Category Archives: Margaret Atwood

“Freedom From” as Totalitarian Rhetoric

“But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or that it is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed technology,” explains Margaret Atwood in “Writing Utopia,” adding, “We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow.”

Or, we must admit, we are doing it right now.

Atwood’s most well know work is morphing itself into daily headlines, notably featuring a Republican governor from Florida:

As Atwood has warned, “freedom from” is the rhetoric of totalitarianism. In The Handmaid’s Tale, a few women are manipulated to control other women. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

The Handmaid’s Tale

Throughout the novel, readers must navigate how Offred (June) weaves the overlap of her own original ideas and vocabulary as that intersects with the propaganda of Gilead:

Will I ever be in a hotel room again? How I wasted them, those rooms, that freedom from being seen.

Rented license. (p. 50)

The Handmaid’s Tale

“Freedom” and “license” are exposed as bound words, the meanings contextual.

As Offred (June) continues to investigate rooms, she discovers a powerful but foreign phrase:

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin. Still it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next. (p. 52)

The Handmaid’s Tale

The power to control language includes defining words, often characterizing them incorrectly in the pursuit of political aims (such as “CRT” and “woke”), but also denying access to language—forbidding reading and writing, literacy, to those in bondage.

And then, Offred (June) explains about her life before Gilead:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)

The Handmaid’s Tale

And from that previous life of “ignoring” the other since it wasn’t about them, Offred (June) finds herself the procreation slave of a Commander, in “reduced circumstances” where she realizes: “There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (p. 94).

It takes a special kind of “ignoring” to allow “freedom to” to be erased by the calloused allure of “freedom from” uttered with a smile by a totalitarian.

Better that we listen to a novelist: “We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow.”

Beware lest we all no longer have any of the words needed to be free at all.


My Open Letters: 5 May 2022

Dear 20-Somethings:

First, speaking as a person in his 60s, I am sorry for this country being dismantled in front of you, the country you are entering as the newest wave of adults.

I spent my 20s in the 1980s, the Reagan era, the lingering era of AIDS. That was not the country or world that I wanted. My youth was, in fact, a time that inspired in part Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

My youth, too, was spent with an awareness of the tyranny of the Right, the authoritarian conservative threat that was poised to slip into fascism.

But I also know, adults tend not to listen to the young—children, teens, 20-somethings. Having been a teacher across five decades, I have spent a great deal of my life with young people because I genuinely love young people.

Young people are hope.

Young people represent promises that the rest of us have failed to honor.

Over the last 20 years teaching college, I have watched as young people in their late teens and early 20s have shifted. I am not a “kids today” person; I don’t believe young people are somehow worse now than in some manufactured good old days.

I am routinely stunned at how much smarter young people are now than when I was young.

But I am also aware young people don’t vote; like me, young people are often cynical that the system will work for them.

I have never been a member of a political party.

Republicans are morally bankrupt, and Democrats are spineless. Like W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin, I was a non-voter for many years myself.

But the rise of Trump changed that for me. I have conceded that all we have is an imperfect system. The great paradox is that we must use the imperfect system to create a better one.

We—and by “we” I mean not just Americans but humanity—need young people to be the change we failed to be.

My students have often groaned when I turn to literature, but I cannot think of anything better than this to explain the situation before us: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Can you be the best with passionate intensity in the name of a kinder world, a world where we guarantee freedom and the pursuit of happiness to all, instead of leveraging our power to deny, to demonize, and to hate?

Dear RNC:

You are the party of censorship.

You are the party of hate.

You are, ultimately, the party of lies.

There is no saving that party, but Republicans must not be allowed to spread that hatred in the name of righteousness.

You are spitting in the faces of the idealized Founding Fathers you idolize. You spend your time in office denying freedom to people not like you (white men).

There is no question for you. You are power-hungry authoritarians.

This is who you are.

