A blue-and-black portrait of Margaret Atwood against a background of green and blue shapes with the quote 'Storytellers have always been attached to their world'

Margaret Atwood on literature and the environment

'What stories can we tell about our desperate situation?' In this extract from Burning Questions, Margaret Atwood considers the necessity of storytelling.

Margaret Atwood

This is the text of a speech Margaret Atwood wrote and gave in 2010.

I am truly honoured to have been invited to speak today at the PEN Congress here in Tokyo.

There is nothing that repressive governments desire more than imposed silence. The inability to speak encourages the unspeakable, and secrecy is an important tool not only of power but of atrocity. That is why writers of all kinds, including many journalists, have been shot, imprisoned, exiled, and – to use a fairly new word – disappeared, and why so many newspapers and publishing houses have been closed down. New media are also being targeted: last year, for the first time, PEN America honoured an Internet writer – Nay Phone Latt, a blogger imprisoned in Burma for reporting too accurately on conditions there.

We like to think that all evil deeds will eventually come to light and that all stories about them will sooner or later be told, but in many cases this is simply not true. There are countless unknown victims. As the torturer O’Brien tells the hapless Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel of the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four, posterity will not vindicate him because posterity will never even hear about him. PEN supports those writers everywhere who have come under fire –often literally – because they have sought to give a human voice – fictional or not – to those whose voices have been silenced. I am proud to be a member of PEN, as I am sure all of you are as well. Possibly you are expecting that I will now deliver a sermon about your duties as writers. It’s an odd thing, but people are always lining up to preach to writers about their duties – what they ought to be writing, or what they should not have written; and they are very ready to tell the writer what a bad person he or she is because he or she has not produced the sort of book or essay that the preacher feels he or she ought to have produced. In fact, there’s a strong tendency to speak to and about writers as if they are the government; as if they actually possess that kind of physical-world power, and therefore ought to use it for the betterment of society, as they surely would do if they were not filled to the brim with laziness, cowardice, or immorality. If by some chance the preacher realises that the writer does not in fact possess that kind of power, he or she is likely to be dismissed as a frill, an irrelevance, a self-indulgent narcissist, a mere entertainer, a parasite, and so forth.

Doesn’t the writer have a responsibility? these preachers ask. And shouldn’t the writer exercise that responsibility by doing the good and worthy thing that the preacher will now proceed to spell out? Kurt Vonnegut used to have a rubber stamp he’d use on students’ question-filled letters to him; it said, “Write your own essay.” I do feel I might have quite a lot of success with a T-shirt – to be worn only by writers – that would say “Write your own book.” Or, even better, “Write your own worthy book.”

The list of good and worthy things has recently expanded to include something often called “the environment.” We have recently been made very conscious of the many threats to “the environment” – threats that may range from melting glaciers and sea ice, to rising global temperatures and the more extreme weather that results from these temperatures, to pollution of the air and water, to the chemicals we are unwittingly putting into our children’s mouths through industrial food, to the extinction of many plant and animal species, to the failing harvests on land and the dwindling fish stocks in the ocean – and even to the higher risk of plagues and illnesses that such environmental changes will almost certainly precipitate. All of these subjects can be placed into the basket called “the environment,” and I suppose that anything written about them might be termed “literature.” In that sense, a great many writers are concentrating on these problems already. You can hardly open a newspaper without hearing of some new oil spill or food contamination or forest fire or threatened extinction or mutated microbe or heat wave or flood.

But I take it that by “literature” you might have expected me to talk about fiction – about storytelling. And yes, every human communication involves storytelling of a sort: we live in time, and time is one event after another, and unless we have lost both our short-term and our long-term memories, we describe ourselves and others in narrative form. But today I would like to confine myself to the kinds of stories or narratives told by fiction writers. How do such stories interact with that nebulous something we call “the environment”? How ought they to interact with it? What is the connection between them?

'If we didn’t have “the environment” there wouldn’t be any literature at all because we ourselves would not exist'

The short answer is that if we didn’t have “the environment” – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat – there wouldn’t be any literature at all because we ourselves would not exist. Three days without water and a human being is usually dead. The oxygen we breathe was not always such a large part of Earth’s atmosphere as it is now: it was created by green plants, which continue to create it, so if we do away with all plants, we’d be gone. If Earth’s temperature rises much higher, our planet will become uninhabitable – not by all life, perhaps – a few deep-ocean forms will surely survive, unless the ocean boils away – but certainly by us.

In that sense, the preservation of an environment similar to the one we have is a precondition of literature. Unless we can preserve such an environment, your writing and my writing and everyone else’s writing will become simply irrelevant, as there will be nobody left to read it.

