Margaret Atwood warned us all.
Her fiction imagines societies ravaged by misogyny, oppression and environmental havoc. Her visions now seem all too real.
The Canadian writer, whose work has been published in more than 45 countries, is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, critical essays and graphic novels.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” her dystopian prophecy of the near future, depicts the U.S. as a fundamentalist theocracy. The few women whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental pollution are forced into childbearing. The best-selling 1985 novel is now an Emmy Award-winning series on Hulu. Her most recent book is “Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces.”
Atwood is one of a roster of writers slated for the Inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival from May 20-23 at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. The marquee names include Colson Whitehead, George R.R. Martin, John Grisham, Joy Harjo, Lawrence Wright and Valeria Luiselli. The programming features lectures and conversations, lunches with celebrated chefs and cookbook authors, and walking tours with acclaimed authors.
Atwood will take the stage at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, May 21.
Given the devastating New Mexico fires, the recent events with the Supreme Court and abortion rights, the 2016 election and the recent shootings of Black citizens by police, “The Handmaid’s Tale” could be viewed as prophecy.
“It’s not true yet, but it’s closer than it was in 1985,” Atwood wrote in an email from her Toronto home. “A lot closer. On Jan. 6, 2021, the U.S. came the closest it’s been to an insider-supported coup.”
” ‘Authoritarian government’ is one-person rule,” she continued. “The U.S.A. was explicitly established to prevent that, as I understand it – no kings, no Mafia bosses running the country, division of powers, separation of the judiciary (judges and courts) from the executive and legislative bodies. Sharing of powers, checks and balances, no taxation without representation – all for the avoidance of tyranny.
” ‘Totalitarianism’ is a step further – total control by a dictatorship of every aspect of life,” she added. “You are seeing Russia getting very close to that right now. So the closer the U.S.A. comes to unraveling its founding principles, the closer to a tyranny it will come.”
Atwood set “The Handmaid’s Tale” after an American civil war when a religious group topples the government. They renamed the country Gilead.
“Gilead is a totalitarian run under the pretense of Christianity,” she wrote. “I keep muttering, ‘Will the real Christians please stand up,’ as a lot of what is put out there as ‘Christianity’ has nothing to do with what Jesus of Nazareth seems actually to have taught. Love of God and Love of neighbor are supposed to be at the core, but in Gilead – and in a lot of so-called modern Christianity – they just aren’t.
“Am I worried?” she asked. “Of course. The democratic U.S.A. hasn’t always behaved well, but it’s better than the alternatives. … Americans need to ask themselves whether they actually want to live in a democracy. If they don’t, let’s hear it.”
“Legislators should be asked to re-take their oath of office,” Atwood added. “If they no longer believe in the system that elected them and are prepared to be faithful to it, they should refuse. Yes or no? Let’s be clear.”
Dictatorships appeal to our child-like desire for a supernatural figure who will make everything right, Atwood said. But “I alone can fix it” is a recipe for tyranny.
“Those people don’t actually exist, but the promise of them appeals to the frightened child in all of us,” Atwood wrote. “They then say they’ll make the trains run on time (Mussolini) or the equivalent.
“For the would-be dictators, it’s obvious: con people, promise what you can’t deliver, kill people you’ve blamed for stuff, control businesses for your own advantage, run off with the loot; and if you’re really delusional or badly advised, start a war that eventually ruins your country.”
The trauma of Jan. 6 has left some deep scars, Atwood said.
“This will fester for a while, I think. The irony is that the single ‘I alone can fix it’ figure on Jan. 6 turned out to be Mike Pence. Try as he might, he couldn’t force himself to act against the Constitution. Without him, you’d be in a dictatorship right now, or else a military guardianship of some kind, because I tend to feel that the army would not have gone along with King Trump. Of course, if Trump gets a chance, he’ll re-make the army. It’s what dictators do.”