Dear Anti-Abortion Advocates:

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

I recognize the anti-abortion movement as a forced-birth movement that is anti-women.

But I am willing to be wrong, to admit I am wrong, and to join with those of you who genuinely want to reduce unwanted births, and thus, abortions.

Criminalizing abortion and women does not reduce abortion. Criminalizing abortion and women only increases unsafe abortions and increases violence and death for women.

There are, however, kind and even Christ-like ways to reduce dramatically unwanted pregnancies and abortion:

  • Call for universal healthcare.
  • Call for fully publicly funded contraception.
  • Call for comprehensive sex education.
  • Demand that all the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are extended regardless of gender.

If you choose punishment, you are anti-woman, not anti-abortion.

If you choose punishment, you are abdicating any moral authority you believe you have.

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

So far, you have proven me right. Can you prove me wrong?

Dear White Women:

A majority of white women voted for Trump. Twice.

White women voted for a man on record laughing about sexual assault, a man credibly accused of sexual assault across his entire life, including a former wife.

But even worse than that, by remaining loyal to the Republican Party, white women are complicit in anti-women legislation, and an anti-woman Supreme Court.

Margaret Atwood, a white woman who has been recently criticized for her own faults, held up to the world the horror of women being complicit in the patriarchy.

It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, which Atwood dramatizes often in her novel in powerful and disturbing ways. It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, as Adrienne Rich captures in a poem:

And it is a shallow thing to demand that the oppressed rise up to change an oppressive world.

Although men are the problem, white men, white women have entrenched themselves so deeply in the power of white men that being complicit demands that white women join with the rest of us to say “No, this is not the country we want.”

Can you set aside your selfishness, your security, and do the right thing?

Dear DNC:

The world is on fire, and you want my money?

The world is on fire, and you have refused to even drive the firetruck out of the station, much less use the firehose in some sort of effort to end this nightmare.

You see the world being on fire as a political opportunity for you.

How is that different than the RNC setting the world on fire as a political opportunity for them?

I am not a “both sides” thinker. I cannot act as if the DNC and RNC are equally failing our country, failing humanity.

But the DNC is failing everything that matters.

Cancel student loan debt.

Codify Roe v. Wade.

Pass progressive legislation.

Can you act in a way that ends this raging fire, or are you content to simply shout, “The world is burning (so send us your donations)”?

I know that Republicans will aggressively continue being horrible humans, but I do not trust that Democrats are willing to do the right thing because the world being on fire creates political opportunities for both parties.

Just as Republicans are Republicans first, power mongers, Democrats seem trapped in that same conservative mindset.

Can you be Americans first, or better yet, humans first?

National Days of Teaching Truth: May 2022

See a listing of 31 texts for May HERE (add in comments any text you will be teaching and a date; I will add to the sheet)

May 1: “Help me”

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel): A Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault

The Handmaid’s Graphic Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

May 2

“We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

National Days of Teaching Truth to Power

May 3

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

May 4

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn


Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

May 5

Karl Marx: ten things to read if you want to understand him

Karl Marx (b. 5 May 1818)

The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde

May 6

The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Audre Lorde

May 7

Gender Queer: A Memoir, Maia Kobabe

What to Do When Your Kid Is Reading a Book That Makes You Uncomfortable

May 8

Letter from a Region in My Mind, James Baldwin

May 9

Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone

May 10

Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, Neil Gaiman

May 11

Vision: The Complete Collection

A Vision of Being Human: “Am I normal?”

May 12

Final Words of Advice/ “Where do we go from here?” 1967), Martin Luther King Jr.

