Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021
(Margaret Atwood, 2022)
Margaret Atwood, cultural icon and multi-award-winning author of more than fifty books published in more than forty-five countries, is perhaps best-known for The Handmaid’s Tale (novel and TV series). She’s a brilliant, fearless critic and also, very funny. Her new collection of essays and “occasional pieces” (introductions, speeches, obituaries) covers the years 2004 through 2021. Split into five sections over some five hundred pages, these pieces can be read chronologically but also work well thematically. As she writes in her detailed (and very helpful) introduction, Atwood calls this collection Burning Questions, “possibly because the questions we’ve been faced with so far in the twenty-first century are more than urgent.” For example, the planet, states Atwood, is quite literally burning up. Each of these pieces stands alone, but there are recurrent themes and questions, “burning questions I’ve been asked, and have asked myself, over the course of the past two decades.” Questions Atwood suggests these pieces are “attempts” to answer or “essays” since, “That’s what essay means, after all: an attempt. An effort.”
For Atwood, each section is marked by “an event or turning point,” including the aftermath of 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, Obama’s presidency, the 2016 US election, the rise of #MeToo, the 2020 election, COVID-19, and more personal markers: her partner Graeme Gibson’s dementia diagnosis and later death, and work milestones: filming The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, the writing/publication of novels and her poetry collection, Dearly. Individual pieces cover a broad range of topics and forms, and with many, Atwood presents a mix of digression into autobiographical vignettes (counting bugs in the Canadian woods with her father, semi-disastrous forays into fashion, discovering Tarot, leaky roofs) with cultural critique (from Simone de Beauvoir and second wave feminism to the treatment of female students at Harvard), and then looping back to the stated topic again. A common refrain in these highly discursive pieces is, “but I digress,” which, with any writer of lesser skill, would be annoying. But it’s not, she’s not. Because many of these pieces were written as lectures or speeches for various groups (students, lawyers, neurologists, nurses), we can hear Atwood’s voice leap off the page. Others written as book reviews and introductions for everyone from Bradbury to her own husband’s posthumous reissues, are just as vibrant because, of course, Atwood’s writing voice is both accessible and compelling: she invites you in, and you want to keep reading.
Often her statements are blunt and fearless, sometimes sharp and slippery. She is, she says, “a Scorpio” and has “never known why people have sometimes felt threatened,” since she is “no bother at all unless stepped on.” Although she’s been referred to (accused of?) being prophetic with her work on the 2008 financial crash, her environmental writing, and of course The Handmaid’s Tale, she states from the outset, “I’d like to make it clear that I don’t go in for prophecy, not as such.” But she is observant. Throughout the collection, she describes moments in her writing process including living in Berlin (before the Wall fell) and Alabama (teaching) while writing The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopia inspired by Orwell but, unlike the majority of dystopias, written from a woman’s point of view.
Writers can learn a lot from reading Atwood: not just the shape of her sentences, the way she moves seamlessly between topics (love, politics, words, myth, history, clothes, bugs, brains), but also in those moments when she is very specific about process: “Read a lot. Write a lot. Watch and listen and work and wait.” She tells a funny story about her first book signing for her first novel, The Edible Woman, where she was shoved into a corner of the men’s underwear department at a retail store. She battles with writer’s block and suggests, “if you’re blocked, try changing the tense or the person.” She spreads out across pages what she identifies as treasures from “the word-hoard”: Shakespeare, folk and fairy tales, myths and religious stories; of course, we don’t all speak Latin and few of us studied with Northrop Frye, but her love of words and stories sing off the page. She’s also honest about writing: it’s not easy and you “must have all three things: the talent, the hard work, and the passion,” also “luck.”
