In 1985 I was 23 and briefly in hospital in Aberdeen and one of my university lecturers came to visit me. She brought me a paperback book. Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood. 'The only woman writer my husband will read,' she said, and she said it with no irony. To her, this was the highest accolade. That was then and times have changed, thank God, they've really shifted, just in my lifetime, and Atwood's writing is one of the reasons they have. Life before Atwood. Life after: there's my 23-year-old self flat on my back on the edge of my adult life in a hospital bed reading Life Before Man by this new (to me) Canadian novelist, astonished by the prose, like nothing I'd yet read, its surgical coolness, its slow considered heartbeat, the cutting/healing act of its objective disciplined focus, the way it turned the tables on notions of gender and power and time. A couple of days later, upright and back in the world, I went out of my way to find everything by this writer I could find – and the writing, and what it let you know writing could do in the world and in the mind, went into me like butter into toast, and certainly every pore in my thinking, politicized, story-loving self has been lucky enough for more than half my life now to be opened to and by the energy, wisdom, vision, formal canniness, uncompromising cultural anatomy and rich social haruspicy in Atwood's writing.
Formative? For sure. Liberating? Always, into an intelligence whose quality is exact, exacting, but also merry – a sheer relief. All this time she's taken our times and made us wise to them. What gifts she's given us. That's what I call a birthday.
Temi Oh, author of Do You Dream of Terra-Two?
The first time I read The Handmaid's Tale reminds me of the summer a school friend of mine said, 'I’ve just been listening to this band, our parents and grandparents have been talking about for a while; it turns out The Beatles are actually pretty good!'. When a work of art became a classic before you were born, it can sometimes be difficult to feel as if you’re having a totally personal encounter with it.
Reading The Penelopiad in university helped me to recognise some of the widely understood elements of Margaret Atwood's genius. The novel retells The Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. Like many of Atwood's narrators, this incarnation of Penelope is witty, irreverent and fun. This is a book about the power of myths; which – as well anchoring us in a community and a history – can serve to direct social actions and to reinforce the values of a dominant group. Hearing Homer’s account of the Odyssey undermined by Penelope is a thrilling example of the liberation that comes with retelling.
Throughout history, and in every culture, generations are called to remember and retell the stories of their ancestors and to carry them forward. As writers and readers, this is our sacred duty. But it takes courage to confront and question what our community holds sacred, it can take courage to use our own voice and to tell our own story and Margaret Atwood's work is a luminous example of it.
Yasmeen Hassan, Equality Now executive director
Margaret has been an inspiration to me, especially in my formative years. I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I started college in 1987. It reflected what I saw growing up in Pakistan, at a time when a military dictator 'islamicized' Pakistan’s laws and made women effectively second class citizens – similar to what happens in Gilead. Creating a fictionalised 'dystopian' setting for these experiences seemed genius to me! Fiction is often easier for people to absorb than reality and it hits an emotional nerve. She is amazingly astute at deciphering people’s personalities and motivations, thereby humanising situations. And Margaret’s style of writing is so compelling, almost like a legal brief (hard to refute!).
I got to know Margaret two years ago when she allowed Equality Now, the organization I lead, that works on equal rights for women around the world, to honour her for her work. I am truly blown away by her generosity in giving her time and energy to those who face oppression. I am also blown away by her perception, her wisdom, her sense of humour and fun, and definitely her sense of style! She is a rock star.
Margaret chose Equality Now to be the charity partner for the launch of The Testaments because of the link between her writing and our work. The support she has given us has meant our message has reached over 500 million people and inspired thousands more activists to join our campaign to make gender equality a reality.
Margaret, you are unique – a very happy 80th birthday!
Viv Groskop, comedian, author and podcast host of How to Own the Room
Atwood is amongst the most prolific and playful authors ever to have lived. Most of all, she is mischievous and cunning. She makes you rethink everything without you realising it. I had the mixed blessing of coming slightly late to the Atwood party, in my early forties. This was a bad thing because I had missed so much and was playing catch-up. But it was also a good thing because I had the most magnificent back catalogue imaginable to work through.