George Carlin (May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008)

May 13

“Peculiar Benefits,” Roxane Gay

May 14

Maus, Art Spiegelman

May 15

The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson

May 16

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich (b. 16 May 1929)

May 17

“A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin

Time Magazine (James Baldwin, 17 May 1963)

May 18

Malcolm X press conference on deadly police raid in Los Angeles (footage excerpt, 1962)

May 19

A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry (b. 19 May 1930)

Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, later Malik el-Shabazz; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965)

Caribbean Matters: On Malcolm X’s birthday, remember that his mother’s Caribbean roots shaped him

May 20

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes

May 21

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks

White Lies, Black Incarceration, and the Promise of Reading in Prison

May 22

“We Real Cool,” Gwendolyn Brooks

May 23

Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller (b. 23 May 1810)

May 24

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument, Caroline Randall Williams

May 25

Statement to the Court, Eugene V. Debs

Kurt Vonnegut letter on censorship

May 26

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

May 27

All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson

May 28

The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde

May 29

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

May 30

“Incident,” Countee Cullen (b. 30 May 1903)

Banning the N-word on campus ain’t the answer — it censors Black professors like me, Vershawn Ashanti Young

May 31

“I Sing the Body Electric,” Walt Whitman (b. 31 May 1819)

Honey Bee: “Honey helps an open wound”

“Gradually, Toby stopped thinking she should leave the Gardeners,” begins Chapter 19 of Margaret Atwood’s book 2 of her Maddaddam Trilogy, The Year of the Flood.

The “flood” is the apocalyptic “Waterless Flood,” predicted by God’s Gardeners, a vegetarian sect, and created by Crake (Oryx and Crake, book 1 of the trilogy).

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, Book 1) by [Margaret Atwood]

“One day, old walnut-faced Pilar—Eve Six—asked Toby if she wanted to learn about bees,” and Toby does. The scene includes Pilar’s “bee lore”—such as “Honey helps an open wound”—and highlights the fragility of those bees under the weight of human negligence: “It was the pesticides, or the hot weather, or a disease, or maybe all of these—nobody knew exactly.”

Atwood’s trilogy, and this novel specifically, is quite chilling—for me a reread—in the time of Covid-19; our 2020 pandemic at least forces humans to confront our fragility, but it should also provoke some humility for our role in the entire ecosystem, Nature, or as Emily Dickinson envisions, “Landscape.”

What human behavior costs bees also costs humanity—bees as harbingers of our own inflicted doom.

That God’s Gardners are vegetarian, not vegan, is a distinction captured by their devotion and tending to honey bees. For several years now, I have been learning about veganism, and one of the most surprising elements was discovering that for vegans, honey remains a point of debate.

The standard “eat nothing with a face” framing of veganism is a bit fair, and a bit careless. Vegans also shun eggs and milk, produced by creatures with faces, driven by a concern for sentient life that is central to the Gardner’s in Atwood’s novel.

Some of veganism can be grounded in consent—creatures other than humans being given the same grace of consent for their lives and that which they produce—while some is certainly anchored in the sanctity of life, a rejection of reading “dominion” in Genesis as nature and all living creatures subject to the folly of humans.

While bees producing honey seems the same as chickens producing eggs and cows producing milk, the gathering of and using honey continues to be allowed among some vegans and rejected by others.

Once unpacked, in fact, veganism becomes a nearly inextricable ethical spider’s web of contradictions. Fruits and vegetables are not above the workings of nature and living creatures, pollination for example.

How arbitrary is the line between pollination and honey/egg/milk production?

One morning, a little over three years ago, seemingly in a different universe than the world we live in during April of 2020, I was opening a small packet of honey to put in my coffee at Starbucks.

This may have been around the time that I learned some vegans rejected the use of honey (vegans do not, however, shun sugar). So I found myself overwhelmed in that moment with recognizing the arrogance of being human, the work of bees so neatly and cavalierly packaged for human consumption.

For many years, I had avoided processed granular sugar by using honey in my coffee. In recent years, along with the ethical dilemma, I have had to admit that sugar is sugar in the human body so the commitment to honey has always been fairly arbitrary and pointless.

After some health concerns highlighted by blood work last fall, I have renewed my quest to be sugar free, and have even abandoned my dear honey, drinking coffee with creamer only.