Many of the pieces in the collection touch on the environment, the climate disaster, our failure to stop or even slow our destruction of our lived environment. In “Wetlands,” she defends herself against those who’ve called her “harsh,” because being “alarmist is good when the building’s on fire.” And though she was speaking in this instance in 2006, she still rings true, “In a world of mass epidemic or catastrophe, having lots of money and a private medical plan is not going to do you any good.” Indeed. Her tribute to Rachel Carson on the fiftieth anniversary of Silent Spring is essential reading, particularly in the way Atwood links her personal history with our shared history of climate disaster. In “How to Change the World?” she provides an in-depth identification of core issues, suggestions of how to move forward, and the role of speculative fiction in highlighting and encouraging change. And then she gives us this zinger, “Nature doesn’t care about our human wishes. Physics and chemistry do not negotiate, and they don’t give second chances.”
About halfway through the collection is “Reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale” written for the thirtieth anniversary of the novel’s first publication. Initially, she tells us, the novel “got dissed in the New York Times” but readers loved it, and she provides both a celebration (she loves that people dress up as handmaids on Halloween) and a history of the sources and inspirations for her novel, asking the questions, “Does this novel still have relevance? If so, what and why? Can novels be prophetic, and if not, why not?” It’s a brilliant study in the creation and life of a book and the ways speculative fiction can show us possible futures and, hopefully, inspire us to take different routes.
While Atwood can be silly (see “Cat’s Robo-Cradle”) and sharply funny (“Anne of Green Gables,” “Bring Up the Bodies”), she can also be fearless, calling out injustice wherever she sees it (she’s a longtime supporter of Amnesty and PEN). In her pieces on Eduardo Galeano (“Memory of Fire”), on enforced childbirth (“A Slave State?”), and “We Are Double-Plus Unfree,” she pulls no punches. For Atwood, modern society is “double-plus unfree” (using Orwell’s language), governments apply the “methods of agribusiness cattle-raising to us: ear-tag, barcode, number sort, record. And cull, of course.” Our prison systems are not for reform but simply warehouses “where people are stashed”—in the US young Black men and in Canada, young First Nations men (also, women, I would add). Of course, Atwood is often positioned as the champion of feminism (not everyone agrees with this—see her piece “Am I A Bad Feminist?”).
Certainly, there’s a powerful visual impact to her novel’s inspired handmaids showing up in pro-choice protests: all those red hoods (!), but in a 2016 speech “We Hang By A Thread,” she continues to provide the necessary claxon call, “This is a reminder to us that the hard-won rights for women and girls that many of us now take for granted could be snatched away at any moment.” In this piece, Atwood acknowledges her place as an icon but tells us, “I was not always the supposedly revered elderly icon or scary witchy granny figure you see before you today. I did not always have a battalion of invisible imps and goblins to come to aid in the form of 1.29 million Twitter followers.” (over 2 million at the time I’m writing this). And while this is a nod toward her position and her power, in “Tell. The. Truth.” (a speech to accept the CHS Burke Medal at Trinity College, Dublin), Atwood asks “But what is power?” In this speech, she quotes both Orwell and Le Guin in a discussion of what it means to write, to speak back to power. For Orwell, “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear… Tell. The. Truth.” And for Le Guin, “Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice.” But, Atwood reminds us, “An emotion does not justify an action.” Instead, as writers, we must “do the research. Cross-check everything for accuracy. Make sure you’ve got the facts.”
In writing about Bradbury, Atwood provides an excellent description of herself, “[he] had a lot on his mind or possibly a lot in his mind. His wide range of interests, his boundless curiosity, his versatility, his inventiveness, and his fascination with human nature.…” All of these are aspects of Atwood’s own work that show up throughout this collection, as she says, “warts and all.” When we ask the question of what does it mean to be human, Atwood states, “the arts are not a frill. They are the heart of the matter.” Despite the difficult truths told across these many pages, there is humor here and there is hope, “It’s dark inside the wolf, yes; but it’s light outside the wolf. So: how can we get there?” Atwood proclaims herself “a screaming optimist” and even in her deep dive into our fascination with zombies, she addresses us directly: “I wish you hope.”
This collection clearly shows what many of us already know, Atwood is one of our greatest writers, and although she claims to not be prophetic (ha!), we should all pay attention to what she’s saying.