Interview
23 Apr 2018

Margaret Atwood -- many futures are possible

Though her dystopian books describe a future that is getting closer and closer to reality, Atwood is not a prophet. Just well read and realistic. And she says we’re headed for trouble.

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--The following are fragments translated from Michał Nogaś's interview with Margaret Atwood which appeared in Polish in 2017, in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.

Michał Nogaś: Can a writer be a prophet?

Margaret Atwood: No one can be a prophet. At least no one should be, in our time, as long as they have the power to walk the earth. Too much happens in real life, and times are too uncertain to imagine that any single future exists.

The longer I live, the more certain I am that many futures can happen, and each of them is plausible.

I know that when a future described by a writer suddenly starts to come true, people start to claim that authors of fiction have prophetic powers. There’s no such thing. Writers are often well educated, are always reading, and so they try to draw conclusions. That’s what it is and no more.

MN: You’ve predicted global catastrophe.

I no longer predict it; it’s happening, faster than we can manage. You and I both know that every day we push these thoughts away. But let’s try a quick exercise. Do you believe that the grass doesn’t smell like it used to? That from year to year, nature sends us less and less intense fragrances? We can no longer remember what flowers smelled like ten years ago, right? I think about this constantly and remember.

The world is losing its scents and colors. Everything is turning grey. And what is happening with the Arctic? How much longer can we pretend not to see these things?

MN: So what happens next?

Nothing.

MN: Not the end of the world?

No. But perhaps the end of humankind. Nature and all forms of artificial life that we have created and have yet to create will survive. But we may come to an end, because we think and see with a very narrow vision.

We seem to have shed the desire and capacity to take responsibility for next generations, for the conditions required for life to exist.

Though we are programmed to survive, the way we’re going about it is remarkably thoughtless.

MN: Your recently signed a letter to President Trump about his immigration policy, calling for change in the decisions he made.

But I don’t expect much of a reaction. People who have power, or who think they have it, in reality find themselves under the overarching influence of corporations, businessmen, people without conscience. They seldom rely on the voices of artists.

Trump thinks he is the most powerful man in the world, that he can do anything he wants, that everyone will listen to him. That he can choose weird advisors and everyone will patiently go along with it. But no. The contemporary world is a system of vessels connected in many ways, all flowing into each other -- nothing happens in a vacuum.

The era of isolationism has ended, and we are already many steps beyond it. Isn’t that why Trump is trying to buddy up with China? He knows perfectly well that, in the present situation, he isn’t the only one dealing the cards, and dreams of world domination are mere fantasies. The other problem is that, in today’s world where everything is connected on various levels, it is not possible to separate the interests of the state from the interests of his own company. Trump know this perfectly well.

It would behoove the President of the United States to read the myth of King Midas.

He may be feeling that, in his current situation, he can turn everything he touches into gold. But he would do well to remember or to learn that, in this story, Midas also turns his food into gold. Perhaps Donald Trump could draw a lesson from how that worked out.

MN: Speaking of Donald Trump, we often hear that he won the election only because he took skillful advantage of the galloping crisis of democracy.

The contemporary crisis of democracy is basically a crisis of the middle class. Let’s recall that before the outbreak of the French Revolution, there was too much wealth in the hands of too few people.

In the countries in which the erosion of the middle class has progressed, fear has appeared, great dread.

Thousands, hundreds of thousands of people have lost good paying jobs, for instance, due to the failure of factories, transfer of manufacturing to countries with cheap labor, or because workers have been replaced by robots. In periods of economic decline, class divisions deepen powerfully. And it seems to me that presently there is no plan to address this in any part of the world. There are only populist slogans that fall on fertile ground, because people no longer feel safe. That is why, in my opinion, we are dealing with a crisis of democracy, maybe not galloping, but clearly visible.

We are also witnessing another very important crisis, which affects the character of contemporary democracies. That is the crisis of the free press.

Please pay attention to what Trump is doing, but also to European politicians who are in many ways similar.

All of them attack the press, want to shut their mouths, naively believing that in the age of the internet and universal access to information, that could even work. They can’t stand confrontation with uncomfortable facts. This whole effort, obviously, will fail, but the losses will be enormous. Perhaps from now on we will always have to distinguish true information from falsehoods, most probably produced by staffs of frustrated politicians. It would be very helpful if someone were to invent an intelligent way to filter one from the other.

Ah, and then there’s the third crisis.

MN: I suppose you mean the situation of women.

Yes, about women’s struggle for rights that belong to them by nature. In the year 2017! It infuriates me, though I know that world history moves in cycles. When women began to fight for the right to vote, for their own place in the public sphere, many people were displeased. That was the first wave, the first struggle that ended, in principle and with exceptions, but in nearly complete victory. Though efforts to revert back to the old reality, before women’s emancipation, appeared almost immediately.

Then came the time of struggle for labor rights, for equal pay for equal work regardless of sex. In many places even today this question remains unresolved. Next, women put forward questions related to pregnancy, reproduction, abortion, Planned Parenthood. And when everyone thought that these matters were sorted out, suddenly movements appeared that tried to return to the old order. 

Some people think that women should be deprived of the right to make decisions about their own lives. They have began to dream that we become subordinate to men again. But like it or not, that old world is gone and isn’t coming back.

That is why we are experiencing a period of increasing rebellion, struggle, and women’s unity. In the case of the United States this rebellion is the only positive aspect of Trump’s victory.

MN: Maybe we could end on something optimistic?

There is always a great deal of optimistic news.

MN: Such as?

We already have technology capable of cleaning the oceans of residual plastics.

Advanced research continues on methods of reducing rat populations, so they don’t consume one third of the world’s food.

And finally, the number of activists fighting for the survival of the world and contemporary human welfare is growing.

--Translated from Polish by David Goldfarb

***

Margaret Atwood is an award winning Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, and environmental activist. One of her most famous books is “The Handsmaid’s Tale” – a dystopian fantasy novel about a world where women are enslaved for breeding purposes. The book has recently been adapted by Showmax into a riveting and eerily timely television series.  

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