One of the recurring themes in science fiction is the discovery of planets that have been inhabited once but have changed so much that the intelligent life that once lived on them has become extinct. Typically, the space explorers in such stories find a time capsule or record that tells the tale of the vanished civilization, and that the space travellers – how convenient! – can invariably translate. This form of tale – in the Western tradition at any rate – may ultimately descend from Plato’s fable of the lost civilization of Atlantis, a civilization that was very advanced but doomed by an act of the gods, or of nature. The ancient “lost civilization” story was then fuelled by the discovery, in the nineteenth century, of many real lost civilizations – from the vine-covered Mayan ruins in Central America to the once-mythical city of Troy, to the mysterious Easter Island in the Pacific, with its huge enigmatic stone statues.

Will we ourselves soon be a lost civilization? Will our own books and stories ultimately become time capsules for some future archaeologist or space explorer? Looking down the pathways that lie before us – and I say pathways rather than path because the future is not the future but an infinite number of possible futures – it’s hard not to indulge in fantasies of this kind. Should we all put our novels into lead-lined boxes and bury them in a hole in the backyard? It would be considerate of us – then the future explorers from outer space would have something to dig up. It would also be considerate of us to request in our wills that some of our favourite daily objects be placed in our coffins. I myself hope to be buried with a few twenty-first-century artifacts – my toaster, perhaps, or my laptop computer – to give those future space explorers something to write academic papers about. Perhaps they will think that these products of our industrial and technological era are the cult objects of a strange religion. As indeed, in some sense, they are.

Let us leave these sombre reflections about the possible demise of our own civilization, and look in the other direction – at the past. Why do we have such a thing as “literature” at all? Where did it come from, what purposes did it once serve, and does it still serve the same purposes today? And what do such questions have to do with “the environment”? Isn’t literature part of that division we call “art,” whereas “the environment” is that other part we call “nature”? Are not these two divisions polar opposites – art over here, man-made and symbolic, and nature over there, a blob of raw material useful to us only insofar as we can make things out of it – whether bricks and trucks and houses, or paintings, books, and films?

But I don’t think that art and nature are so widely separated. It is my premise that art was originally intertwined with nature and came out of it in the first place, and that literary art in particular was once an essential aid to our survival as a species. I would like to consider this matter under two headings: on the one hand, storytelling – whether oral or written – and on the other, writing itself as a method for recording and transmitting stories.

First: storytelling, or the narrative act. Travel with me back in time – before cities, before villages, before agriculture.

Language and symbolic thinking – both of which are required for storytelling –are ancient. We’ve recently been informed that the Neanderthals undoubtedly had languages, just as they most likely had funerals and music and body decoration. We’ve also been told that we ourselves share some of their genetic material –  contrary to earlier opinion, which held that the Neanderthals were separate from us – a different species – and that they became extinct once we hit the scene. But if they and we could interbreed and have fertile offspring that carried genes from both, we were in fact subsets of the same species. Thus, our common ancestors must have had language and symbolic thinking, or the patterns enabling them, before the Neanderthals split off as a subset.

Very, very old, then – language and symbolic thinking. Ontogeny repeats phylogeny, goes the biological mantra – the development of the individual recapitulates the developmental history of the species, which – they say – is why we have gills and tails in the early stages of our embryonic life. Leaving the gills and tails aside – for whatever else embryos may do, they do not make art – consider the behaviour of small children under the age of five. They learn language effortlessly, as long as they are surrounded by people who speak to them; they sing and dance; they make visual images, and they have an astonishingly early capacity to listen to and tell stories. In other words, they do everything that artists do, the only difference being that most of them do not carry on with these activities professionally as adults, though virtually all continue to participate in music, in visual art, and in storytelling in some way. Every religion we know anything about contains these elements. The arts are not something separate from us, to be taken up and discarded at will: they seem to be built-in. We’re hard-wired for them, you might say. As others have observed, art is not opposed to nature; for human beings, art is our nature. It is woven into our very being.

'That is one function of stories: to tell us about our choices, about the actions we might take'

But why? Lots of other living creatures get along perfectly well without it. So far as we know, there are no epics or pop stars or paintings among the horses. Those who speculate about the genetic component of human art consider it to be an evolved adaptation that was selected for and developed during the very long period of time we spent in the Pleistocene, in hunting-and-gathering cultures. It must have been an aid to survival in those times – otherwise, it would have been dropped in the course of our evolution. You can see how the ability to create or transmit a narrative – to use language to tell a story – would have given any group that possessed it a great advantage. Older members could tell younger members not only stories of disaster – how the crocodile ate Uncle George – but also stories of success –how Cousin Arnold hunted and killed an antelope – so that each generation of young people did not have to learn these things from scratch. Which plants were edible, which poisonous – this was essential knowledge, and those with no teachers wouldn’t have lived long.

