Throughout her career, Margaret Atwood has been a force to be reckoned with on many fronts, campaigning loudly for women’s rights and the environment in particular. Her latest books – The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and a new poetry collection, Dearly – address these themes head on. The Testaments has been closely tied to Equality Now, which campaigns for a just world where women and girls have the same rights as men and boys. She has been an inspiration to many, and here she answers questions from some of those she has influenced.
How do you deal with criticism or unkindness from people you respect?
Asked by: Adam Eli, a community organizer and author based in New York City.
MA: If the criticism is justified, I have to consider what to alter. If it’s unkindness based on something unkind I myself have done, fair enough. If it’s unkindness stemming from something else – envy, or some other unsavoury human emotion – I waft it away into the stratosphere. If such people continue to act unkindly in this second way, I cease to respect them. After that – why would you be bothered by the views of someone you don’t respect? (Sorry to be so bloody-minded but I’m old. I don’t have much time left to indulge myself in my own wounded feelings.)
AE: Thank you for your unwavering support of the transgender community – it is needed now more than ever. What is your response to those that preach gender essentialism, especially in feminist spaces?
MA: There are two initial questions to be asked about any statement concerning reality. A) Is it true? B) Is it fair?
If it is not true, there is no way it can be fair. It is simply Not True that there are only two, count them two, genders, and that they are fixed and immutable. It is not true in biological Nature and it is not true amongst human beings (who are biological entities, among other things). I attach two useful teaching aids:
If I were debating this issue in public I’d begin there. I might go on to recognize the fears that some people have – even some feminists – but I’d say that the YouTube attached does a fine (and gentle) job of addressing such fears. Who DOES want some guy with a beard in the women’s washroom? :D
AE: What is the least helpful advice you have ever been given?
MA: ‘You should forget about this writing ambition of yours and find a good man to marry.’ – Faculty advisor, My College, 1961.
Adam Eli’s first book, The New Queer Conscience, was published this year. He is the founder of international activist group Voices4 and the editor-in-chief of a zine about global gender equality produced by Gucci and Chime for Change. He was named one of the 100 most influential queer people in the world by OUT Magazine and firmly believes that queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.
As, at the age of 18, I sail towards the receding Arctic ice shelf on a Greenpeace boat do you have a message you would like to pass on to the next generation of environmental activists from your years of campaigning?
Asked by: Mya-Rose Craig, an 18-year-old naturalist, conservationist and environmentalist.
MA: Dear Next Generation: Thank you for showing up! Thank you for demonstrating that “the environment” is not just a hobby for elderly people. In fact, most of those involved in BirdLife International (120 country members) are not old and they are not White. It’s people on the ground, all over the world, who are fuelling the grassroots, because they know and experience the bio-losses happening and they see how these losses are already affecting their own lives. Working with Indigenous people is absolutely key to future success. That is why I support young First Nations and Inuit environmental scholars through Inspire, and why I support the amazing Nashulai Maasai Conservancy in Africa, which has already shown the effectiveness of community action – not only in relation to wildlife health, but also to human health, as it effectively dealt with Covid and Covid-related food shortages. Hold the line, Next Generation! We’re hoping for you!
MRC: From one birder to another: why are birds so important to you?
MA: As birds go, so goes the biosphere. Can you imagine a world without them? (And any time you’d like to come to Pelee Island in Lake Erie, see map, for east-central North American spring migration, typically first 2 weeks of May…)
Mya-Rose Craig writes the popular blog Birdgirl and her book of the same name will be published by Vintage in 2022. She set up Black2Nature with the aim of increasing the access to nature of Visible Minority Ethnic people like herself and has shared a stage with Greta Thunberg. In February 2020 she became the youngest person in the world to be awarded an honorary Doctorate in Science from Bristol University, in recognition of her five years of campaigning for diversity in the environmental sector.
If everyone who had read your work could pay you, and the world, back with one action, what action would you ask them to take?
Asked by: Gina Martin, a campaigner, speaker and writer best known for founding and running the national campaign to make upskirting illegal.
MA: Save the oceans. If they go, so will we. They make 60-80 percent of our oxygen. Or you could begin by signing onto Count Us In. Its goal: a billion people, each taking a few small steps….
Gina Martin’s activism changed English and Welsh law by creating the Voyeurism Act. Three other countries have since followed suit. Her first book Be The Change (Little Brown, 2019) is a practical guide for activists starting out. Gina was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s #100Next Influential people and Stylist Remarkable Women of the Year. She is is an ambassador for UN Women UK and advocates for regular people creating change in their communities.
In a world that feels unrecognisable, fragile and so uncertain, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing activists fighting for gender equality today?
Asked by: Amika George, a 20-year-old student at Cambridge University who started the Free Periods campaign.
MA: Getting discouraged. It’s a huge issue. Study of certain cultures in the past in which women were equal is a help. So is knowledge of organizations like Equality Now. But these issues – the environment, women’s equality – they are joined! Project Drawdown can help tell us how.
AG: We often underestimate how one far one person’s voice can ripple and resonate to create change. What advice do you have for someone who wants to resist and fight back but feels as though they don’t know if they can, and how best to start?
MA: Small steps first. Learn about the issues, and learn about the groups and organizations that already exist. Don’t beat yourself up because you think you’re not doing enough. All effort is individual; do only what you can.
AG: I am always amazed at the number of countless awards and accolades you’ve amassed over the years, but what would you say is your proudest moment to date?
MA: Canadians don’t do ‘proud’. They do ‘not bad’. Awards and accolades are always about the activity itself, not the individual who is this year’s recipient. Old people typically have amassed more simply because they’ve remained alive. :D So my best ‘not bad’ moments weren’t to do with those kinds of things at all. They were more to do with getting to the portage after an hour of paddling against a head wind, or shooting a rapids solo in a rash move that scraped the skin off my knees. But it was a thrill, I must admit, to get my first poem published.
Amika George’s campaign, started at the age of 17 from her bedroom, to end period poverty in the UK after she read about children missing school as they were unable to afford menstrual products. In 2019, the Free Periods campaign successfully persuaded the UK government to provide free menstrual products in all English schools and colleges from January 2020. She has received global recognition for her campaigning work, including receiving a Goalkeepers Campaign award by Bill & Melinda Gates, in conjunction with the United Nations, and was listed by TIME magazine as one of the 25 most influential teenagers in the world.