Review: Bestselling author Margaret Atwood at Rackham Auditorium


Margaret Atwood

The Tempest retold as Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood.

The full-capacity crowd at Rackham Auditorium on Friday night not only got to hear witty insights from one of our era’s greatest, most accomplished writers, Margaret Atwood (decked out in black and orange for Halloween); they also got to hear the septuagenarian Canadian novelist/poet rap.

Why? Because her newest novel, Hag-Seed, features prisoners putting on their own version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and one excerpt Atwood read included an inmate’s extended riff that ends with “Oh no! Oh no more Prospero,/Too bad, how sad, that’s what they said:/He must be dead./So now I’m the man, the man, the big man,/I’m the duke, I’m the duke, I’m the duke of Milan.”

Hag-Seed is one of a group of books that have been published as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, wherein Shakespeare plays are retold by acclaimed contemporary novelists. Literati Bookstore sponsored Atwood’s Ann Arbor appearance.

Atwood - seated alone on Rackham’s stage, beside a round, low table with a floral arrangement - earned several laughs from the crowd as she read portions of her new novel, holding the book with hands sheathed in glow-in-the-dark skeleton gloves. (She said she was wearing them in honor of the upcoming U.S. Presidential election.)

When she finished, she said, “Now, if you have questions, I will answer them. If I don’t like your question, I will reformulate it. We do learn things from watching TV, don’t we?”

Many of the crowd’s questions concerned one of Atwood’s most enduring, classroom-friendly novels, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – a dystopian novel that imagines that, following a terrorist attack that leaves our democracy in ruins, a revolution with a theocratic bent suspends the U.S. Constitution, and as a complete societal re-organization happens, women are stripped of all rights.

Atwood said that when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she’d been reading about America’s 17th century Puritan theocracy, as well as mid-century dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

“I’d always wanted to write one, but most of them are written from a male point of view, and I thought it would be interesting to turn that around and take a female point of view for the narrator,” said Atwood. “ … I made it a rule in writing the book that I would not make anything up. I would use only things that had really actually happened somewhere at some time, or for which we had the technology.”

Atwood noted that a TV series inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale is now filming in Toronto, and she made a cameo appearance in it.

Regarding writing genre fiction, Atwood said, “I don’t divide books up that way at all. I divide them into books I like and books I don’t like. Because it doesn’t matter what genre is on the shelf in the book store. … It’s like a filing convenience. … So I do those things because it never occurred to me not to do them.”

One audience member raised the question of why Atwood set her take on The Tempest inside a prison, when the environment plays such a key role in the play. “The last three words of the play are, ‘Set me free,’” Atwood said. “ … You don’t say ‘set me free’ unless you’re not free. … Once you’re into themes of revenge, you’re always into stories about liberation from something.”

Atwood read and spoke for a little over an hour, and one of the last questions came from two high school teachers who asked what she’d tell young people about why reading is important. “Language is the oldest fully human thing that we have, and stories are pre-built-in,” said Atwood. “ … It had to have been a survival trait over long numbers of years. So stories are how we understand our world. We understand them partly through graphs and charts, but only if somebody tells us the story behind the graphs and charts. … What does this mean that the blue line is going up, and the red line is going down?”

Before wrapping up the question-and-answer portion of the evening (and beginning the book signing part), Atwood made a joke regarding the upcoming U.S. Presidential election: “In The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada’s the place she escaped to, so you’re all welcome.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.