That morning at Starbucks began a poem, we rape the bees (because we can), because I stood there thinking about bees as workers, and the stark reality in the U.S. that workers are seen as autonomous beings even as our capitalistic consumer culture compels us to work or find ourselves less than human.

Health care and retirement along with our wages are directly tied to our status as workers. As the Covid-19 crisis is showing us, without the security of health care and wages, we are all dehumanized.

Our Waterless Flood has been a sort of reverse baptism that should wash us clean of the sin of the inhumanities of capitalism. This pandemic may as well call us to reconsider not only our basic humanity but our oversized role in all of nature.

For us in the South, we fear the invisible threat of Covid-19 as pollen covers over everything during an April that has brought us temperatures in the 80s, a swarm of tornadoes, and a frost and freeze warning.

Is making honey and serving the queen simply the beeness of being a bee, an existential fact like Sisyphus and his rock? Is working in the service of the U.S. economy simply the basic humanity of being human as well, a fate shared with the bees?

I included lyrics from “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (The National)—“I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees”—in my poem, and am often drawn to lyrics and poetry about bees.

So as I approach the end of book 2 of Atwood’s trilogy while I also live a new life guided more than normal by simply surviving our Waterless Flood, I venture outside everyday for some relief, some peace—everything yellow-dusted in pollen—and eventually I cough and sneeze, tempered then by the new paranoia we all feel from the basic human reactions that may signal the Waterless Flood is right there before us.

One of my favorite spots to sit outside my apartment, a converted cotton mill in the quickly gentrifying South, is among an assortment of bees and wasps in the rafters of the deck overhang. So far, we share the space in harmony, although I have to calm my own knee-jerk fears.

Now, I am tempered by Atwood’s speculative novels that seem all too real, but also Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now,” published the same year I wrote my bee poem, ending: “And then all the bees were dead.”


Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose, Naomi Shihab Nye

[The murmuring of bees has ceased], Emily Dickinson

The Unforgettable Yoko Ogawa

My experience with Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police was filled with moments of disorientation that matched at a much smaller level the events of the novel, set on an unnamed island where the inhabitants suffer through a series of disappearances under the surveillance of the Memory Police.

First, I was drawn to the stunning cover and a description promising a stark work of science fiction.

Since I received a hardback copy and the inside flap claims the novel is a “stunning new work,” I began reading the work as exactly that—a newly published novel by a young writer.

Yet, as I read, the genre wasn’t so neatly clearcut, and I soon learned the novel is from 1994, the English translation being new, but Ogawa, now in her late 50s, has a celebrated career in Japan.

“I sometimes wonder,” the narrator begins, “what was disappeared first—among all the things that have vanished from the island” (p. 3). And from there, the novel proceeds ominously but softly, or subtly, in a voice and a story that do prove to be stark but defy a simple label of science fiction; at turns it reads as fantasy, and then as fable or allegory.

For a book centered on the provocative act of disappearing, I was drawn as well to how much is not there to begin with. Character names and place names are missing or sparse. But I also felt off balance, disoriented, by the mismatch between the patient and soft narration against the foreboding doom of the disappearances, some of which seem minor although the loss and the ever-present threat of the Memory Police render all of the disappearances life-altering.

Reading Ogawa for the first time reminded me of Haruki Murakami, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and Philip K. Dick—although I quickly warmed to seeing the novel as purely a work by Ogawa. In some ways there is a sense of detachment and very slow development I find often Murakami, and may be shared qualities of Japanese narrative.

Broadly, Ogawa’s fable is a powerful reflection of Camus’s existential message from The Stranger: “after a while you could get used to anything” (p. 77). However, in Ogawa’s allegorical nightmare, that concept is both proven and stretched almost beyond comprehension by the end of the novel.

