Since her classic 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into a TV series for Hulu, Margaret Atwood has used the story as a jumping-off point for discussion around current events.
In a recent call for more public library funding, Atwood reminded fans there are no libraries in Gilead, her fictional authoritarian regime. (“It’s no coincidence,” she added.) Atwood noted that a free press was not protected in Gilead, either, in a letter distributed by PEN America earlier this year regarding censorship and free expression.
Most recently, the author brought up Gilead at New York City’s BookCon 2017 this past weekend, likening recent abortion legislation in Texas to “a form of slavery.”
Atwood spoke on a panel alongside “The Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller, discussing the historical precedents for Gilead and the intersection of their art and activism.
“I’m not a real activist,” Atwood explained, because activists get paid for their work, and she, on the other hand, doesn’t “have a job.” Her perch as an artist, she continued, makes it possible for her to say the things that others want to say, but feel unable to. For this reason, she said, she would never survive a fascist society because artists are usually targeted first.
“So, you are not yet living in a fascist society,” Atwood told BookCon crowds. “Whoopee.”
When the panel opened up to audience questions, Atwood was asked to put her speculative fiction abilities to use to predict what’s in store for the United States.
“I’m not a clairvoyant,” Atwood said. Instead, she said she looks at what’s happened in the past ― and what’s happening in the present ― when creating future, fictional worlds.
“I was born in 1939,” she said. “What was going on in 1939?”
Atwood continued to explain that she’s read a great deal about fascism, and is an avid reader of prisoners’ diaries. In fact, when asked what further reading she would recommend to fans of her book, she suggested The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: a History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer.
So, The Handmaid’s Tale arose from her imagining what fascism would look like in America. “It wouldn’t be atheistic,” she said.
While she didn’t feel qualified to comment on America’s possible future, she did provide a lengthy, impassioned comment on the current state of affairs ― regarding a question about abortion legislation in Texas.
“I’m [...] waiting for a lawsuit that says if you force me to have children I cannot afford, you should pay for the process,” she said. “It is really a form of slavery to force women to have children that they cannot afford and then to say that they have to raise them.”
Atwood also addressed the ways in which the Hulu adaptation of her book takes seriously the issue of climate change. Pollution and other environmental concerns catalyze the establishment of Gilead in the book, but in the show, the changing climate is more central to the plot.
The update to the show, Atwood said, was made to reflect what’s currently happening in the world. The author cited the example of everyday plastics affecting male fertility.
“But you’re not allowed to say that,” she noted.
Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale ― both the book and the TV show ― will know that her comments fit with the world Atwood wrote about. In her fictional Gilead, women bear the burden of society’s fertility issues, while male infertility is either ignored or dealt with in secrecy. That Atwood ensured her story was drawn from events and trends already existing in real life makes her vision of a possible future that much more frightening.
Editor’s note: The author of this article moderated the BookCon panel featuring Margaret Atwood and Bruce Miller.