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Tuesday 3 September 2019

Feminist fiction

Barbarism at home

What will Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale tell us about the future of feminism, power and oppression?


By Arifa Akbar

In 1978, Margaret Atwood stopped off in Afghanistan on her way to a literary festival in Adelaide. Her husband, Graeme Gibson, and then 18-month old daughter, were with her. It was long before Taliban days and a year before the Soviet-Afghan war broke out. Decades later, Atwood wrote about seeing Kabul in that time of peace and the scenery of jagged mountains on a trip to Jalalabad.

The men she met along the way only spoke to her husband, as was customary. The girls and women she glimpsed were covered head to foot in chadors, though she noted that it “wasn’t obligatory back then”. She bought a chador of her own – a purple one – and it was partly this garment, freighted with all its complicated symbolism, that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale.

Margaret Atwood and daughter Jess

I read the book a couple of years after its publication in 1985. My reading choices then, as a 15-year-old, were shaped by my 17-year-old sister; whatever she brought home from the library, I read. Not every book suited my tastes. Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, featured a dissatisfied woman who ate peanut butter from the jar and submitted to uncomfortable sex in the bathtub. I gave up halfway through, confused by its adult world subtleties. She brought home other books, like Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, whose characters’ lives bore little relation to mine – they were invariably white, well-off, East Coast American women, as articulate as they were angry about the patriarchy while I was a meek child of Pakistani Muslim parents living in a shabby corner of North London. All the same, I came to recognise their worlds and feel their struggle.

Ironically, though The Handmaid’s Tale was ostensibly about a world far removed from mine – the near-future State of Gilead – there was much that was chillingly familiar in it. I recognised in its imagination the Iranian women in burqas that filled the television news and the deadly surveillance of East Germany’s Stasi that filled the newspapers. The Eyes in Atwood’s book might have been the CIA or KGB spies that were such a common feature of political rumour and fear-mongering in the 1980s, while the battle for reproductive control had as many echoes of the fanatical anti-abortion lobby in America as that of science fiction. And the tormenting aunts, with their cattle prods and torture techniques, were only a few shades darker than the “mothers” of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.

Magdalene Laundry in England in the early twentieth century

What was particularly extraordinary to me was that a Canadian writer had chosen to locate her story about religious fundamentalism, bigamy, ritualised rape within marriage and a medieval punishment system (involving hangings and the chopping off of limbs) in the West. Atwood’s dystopia was a sinister, uncivilised place and it wasn’t Iran or Afghanistan but New England, America. Atwood, too clever to situate her nightmare vision in a far-away land, seemed to be saying that it was too easy to imagine civilisation’s unravelling over there, in the Conradian territory of African jungles or the Afghanistan of 1978. It was far more disturbing, and interesting, to show barbarism at home – an America conquered by quasi-Christian, not Islamic, fanaticism. She even exposed the mechanism by which non-western cultures are ‘othered’ with her subtle inversions; there is an early scene in the book in which Japanese tourists visiting Gilead gawp at the handmaids and ask if they can take pictures of them. In that moment, the tourists are the Orientalists and the American women the exoticised Geishas, of sorts. Atwood’s protagonist, Offred, sees the way that they look at her and thinks, “I can feel their bright black eyes on us, the way they lean a little forward to catch our answers… we are secret, forbidden, we excite them.”

I only got the radicalism of Atwood’s project on an instinctive level at the age of 15. I also felt her feminism to be more self-questioning than many of her Second Wave contemporaries. Atwood had in fact not allied herself with this brand of political feminism or with the term ‘feminism’ itself which, for a time, confused me.

In 2009 when she published The Year of the Flood, the second novel in her climate trilogy, I interviewed her and asked about her relationship to the F-word: “Who is the ‘we’ that we are talking about [in feminism]?” she said. “Are we talking about the children who are involved in sex trafficking, or the women in Bangladesh? Are we talking about the Eastern European women who are promised a place in the West and end up as sex slaves?” She was, in effect, describing intersectionality, and her discomfort with the umbrella term ‘feminism’ was the same discomfort that some feel over a movement that has, in the past, been co-opted by white Western values.

Before I met Atwood, I read her 2002 collection of Cambridge lectures, Negotiating with the Dead. In it, she talked of the distinction between authors and their works: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.” I prepared to meet the duck with some apprehension, especially as I had been warned of her iciness by other journalists. But I needn’t have worried. She had glacial blue eyes that reminded me of a winter bird but she was alive to every question I asked her.

We got onto The Handmaid’s Tale and she talked about the possibility of re-writing it from a male perspective. I thought it a brilliant idea because, of course, some of the men in Gilead suffer in the system too, from the commander’s low-status driver, Nick, to those like Offred’s husband, Luke, who form the resistance and are hunted down, tortured and killed. “People have mistakenly felt that the women [in The Handmaid’s Tale] are oppressed, but power tends to organise itself in a pyramid. I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid. It would be interesting,” she said, and I felt like I had a scoop – that a sequel would hit the market any day and that I would have heard it here first.

