedy Jr.. Ironically, the next lecture will be given by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who will be interviewed in the fall by NPR journalist Scott Simon.

After a brief introduction from President Kent Devereaux, the forum began. The lecture was given through a sort of interview format, with moderator and Goucher professor Antje Rauwerda asking Atwood a set of pre-prepared questions, followed by a short Q&A period. Rauwerda’s first question was if Atwood has any questions she doesn’t like being asked. Atwood replied that one question she was frequently asked in her youth was if she hated men, to which she answered “which men?”

Referencing how the outfits that the handmaids are forced to wear in the television adaptation have become ubiquitous at protests since the Trump era, Rauwerda recalled seeing a sticker featuring a handmaid outfit saying, “vote while you still can,” and asked how Atwood felt about creating an iconic symbol of women’s rights. Atwood then told a story about women in Texas protesting the state’s abortion ban, who, despite getting the wrong dress in their order, sewed their own handmaid outfits, while mentioning the importance of its appearance on television. 

Atwood was then asked about why she writes about women struggling against adversity, to which she replied that she writes about women because “she’s lazy,” and she writes about adversity because “you can’t stop [her]”. She then reminisced about a play that she watched where the only action was a waiter asking a customer for their order ad nauseam, and stated that adversity, whether something fantastical like an alien or vampire, or more realistic challenges like the kinds she chooses to write about, is necessary to a plot.

Rauwerda asked Atwood if she always had stories in her head, to which the latter responded that everyone had stories in their head, from the story of their life to singing commercials from 1952. She then spoke about the history of folk songs and ballads as a form of news. When answering a question about what happened when her writing went “pear shaped”, Atwood said that she usually throws them out, giving an example from the 1960s when she tried to organize her work by writing her characters on filing cards, but immediately realized that it would be a failure.

Rauwerda told Atwood that she admires how she is always surprised by the author’s poetry. Atwood replied that this is unintentional, and Rauwerda asked Atwood if she would ever be a standup comedian, to which the former said, “I don’t think so.” Atwood said that her next project is a large selection of poems coming out in the fall, as well as a memoir. Atwood then quoted another Canadian author, who said that he was writing a memoir because “people have died,” but stated that, although she was planning on writing about people who are now deceased, she hasn’t been waiting around for them to die so she could write about them.

  Rauwerda then reminisced about a poem where Atwood mentioned that “monosyllables are masculine, and polysyllables are feminine.” Atwood said that that was a satirical piece, and told a story about a time where she went to a women’s symposium in Wales, and did a workshop on men’s novels, satirizing the view of women’s novels as being their own genre, somehow separate from “mainstream fiction.” 

When asked about the theme of environmental degradation in her works, Atwood mentioned historical events such as the Black Death and the French Revolution that changed the course of history, and the environmental factors (poor immune systems, bad harvests) that exacerbated them. She then spoke about how people are concerned about trace amounts of plastic in their bloodstream, and how, while we have avoided some worst case scenarios such as the ozone hole, it takes a lot of work to create even a practical utopia. Atwood noted that utopian societies such as Revolutionary French failed because they were unable to implement basic things such as currency. 

The event then moved to a question and answers period, and Atwood responded, in her typical deadpan manner, that she had been asked every question in the book. When asked if The Handmaid’s Tale was a fantasy or a cautionary tale, Atwood said it was the latter, and spoke about how moral panics erode democratic norms, advising the audience to watch and see if they were being violated. She mentioned a law from the French Revolution that heavily limited the rights of the accused in order to continue the Reign of Terror, and how guilt was decided based on whether someone looked guilty or not. 

One questioner mentioned how Anne Patchett spoke about how she limits her interactions with technology in order to protect her writing process, and asked how Atwood balances her writing career and social media usage. Atwood responded that she focuses on her interests in science and military history, the latter of which she inherited from her father-in-law, a general in World War II, and answered that she gets through the less interesting parts of writing by “just doing it.”

Asked by a fellow Canadian how close the United States is to Gilead, Atwood pessimistically replied that certain states have taken untenable positions, referencing the IVF ruling in Alabama, which she morbidly joked about meaning that embryos now have inheritance rights. Atwood then replied that the catalyst for The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopia, a massive fall in birthrates, seems to be coming closer to reality in many advanced economies. 

One Goucher student said that she had multiple questions on her mind, but asked the one that no one has asked her. This student, another woman who enjoys the traditionally male-dominated military history, asked Atwood what she finds interesting about the subject, to which Atwood replied that it was because of the logistics of it all, and recommended Philips P. O’Brien’s Substack, before mentioning that much of her interest in the subject comes from the fact that she was born 1939, just months after the beginning of World War II.

Another Canadian asked Atwood about her writing about the lack of a Canadian identity, and whether it has changed. “Everything changes all the time,” replied Atwood, noting that there was a surge of Canadian pride during the World Wars, when they suffered massive losses but won decisive victories, and noted that what it means to be a Canadian changes every ten years.

For the last question, an attendee recalled how in 2012, Atwood wished her good luck on her master’s thesis through Twitter, and asked about what Atwood’s thoughts were on raising children in today’s world. Atwood, a grandmother, said that the challenges her children are facing as parents are different from what her generation faced, but that fears of nuclear war in the 1960s and fears of climate change in the 2020s are more similar than one would think. She then said that, if one wants to have a baby, they should take the gamble despite the odds, comparing being a parent to being an author or painter.

Rory (he/him) is News Editor for The Quindecim. He is a junior and Professional and Creative Writing Major, with a minor in History. Rory is from Amherst, MA and a graduate of Academy at Charlemont. He has 15 months of professional writing experience, and often writes short stories in his free time. He enjoys acting occasionally, having done theater in high school, and taking part in the Improv Club at Goucher. Rory is also an avid global traveller, and has been to all seven continents, including Antarctica!!!!

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