Hearing second-hand how to avoid being eaten by a crocodile would have been very useful in an environment that abounded in crocodiles, and – because someone else told me this – I can now tell you one of the secrets, in case you ever need it: crocodiles can run very fast over a short course, but they can’t turn corners quickly. Therefore, don’t run away in a straight line – choose a zigzag.

And don’t go jogging in cougar country. They might mistake you for prey. What I’ve told you is a fact, and you might well forget it immediately because you don’t need it right now: there are no cougars in this room. But if I told you a story about a young woman called Ann, who was riding her bicycle in British Columbia one day when a cougar jumped on her from behind, and if I described how it sank its teeth into her shoulder, and how she tried to fight it off, and how her friend Jane – also on a bicycle – turned around and saw the struggle, and came riding back, and hit the cougar on its nose so that it let go – you see, I prefer happy endings – and if I put in the hot breath of the cougar and its green eyes, and Ann’s blood coming out, and Jane’s fear; and, even better, if I dressed up as a cougar and two others dressed up as Ann and Jane and we acted all of this out, with perhaps some musical instruments and singing and dancing – well, you would be much less likely to forget that. And, in fact, the brain scientists tell us that people assimilate things much better through stories than through recitals of mere facts. Stories quickly create neural pathways – they “inscribe” us. Which may be why so many people consider them important: what kinds of stories – for instance – our children are taught in school, or what kinds of stories you can tell about a real person without facing a libel action.

Once, our narrative abilities were necessitated by our environment – everything not-us that surrounded us – which was huge and demanding and intricate and often harsh, but was also the source of our life. In those times, the space between the story and the subject of the story was almost non-existent. There were no books, there were no cozy armchairs in which you could curl up safely to read about wars and murders and monsters that would come in the night to eat you up. The story was told in – let’s say – a small circle of light, safe perhaps for the moment, but only for the moment. The danger that was in the story was also in the world, right next to you: just outside the circle of firelight, just outside the mouth of the cave.

Such stories were potent things. No wonder that they came to include built-in protection – some supernatural beings, let’s say, who, if treated right and respected, might reward you with a favourable hunt, or at least not eat you. I shouldn’t even say “supernatural,” which would imply that such beings were apart from nature. No: at first they were very much in and of nature. Every being in the environment – even rocks and trees – might be credited with what we would now call a soul, and each of these souls – if mistreated – could turn against you and create a lethal amount of bad luck. One theory has it that the earliest form of story is the story of a journey between this reality – the here-and-now reality in which the storyteller and listeners both exist – and another realm, which might be the past or the world of the ancestors or the world of the dead. Those who enacted such journeys were once called “shamans,” and it was their task to enter a trance, and journey in spirit from this world to another one, to commune there with other spirits – of ancestors, of animals, of plants, of numinous beings – and then to bring back some knowledge or power that would be of use to the community. Such journeys were typically undertaken at times of need, we’re told – when famine threatened, for instance, or when there was a plague. That is one function of stories: to tell us about our choices, about the actions we might take.

We know of many cultures that once contained variations on such themes, and that have also preserved instructions about how to treat natural entities properly so that they will grant prosperity to you. In one Greenlandic community that has gone back to hunting in the traditional way, the proper way to treat narwhal is to let the first ones pass, and not to kill too many. If you don’t respect this custom, the narwhal will resent your contemptuous treatment of them, and they won’t come back.

These two functions – record-keeping and magic – still inhere in the act of writing.

We told such stories for a very long time before we began to write them down, and then to create other stories – new ones, stories we like to think of as “original” – right on the page. It’s arguable that the more involved we became with the technologies for preserving and generating stories in set form, the further away we moved from the environment that gave rise to stories in the first place.

Even those story-recording technologies, however, came out of nature. Before we could write, we had to have alphabets – systems of symbols that might mean sounds that could be strung together into words, or else that might themselves be words, or stand for objects. Many scripts derived from pictures – the ancient Egyptian, the Chinese. Some would say all – even the ABCs of English – are based on shapes found in nature.

Although we seem to pick up spoken languages very easily as children, the same is not true of reading and writing. Both of these require a lot of study: like playing the piano, they are affiliated with capabilities we already have, but they are not in themselves “natural”: they must come through practice. Those who study the brain now seem to think that reading is based on the same neural program as the one used for tracking, in the sense of animal tracking. An experienced tracker can read the marks left by an animal as one reads a story: as a series of events and actions centring around a cast of characters. The tracks and marks tell the history of the fox walking, the fox lying in wait, the death of the rabbit.