My favourite Atwood book is Hag-Seed, a novel written for the Hogarth Shakespeare project where contemporary authors riff on a Shakespeare classic. It made me completely fall in love with a whole new side of Atwood that I hadn’t fully appreciated before. This book is infused with the most incredible playfulness and a real sense of the glee that can be taken in chaos. It also made me fall back in love with The Tempest, a play which I had always found difficult and intimidating.
In Atwood’s reworking, a bitter theatre director Felix (the Prospero character) gets his revenge for a career slight by staging a production of The Tempest in a correctional facility. It’s full of misunderstandings, in-jokes, monumentally dysfunctional people and many delightfully nasty asides on the ridiculousness of arts festivals. It’s an extraordinarily rich and entertaining piece of comic writing.
In the way she writes and thinks about things, Atwood is always one step ahead of everyone else. I always imagine her as a benign literary version of Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, outstripping everyone else as she hurtles forward into a field of tall grass, curls flying, waving her magic wand, cackling wildly. She occupies that indefinable, essential space between caring deeply and not giving a damn.
Ash Sarkar, journalist and lecturer:
I attended an all-girls’ school growing up. The story I tell about it is calculated as a corrective to assumptions made by people whose expectations of single-sex education is shaped solely by Mean Girls and/or pornography: 'No, it wasn’t bitchy! No, we weren’t boy-crazed hormone grenades! No, we didn’t practice kissing on each other.'
But the story that was? Something much murkier all together. That’s what Cat’s Eye, Atwood’s 1988 novel set in post-war Toronto, gets so right about the shadowy world of schoolgirls. We were thought to be flirtatious and effervescent, 'I know myself to be vengeful, greedy, secretive and sly.'
The novel’s protagonist (Elaine Risley, a painter feted as one of Canada’s foremost feminist artists), is haunted by her childhood friendship with Cordelia, Carol and Grace. She might be seen as a fictionalised version of Atwood herself: both Risley and the real Margaret have somewhat unconventional parents, and both their fathers are entomologists. But rather than trying to reduce Elaine to a mere autobiographical avatar, it’s better to enjoy her contradictions for their own sake.
Elaine’s earlier status as a victim of bullying metamorphoses, as she comes to enjoy the subtle and artful cruelties offered to her by adolescence. She’s capable of both great passions and great froideur. She veers wildly between paralysing self-doubt and a sense of confidence in herself which borders on tedium to other people.
There’s never been a more thoughtful study of schoolgirls’ friendship dynamics than Atwood: that fine, shifting line between tormentor and hostage. I've always felt that Cat’s Eye has more to offer me on the condition of women than The Handmaid's Tale. There are very rarely opportunities to see oneself as heroic in this real world of backstabbing and petty barbarism.
When I first met Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson I said to them: oh God, is knowing you going to turn me into an environmentalist?
Yes, said Margaret. Dry, witty, honest, sly as ever.
She grew up spending half each year living in the Canadian forests, you know. She’s brought back a secret understanding for us of how animal we are – how that part of us is not the worst but the best of us.
I should have known from the novels that there would be a way of appreciating, understanding, fighting for the natural world that remained full of humour and intelligence. I’d read Oryx and Crake of course, The Handmaid’s Tale – what people sometimes seem to forget about Margaret’s work is that she manages to write about the darkest and most terrifying parts of human psychology in a way that is still deeply funny and full of dark strange hope. (Perhaps Offred will escape. Gilead will eventually fall. Who knows, the world might be better if penises and vaginas glow blue when you fancy a fuck, thus eliminating the complications of consent.)
What I’ve learned from Margaret and from Graeme is that the human mind is subtle enough to try to deny our own debt to nature. That the ones who are most harmed by our deeds – from environmental destruction to totalitarian regimes – are ourselves. That the darkness in humanity might be relieved if we were able to perceive ourselves as part of the natural world, not separate from it. That sometimes the only dry comfort is to be able to laugh at ourselves. That sometimes that is comfort enough.