I was lucky enough to hear author Margaret Atwood speak last night. She’s a Canadian author who, at her glorious age, probably has about fifty plus years of impressive credentials, titles, and awards that can be placed after her name. I didn’t know what to expect. I was just excited to get out of the house and have a night of words and literature to myself. I’ve read a handful of her essays and her book The Handmaiden’s Tale. She is prolific and sensory in her writing, but apart from her titles, I didn’t know much about the author herself.
At first glance, from the tenth row where I sat, Ms. Atwood looked thin and possibly frail. When she walked out, an eruption of applause caused me to crane my neck so I could catch a glimpse. All I saw was a small gray afro of tight gray curls. Once on stage, she smiled and thanked us for the warm welcome, arranged her papers and pulled gently on the azure blue scarf draped around her neck, the only hint of color against the black suit she wore. Her eyes, I realized, matched the scarf, for even where I sat, I caught the glimmer of their blue fierceness.
And she was, fierce. Fierce in the way Maggie Smith playing Violet Crawley in Downton Abby is fierce. Ms. Atwood is smiling and funny, proper and insightful, strict and unafraid to voice her opinion or the truth of the state of the world as she sees it.
But she was also funny. Delightfully so. She spoke about words, about language, about the phrases we choose to express ourselves every day, to distinguish ourselves, to convey ourselves. She had a full audience packed in like sardines laughing uproariously when she talked about an app called “Clean Reader” that takes out the suggested ‘offensive’ language and replaces it with acceptable words.
She wondered if this was helping or hindering and to illustrate her point, read excerpts where the word ‘breast’ had been changed to ‘chest’, and wondered at a youthful reader who might come upon a character frying up some “chicken chests”. Or how the word “wiener” (and any subsequent mention to a male genital) was changed to ‘groin’, leaving some to scratch their heads as to why any character would opt to put mustard on a groin dog and take a bite.
Amid the laughter was one of her suggestions for keeping offensive writing away from people who might find it offensive. If you don’t like what is written between the pages of the book, take one cover you hold in your right hand, one cover you hold in your left hand, bring your hands together and you will no longer be offended by what is ‘in’ the book. She goes on to opt that if one wanted, they could then take their frustration out by throwing the book against the wall, or burring the book altogether.
Her comments were pithy and comedic, but you could tell she has spent a very long time giving proper through and care as to her own views on censorship, on the use of language, on how it is within our own human nature to react to others language and chosen use of it.
She covered a variety of topics that are still resounding in my mind, to be brought back later after they’ve marinated a bit more. She took questions and when asked by a young woman how to keep the dream of being a writer alive, Ms. Atwood replied, don’t let anyone ever get in your way, in your head, and tell you that you can’t do something.
As a writer of future worlds, she was asked what she thought of social media and its effects on our modern world and the written story. I loved her answer. She repeated the question and said it would be one thing if it were new, but it’s not. Tweeting has been around as long as man. She used the city of Pompeii as an example, when it was dug out, there was a tavern in which the writing on the walls was preserved, and there were short quips about politics, about sex and jokes about friends.
Human Nature it seems doesn’t change, just the vessel in which to express itself.
Another question to Ms. Atwood was what she thought of fan fiction. She shrugged, like this was not an important question and pointed out that folks have been writing fan fiction since they could write as well. Point and case, Homer wrote a little story called The Odyssey and a few years later, a guy named Virgil wrote another little work called The Aeneid. While debates reign over Virgil’s work, one thing is clear, he was, in essence, writing fan fiction.
She said she liked fan fiction and in fact, gave a little plug for a piece she’s recently written for The Guardian about Game of Thrones. (Begins again this Sunday, May 12!!)
The lecture was over all too quickly, she graciously took questions and then stayed for a book signing. I did not stay. I left the lecture in a daze of wonderful thoughts about words, about hope, about writing, about good people who come together to celebrate an author whose books have moved us, made us think, and whose words were still causing this fan to sigh contentedly.