There’s an odd but suggestive fact: reading and writing are not located in the same parts of the brain, and you can have a rare kind of stroke that allows you to write but renders you incapable of reading what you yourself have just written. If reading is based on the neural program used for tracking, what is writing based on?

Many animals use visual signals and signs to communicate with one another. Could it be something like that? I don’t know. But recent discoveries suggest that the foundations of writing go back much farther than was once thought.

However, we were storytelling for a long time before we developed the tool we call writing, and when we did develop it, in every instance that we know about it was used first not for poetry and narrative – people were doing that anyway –but to keep track of the proliferation and trading of material objects. In other words, it was used for accountancy. And as agriculture took over as the main method of food production, populations increased, hierarchies developed, and this tool became almost indispensable. It was soon used for the writing down of laws – such as the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. In ancient Chinese “shell bone writing,” characters were scratched on turtle shells or bones and used for divination, or the magical prediction of the future.

'Book-burnings reflect both the respect and the fear: no one would feel impelled to burn an innocuous book'

These two functions – record-keeping and magic – still inhere in the act of writing. Setting something down – as opposed to memorising it and transmitting it orally – freezes it, in a way; causes it to stand still in time. And you would think that this setting down and freezing would also limit the meaning of what is recorded – which is a good thing to have in a legal system, I suppose. But also, it creates a text subject to ambiguity – to many interpretations, many “readings.” In times in which hardly anyone could read, the physical writing – on a scroll or tablet – and the ability to read it – to transform it back into a voice, and also to interpret its meaning – were deeply respected and much feared, and those who had this ability wielded considerable authority, and were sometimes credited with supernatural power – even a demonic form of power. Writers can still be credited with those kinds of powers, though in much-diminished form. Book-burnings reflect both the respect and the fear: no one would feel impelled to burn an innocuous book.

This is what we’ve inherited from the deep past, Dear Fellow Writers – the innate ability to tell and understand stories, which came from our interactions with a demanding natural environment; and the neural programs that enable us to read and write, which also came from that environment. The time when we lived embedded in nature is – generationally speaking – not far away from us at all. Yet here we are – everyone in this room, and most people on the planet – in an increasingly man-made environment, in which we treat animals not as fellow beings with souls but as machines. Almost everything that happens to us, and almost everything we do – including this event, so dependent on electricity – would not exist at all without a great deal of technology that we ourselves have made. But the ability of these technologies to supply power, and thus food and water, is not keeping pace with our rapid modernization and burgeoning populations.

Worse than that, it’s these very same extremely efficient technologies –technologies built for the exploitation of nature – that are now depleting the larger biological world on which we depend.

'The ability of technologies to supply power, and thus food and water, is not keeping pace with our rapid modernization and burgeoning populations'

What shall we do? We can’t go back to a time before our technologies and live in unmediated nature. A few days without clothing, cutting tools, or fire, and we’d all be dead ducks.

What kinds of stories can we writers tell about our increasingly desperate situation? What kinds might be of any help to the human community of which we are a part?

I can’t tell you that because I don’t know. But I do know that as long as we have hope – and we still do have hope – we will be telling stories, and – if we have the time and the materials – we’ll be setting them down; because the telling of stories, and the wish to listen to them, transmit them, and derive meaning from them, is built into us as human beings. As for “the environment,” and all the threats to it that we’ve mentioned – will we writers set out to deal with that, and if so, how? Through didactic warnings of a too-preachy kind, through exemplary narratives that act out our choices, or just as background to a story with a more conventional foreground?

Already there’s a trend: stories about survival in extreme conditions – we’ve always been fond of those, but we’re becoming fonder of them as the extreme conditions loom closer. Disaster stories, in which the disasters are not wars or invasions of vampires or Martians, but such things as droughts and floods. On the more positive side, stories about people adapting, or trying to live less wasteful lives.

Though perhaps we will not tackle these themes directly or deliberately. Perhaps we may think we are telling a story about love, or war, or growing old – about our ancient, constant themes, human desires and human fears. But we will weave “the environment” into our stories whether we intend to or not because storytellers have always been attached to their world – both physical and social – and their stories have changed as the world has changed, and our own world is changing very quickly.

So our stories will inevitably reflect those changes; and once in a while we may even be able to slip into a modern version of the shaman’s trance, and journey in spirit to another realm, and bring back something from the Otherworld. It won’t be a book of instructions – there isn’t one. Perhaps it will be a talisman, to protect us, even a little. Perhaps it will be a list of dangers. Perhaps it will be a charm, to alter the way in which we see. Perhaps we will once more talk with animals, and be instructed by plants. Who knows what forms our metaphors will take?

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

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