Margaret Atwood @ The Southbank Centre!

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My picture of Margaret Atwood (if slightly blurry!)

On Tuesday I was really excited and privileged to be going to the Southbank Centre to see Margaret Atwood give a talk on her new novel, and the final instalment of the trilogy which saw Oryx and Crake and The Year of the FloodMaddAddam. Although I had read a couple of her novels when I was a young teenager, it was only really in my last year of university that I truly ‘discovered’ Atwood’s brilliance and originality. For my dissertation I explored Atwood’s Surfacing, along with Angela Carter’s Nights and the Circus, to argue that each writer viewed heterosexuality as an institution and, through both novels, attempted to reinvent and break free from inherent gender stereotypes. Atwood’s novel Surfacing, although completely different from her speculative fiction trilogy, MaddAddam, still covers similar underlying concerns about the invasion of large corporations. In the world of MaddAddam, it is these corporations that are in control.

The talk itself was a wonderful experience to be a part of. It was less a talk specifically about MaddAddam, but more about the trilogy as a whole and the dystopian, speculative society she depicts, of which there are increasing similarities to our own. I was shocked to realise just how similar the world she created back in 2003 was. She told us that, at the time of writing Oryx and Crake, glowing green rabbits existed, as did the spider-goat hybrid, and when the genetically modified burger was created this year, her twitter fan-base surely alerted her to it. It is clear that Atwood did her research and created animals in her novels which have the potential to be created – a very worrying and scary prospect. However, when the floor was opened to questions from the audience, she made it clear that it wasn’t the animals in these novels that we should be worrying about, but the microbes and their potential to mutate and show resistance.

As well as discussing the issues that come up in these three novels, Atwood also mentioned the issues some critics had with her work. She opened with an anecdote about how critics would constantly ask her why she never wrote from the point of view of men. To which she responded with Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, told only from the perspective of Jimmy-the-Snowman. After its publication she was asked why she didn’t write it from a female perspective – she can never win! She then went on to make the comparison to male authors – you would never think to question why some of them write from the perspective of a female. This could be due to the fact that, as boys, men grew up constantly around the presence of mothers, grandmothers and sisters. In contrast, the father or older male figures would be absent from the family home, at work. Perhaps this a reason why it appears more acceptable for men to write from female perspectives than it is for women to write from male perspectives. A woman’s life was much more restricted to the home and, therefore, more accessible to young boys. However, I wonder how much that has changed now? Do we question female authors for writing from the perspective of men? The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, A.M. Homes, wrote from the perspective of a male historian and Nixon scholar, Harry. Did she face the same criticism, I wonder. Also, if this has changed, it has only (shockingly) done so in the last decade.

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UK hardback edition of Atwood’s MaddAddam

Here are a few more interesting points Atwood brought up in the talk (though not in her exact words):

  • She has two explanations for the double ‘d’ in MaddAddam, an interesting literary answer and the real (more practical) answer: firstly, the two d’s reflect the d’s in DNA, which strongly links to the scientific experiments that occur in the trilogy, it also creates a nice palindrome and mirrors itself. The second, and real answer, is that she can’t use the name MaddAddam with just one ‘d’ as it is already copyrighted!
  • The reason why she never intended to write from the perspective of Oryx or Crake is because it is very hard to read from someone’s perspective without bringing them down to your level. Oryx and Crake are meant to be read as symbolic; as larger than life, mythological characters.
  • She highlighted the controversy over large corporate investment in the arts – particularly relevant as the oil giant, Shell, has invested in the Southbank Centre (something I had no idea of until she pointed it out). She asks whether these two things should exist separately and admits that this is something she, herself, struggles to answer.
  • She also mentioned that she has a few more books in the pipe-line! One of which, a collection of stories, is due to be published in the autumn of 2014!
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