‘Is The Testaments a dystopia? Let’s hope so…’

Margaret Atwood on America’s slide towards Gilead and how her books became touchstones for a global protest movement.

By Sam Parker
Margaret Atwood

'I always said no to writing the sequel. However, as we started moving towards Gilead instead of away from it – particularly in the United States – I re-examined that position.'

Margaret Atwood is on stage at the British Library in London, talking to the world’s media for the first time about her decision to write The Testaments, the much-anticipated sequel to A Handmaid’s Tale.

'I realised I could tell the story of the beginning on the end. How do these kinds of regimes disappear?'

Atwood, 79, is dressed in a turquoise shirt with a matching patterned scarf. She is a picture of elegance, with one small, punkish detail – ten bright green fingernails.

Green, of course, is the colour of The Testament’s unmistakable new cover which, over the past 48 hours, has flooded social media. Set 15 years after the original novel, The Testaments does indeed include newly coloured uniforms for the residents of Gilead – ‘these kinds of regimes are very keen on outfits,' Atwood notes wryly – but even more exciting for readers is the appearance of three new narrators, in particular, the terrifying matriarch Aunt Lydia.

'She is only seen from the outside in The Handmaid’s Tale,’ explains Atwood. ‘We know she is a quoting type of person, and she doesn't give up this habit in The Testaments.'

By taking you inside Aunt Lydia’s head, Atwood says she wanted to try and answer: 'how do these people get into their positions of power? What do they use that power for? And what is their justification to themselves for why they are doing it? I’ve always been interested in these questions.' She mentions having read the diaries of Joseph Goebbels, among other 'witnesses' from history.

One  particular passage from The Testaments, in which we learn how Lydia was converted from a judge fighting for women's rights in pre-Gilead America to one of the regime's founding powers, is both harrowing and disturbingly realistic (as Helen Lewis writes of A Handmaid’s Tale for Penguin this week: '[Atwood’s writing] does not provoke the usual reaction when reading dystopian fiction: thank god this isn’t our world. It is not just a warning of a potential future, but a reminder of our past').

But is Aunt Lydia as staunch a supporter of Gilead as she seems? 'We know from history it is not unusual to have someone within a regime be hostile to that regime,' Atwood teases.

The Testaments will only strengthen the story’s position as a cultural touchstone for the modern feminist movement: over the past decade, dressing as Handmaids has become a part of the language of global protest.

'This wave of it started in Texas,’ Atwood reflects, 'where an all-male legislative group was bringing in more laws about women’s bodies. The scene looked like it was taken straight from the TV series [of A Handmaid’s Tale]. You could interchange them.

'Countries are putting people in charge of women’s bodies who are not those women'

'It’s brilliant as a protest because you’re not making a disturbance. You’re not saying anything, you’re sitting silently and modestly. And you can’t be kicked out for dressing inappropriately because you’re all covered up – no frightful bared shoulders!' – it’s a very striking visual image.

'[The protest] went all over the place and has turned up in Argentina and Croatia and Ireland and many other locations. Everybody looking at it knows what it means.'

'Again, it’s a question of things escaping from a book into the real world, and the author at that point has zero control of it. But none of this would be happening unless countries were putting people in charge of women’s bodies who are not those women. If everything were fair and government really was by consent of the governed, only potentially pregnant women would be able to vote on these matters.

'Is The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments a dystopian world? Let us hope so.'

Last night, hundreds of fans turned up to Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus to celebrate the midnight release of The Testaments

'London loves a happening,' Atwood said of the night. 'It’s quite amazing how people will turn up in the middle of the night to see the big pile of books revealed. It was lots of fun. I think people had a pretty grand time.'

Does it make her a ‘literary rock star’?

'Considering the lives that rock stars lead I don’t think so', she jokes. 'I haven’t died of an opiate overdose. Not yet anyway, there’s still time… I think this kind of thing can be quite ruinous for a 35-year-old, because where do you go from there? In my case, we kind of know the answer!'

Finally, someone asked, would she consider going back to Gilead? Could there be a third installment?

'I never say never to anything, because I’ve done it before and been wrong. I think it’s best not to tell anyone what you may or may not do.'

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