It is the similarity with Philip K. Dick that sits strongest with me, though. Like Dick, Ogawa creates a pervasive sense of foreboding and fatalism in the lives of the characters. The totalitarian reality of The Memory Police is similar to many of Dick’s works as well as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, but Ogawa keeps the reader detached from and uninformed about the facts of that oppressive society.

Also similar to Dick, Ogawa investigates human nature, including what makes anyone human—or in this case, what can a human lose and still remain human (similar to a motif in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go).

Another sparse aspect of the novel is plot, but as a reader, I was fully engaged with the characters; Ogawa’s careful and delicate portrayal of friendship and intimacy suggests that at least one key component of being fully human is our community with others.

The Memory Police begins calmly and persistently, but it never really reaches a boil or fever pitch, ultimately fading to the end more so than disappearing suddenly as is the case within the narrative. The novel, in fact. ends with the word “disappear,” and I was left filled and emptied simultaneously.

While reading this novel, I ordered four more of Ogawa’s works, and immediately began The Housekeeper and the Professor, where I found a rhythm that feels distinctly Ogawa’s.

Image result for the housekeeper and the professor"

While this slim novel reads as literacy fiction with a touch of allegory, absent many of the conventions of genre fiction, Ogawa once again deals with memory. In The Memory Police, characters not only have material disappearances, but over time, most of the characters no longer remember what has been lost—except for the rare few who become targets of the Memory Police.

Recall becomes dangerous, and suggests those with their memories intact have power that the omnipresent Memory Police are charged with erasing.

The premise of The Housekeeper and the Professor is not fantastical, but it is exceptional; the Professor of the title is an aging mathematical genius who, after an accident, has only 80 minutes at a time of memory along with his memory of his life prior to 1975.

Since his short-term memory constantly resets, his sister-in-law, alone as his caretaker, is challenged to keep a housekeeper employed to manage his life.

Ogawa builds on this unusual circumstance a really sweet and beautiful narrative about the housekeeper, her young son (dubbed Root by the Professor), and the Professor. The characters are often gentle and kind souls, often delicate, in spite of the odd nature of the Professor’s life and their tenuous relationships.

The story is often quirky, and Ogawa manages several moments of real tension on much smaller levels than in The Memory Police, but palpable tension none the less.

Although not essential knowledge for the reader, this novel’s use of mathematical principles is the motif that holds the story together, more weighty than the low profile of the plot and the slow development of the themes and characterizations. For the Professor and eventually the housekeeper and her son, math is beautiful and fascinating.

In Ogawa’s work, memory as that blends with all human relationships seems to be an essential element of being fully human, but in The Housekeeper and the Professor, readers also witness something about our basic humanity, for example in how the Professor interacts with and teaches Root:

Among the many things that made the Professor an excellent teachers was the fact that he wasn’t afraid to say “we don’t know.” For the Professor, there was no shame in admitting you didn’t have the answer, it was a necessary step toward the truth. It was as important to teach us about the unknown or the unknowable as it was to teach us what had already been safely proven. (p. 63)

That last sentence, I think, is a wonderful description of my experience reading Ogawa, which now continues with her collected three novellas, The Diving Pool.

Recommended Works in English Translation

Haruki Murakami

After the Winter, Guadalupe Nettel

The Plotters, Un-su Kim

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera

The Vegetarian, Han Kang

The White Book, Han Kang

The Polyglot Lovers, Lina Wolff

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. (p. 303)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple Continue reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Things Fall Apart for Women (Again): Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks

My closest reading friend is a young woman in her 20s, an English major and high school English teacher. Recently, she asked me with a chilling earnestness, “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

The question was prompted about my home state of South Carolina because I was telling her about finishing Red Clocks by Leni Zumas—simultaneously with hearing about the impending possibility of Tennessee passing essentially an abortion ban.

Red Clocks cover copy.jpg
Red Clocks, Leni Zumas

Like nearby Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee is poised to join a movement across the U.S. to overturn Roe v. Wade; South Carolina Governor McMaster has guaranteed to join that movement.

Zumas’s novel has drawn comparison’s to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because of its powerful but disturbing near-future speculative fiction rendering of the U.S. post-Roe v. Wade.

Red Clocks tests readers’ comfort with near in her speculation about the life of women after a complete abortion ban in the U.S., including a Pink Wall that denies those women access to abortion in Canada.

Zumas has Atwood’s gift for incisive language—along with Pink Wall, the Personhood Amendment and the Every Child Needs Two law—and setting the novel in Oregon seems an allusion to Ursula K. Le Guin, who famously sparred with Atwood about labels such as “science fiction” (which Kurt Vonnegut wrestled with and against), “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.”

Once I finished reading, I felt the most compelling aspect of the work is Zumas’s deft blending of allegory (the central characters and rotating limited narration through the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife, reminding me of Jeff VanderMeer’s techniques in his Souther Reach Trilogy) with stark relevance to now.

Zumas includes as well a recurring fifth key, although tangential, woman to the narrative, “[t]he polar explorer Eivor Minervudottir”—both a sparsely detailed would-be subject of the Biographer and a representative of the lost women of science (her great work of research eventually published under a man’s name because Sir George Gabriel Stokes in a rejection letter explains it is “a paper which, it is patently clear, you did not write”).

Ultimately, as a reader, I wondered if this prescient work of fiction had presented too sharp a blade for exposing the historical and current burden of simply being a woman, a burden inextricably tied to being sexual and reproductive beings.

Had, I asked, Zumas failed James Baldwin’s litmus test about protest novels?

Along with supporting the politics of the narrative and the work’s relatively overt nudges toward activism, I found the novel a rich and excellent work of speculative fiction because the more I read, the more I was drawn to keep reading. That compulsion was firmly grounded in the characters, flawed often but always sympathetic in a wide range of ways linked to both their unique personal qualities and how they share as well as highlight the many ways the world (and U.S.) remains hostile to their simply being women.

When I stumbled in my reading of this novel, it was the limited third-person narrative that drifts into a sort of stream of consciousness and (like in Atwood’s work) a thin whiteness to the focus that makes me nervous the work can too easily be discounted as the sort of work some white women do that is hyper-feminist to the exclusion of admitting that race and racism cannot be separated from the fight for gender equality.

Zumas and her novel, I think, easily rise above these concerns, again because the politics and prescience are incisive and the narrative and characters are expertly wrought. Above all else, I wanted to remain with these characters because I genuinely cared for their lives and their dilemmas, often intertwined directly but always shared by their womanhood.

[spoiler alert]

The Wife, for example, pulls together many of the feminist thematic elements  in the novel. She frets about her labia, her empty marriage, the possibility of suicide, and her personal ennui grounded in forgoing her law career to be a mother—all while she positions herself to have an affair with a colleague of her husband.

While the affair never materializes (at the pivotal moment when she thinks it will happen, she has to confront, “He does not want her”), the Wife does finally initiate leaving her husband and her marriage, a scene that ends ominously:

The wife kneels on the path.

…She reaches for the black earth.

Her body yearns, inexplicably, to taste it.

Brings a handful to her lips. The minerals sizzle on her tongue, rich with the gists of flower and bone.

…Bright minerals. Powdered feathers. Ancient shells.

And then there is the guilt of being her own Self as well as a member of the tribe of women, the allegiances to both in conflict. While attending the trial of the Mender, represented by a former friend of the Wife from her law school days, she confronts that guilt:

Has the wife become a person who believes all accounts?

Sort of, yes, she has.

She has been too tired to care.

The Personhood Amendment, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the calls for abortion providers to face the death penalty—the person she planned to be would care about this mess, would bother to be furious.

Too tired to be furious.

This Brave New World closing in on the Mender, the Daughter, and the Biographer in direct and terrifying ways has, to the Wife, mostly not been about her directly, a wife and mother of two living rent-free in a family home.

Navigating the Wife in this novel was parallel to the bitter pill of a majority of white women voters choosing Trump—sacrificing the good of women for the perceived personal comfort they have in their own lives.

However, the Wife’s fear of change is only nearly paralyzing since she ultimately, it seems, takes the initiative toward a new life, one less secure and more directly jeopardized by the erasure of women’s rights.

The story circles back from the opening focus on the Biographer and her subject to the closing chapter that concludes the novel with the word “possible,” reminding me of Adrienne Rich’s work and Atwood’s framing of speculative fiction:

“I’m an optimist,” the decorated Canadian author explained by phone to during a tour for her most recent book, The Year of the Flood, published in September. “Anyone who writes this kind of stuff probably is. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t waste your time writing the books.”

I am afraid, none the less, and haunted by my reading friend’s question: “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

What will any of us do? What are any of us doing now?

Banned in the U.S.A.: The Right’s Assault on Other Women

“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to,” retells Offred in Part II, Chapter 6, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (p. 33).

From the graphic novel adaptation.

Readers have just been introduced to public executions in Gilead: “Now we turn our backs on the church and there is the thing we’ve in truth come to see: the Wall” (p. 31). On this day,

The men [hangin from…hooks] wear white coats …. Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. … They’ve been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or — more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen — by informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible. (pp. 32-33)

From the graphic novel adaptation.

Atwood’s speculative theocracy is heavily grounded in a perverse worshipping of some women as possible vessels of childbirth since the birthrates of whites were in steep decline due to environmental toxins.

With a conservative shift in the Supreme Court in the United States under Trump, Georgia and Alabama have passed extreme anti-abortion laws, openly admitting they are designed to overturn Roe v. Wade—to make abortion once again illegal in the country.

Several aspects of these moves to deny women autonomy over their bodies are obscured by Orwellian language (“heartbeat legislation”) and rhetorical bows to protecting life. First, in countries where abortion is legal and safe, abortion rates are often lower than in countries banning abortion, but there are strong correlations also between legal abortion and overall health, safety, and autonomy of women.

In short, access to legal and safe abortion is a subset of overall healthcare for women.

Second, and this may be one of the more troubling realities of moves to ban abortion, these bans on abortion and the possible criminalizing of women and medical professionals (see the novel excerpts above) are never going to be realities for the wives, daughters, and mistresses of the wealthy white men passing the laws.

Throughout history in the U.S., as with all laws, wealthy women will always have access to abortions as well as overall healthcare for themselves and their children.

The current move to ban abortion in the U.S. is about other women—those women marginalized by their social class and race.

These laws may also criminalize miscarriages and birth control; they are designed to strike fear into the medical field and other women.

These first moves serve the same purpose as the Wall:

It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men like dolls on which the faces have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare. (p. 32)

Aunt Lydia’s reassurance—”It will become ordinary”—echoes a chilling tenet from Albert Camus’s The Stranger expressed by Meursault in prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of Atwood’s novel is about retelling the story of Offred’s life before and during Gilead—about how easily human dignity and human agency can be erased, slowly like a lobster in a boiling pot of water, or like a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s  The Sun Also Rises when Bill asks Mike Campbell how Mike goes bankrupt, and Mike answers: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly'” (p. 141).

In Trumplandia, as rightwing politicians pass anti-abortion laws, assaults on other women, we are now in the gradually.

Will this become ordinary—suddenly?

The Handmaid’s Graphic Tale

The enduring power of reading and teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale lies in both her gifts for storytelling and her love for language revealed in her playing with words.

Regardless of the genre or form, Atwood loves to make us flinch with the turn of a phrase:

“You Fit into Me”

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

When I was teaching Advanced Placement Literature for high school students in the rural South, I found one of the best lessons revolved around Atwood’s investigation of graphic language during The Ceremony in Chapter 16:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

My students and I also found the wordplay throughout the novel as engaging as the characters and narratives, notably the scene when the Commander ushers Offred to his room for a rendezvous that turns out to be a surprising form of infidelity, Scrabble:

“I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,” he says.

I hold myself absolutely rigid. I keep my face unmoving. So that’s what’s in the forbidden room! Scrabble! I want to laugh, shriek with laughter, fall off my chair….

Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent. Now it’s something he can’t do with his Wife. Now it’s desirable. Now he’s compromised himself. It’s as if he’s offered me drugs….

What does [Nick] get for it, his role as page boy? How does he feel, pimping in this ambiguous way for the Commander? Does it fill him with disgust, or make him want more of me, want me more? Because he has no idea what really goes on in there, among the books. Acts of perversion, for all he knows. The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint. Well, he wouldn’t be far off at that….

Caught in the act, sinfully Scrabbling. Quick, eat those words. (pp. 138-139, 181)

This language-rich element of Atwood’s fiction as well as her wordplay poses a challenge for adapting this novel to film and more recently a series. Adaptation, however, allows a seminal work to grow, expand, and even change, as the series now moves beyond the original narrative in ways similar to The Walking Dead.

Atwood’s interest in blending and breaking genre and her work in graphic media suggest that the latest adaptation fits perfectly into the expanding body of work drawn from The Handmaid’s Tale:

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel): A Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault

As part of the adaptation process from novel to graphic novel, Renée Nault notes that she did not watch the Hulu series, but the process entailed:

Nault worked first-hand with Atwood to pare down the story — about a dystopian future where America has become a brutal theocracy and fertile women are the property of powerful men — then bring it to life on the page.

The resulting tome…is 240 pages of arresting watercolor illustrations, depicting the novel’s grim world in muted grays and browns with shocks of red from the handmaids’ distinctive red cloaks.

“Some books would be very hard to adapt in this way, but ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is awash in visual symbolism — partly because women in it are not allowed to read,” the 79-year-old author said.

They were also able to convey some things that text — and even a TV show — never could.

My love for Atwood’s work and comic books/graphic novels informed my reading of this adaptation. Yet, I was initially concerned about how I would feel since much of the adaptation involves the loss of Atwood’s rich language, although the artwork is stunning in its place:

Language does not suffer, however, since Nault’s use of language includes a judicious series of decisions about when to be sparse and when to swim in Atwood’s language. As well, the graphic adaptation allows a diversity of fonts and word placement, notably in the Scrabble scene, that amplifies the power of language.

This graphic adaptation adds diversity of narrative pace and framing through Nault’s choices about page layouts, even, at time, conforming to fairly standard comic book panels:

Since Atwood uses iconography and color throughout the novel, the adaptation is rich with both:

One of the earliest versions of a first-year writing seminar I taught was grounded in works that are in multiple forms of adaptation, such as a novel to a film (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Blade Runner, for example). Often we examined the fidelity of the adaptation—the novel and film of World War Z come to mind—but we also tried to work toward evaluating adaptations on their own merits, not just “Is this a good adaptation in terms of remaining true to the original?”

My strongest quibble of the graphic adaption is that the Historical Notes section feels far too clipped, but in many ways, in the novel, it serves to reinforce much of the language and academic elements of the story. Noting this small weakness also highlights that the graphic novel tends to lose the humor, albeit very dark, weaved throughout by Atwood.

Ultimately, as a reader and a teacher, I think this graphic adaptation soars as a work on its own and as an introduction or companion to Atwood’s original work. Reading or teaching these works separately or together still leads to the final and haunting line: “Are there any questions?”

Thirty-plus years since Atwood raised this ominous question, we are finding ever-new and disturbing ways to shake our heads and wrestle with hard questions and maybe some answers that help us overcome our current nightmares depicted off kilter by speculative fiction, text-only or graphic, and avoid some Other World that feels just over the horizon.