I was wrong and it was ten years before Atwood would unveil her follow-up, launched with such excitement and fanfare that her publishers are treating book proofs – given to some journalists early – as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. On the book’s global publication day next Tuesday, there will be the drama of a press conference attended by Atwood at the British Library, in London, followed by an ‘in conversation’ event with her at the National Theatre that evening. The hot-ticket event (sold out just hours after tickets were announced in March) will be beamed live across 1,300 cinemas worldwide, from America and Canada to Australia and the UK. A Q&A with Atwood will be followed by a series of readings by special guests and unseen footage from a documentary on Atwood’s life and work will be shown. The book has made it onto the Booker longlist even before the publication date bandwagon sets into motion. Entitled The Testaments, its three central narrators won’t feature any men – and who knows if it will even feature Offred – but it will pick up 15 years after her story.

The timing, for some, has been seen as a move by Atwood’s publishers to cash in on the resurgent wave of the book’s popularity. Much of that is down to the TV series, launched in 2017 by Hulu, which has proved such a hit that it has spawned two more series extending the narrative far beyond the plot of Atwood’s book. Starring Elizabeth Moss as Offred, it chimes with a new generation of feminists who see it reflecting the concerns of today, just as I did over 30 years ago. Like the best fiction, it is both of its time and allows the contemporary world to be projected onto it.

Atwood has said in the past that writers “must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation.” She has all the more right to reclaim ownership of the world she invented in the first place, though the TV show is a different, boldly visual, experience. It borrows from her original idea for the handmaids to look partly like old Dutch women and partly like nuns. Its aesthetic is painterly too, sometimes capturing a clean, flat, hyper-realism, other times looking like a warmly lit Rembrandt or Vermeer.

Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction”. This is because the worlds in them are within the realm of possibility, she claims, landscapes of “a future whose beginnings are already with us”. They are so specifically grounded that she uses real world topography; The Year of the Flood is based in geography that “I could show you on a map,” Atwood told me in 2009.

Then again, all science fiction is arguably a reflection of the here and now, even in its intended – often elaborate – escape. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World, was as much about his anxieties over 1930s Britain with its high unemployment and assembly-line consumerism as it was about the future in AD 2540, as just one example. Similarly, Gilead can be glimpsed in our world today; The Nobel-prize winner and activist, Nadia Murad, writes powerfully of IS terror in 2014 when female sex slaves – formerly wives, mothers, daughters and girls – lived next door to ordinary families in Iraq who had no idea of the horrors Yazidi women were suffering.

2018 Women’s March, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

With every war there is rape and that, for a time, resembles Gilead for the women involved. The notion of laying claim to women’s sexual organs and doing violence through them goes as far back as ancient Greece. Pat Barker’s latest book, The Silence of the Girls, gives voice to the previously silenced women of the Iliad who, as spoils of war, are taken into a rape camp where they are enslaved and abused.

I visited the Swat Valley in 2000, which is not all that far off from where Atwood visited in 1978. It is just over the Afghan border in Pakistan. I was 27, and it was my first time in Lahore since my family left for London when I was four. It should have been momentous but I grew restless, disappointed by the air-conditioned shopping malls and auto-rickshaws puttering petrol fumes, so I hatched a plan to travel to the snowy Northern region. It was, I imagined, the glimmering entry-point to another, untouched Pakistan, away from the chaos, commercialism and oven heat of the Punjab.

I took the bus out of Lahore and all went smoothly until a pit-stop at Peshawar when I went for a stroll in a street market and heard a kind of high whistling sound. It took me a while to realise it was hissing. It took me even longer to figure out that there was no other woman in sight and that I was an affront to the men in the market, just for being seen by them. It was at that point I put on a headscarf, thinking it would help me blend in. Then I got back on the bus which carried me deep into the conservative heartland of the Pushtun area which – I ought to have known – had become Taliban country with groups of talibs pouring over the border.

By the time I got to my hotel, it became clear that I could not go out on my own. I put on every layer of clothing I carried but still I didn’t feel covered up enough. I was grateful when the hotel manager fixed me up with a driver who was jovial, singing along to his Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan tapes and telling me about his children and wife, whose face he first saw on their wedding day.

Pakistani Kashmiri girls shout slogans during a protest calling for justice following the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, in Muzaffarabad

Where are the women? I asked once I began to relax. They are inside, he said, and described how they were freed from the oppressive attentions of men in their houses, which were surrounded by guard-dogs, to keep them safe. A line from The Handmaid’s Tale came to me: “There is more than one kind of freedom.” Aunt Lydia says it and goes on to describe “freedom to and freedom from.” In the days before Gilead, women had “freedom to” she says. Now they had “freedom from”. What did freedom feel like for the invisible women of Swat? I thought. I couldn’t assume anything but it set off speculations.

The driver’s manner hardened whenever we got out of the car; his eyes became flinty and his voice took on a hectoring tone. Disdain burned off the gaze of every man whose eyes I met and in these moments I saw how easily this pack could turn on me. Back in the car, the driver told me I was an attractive woman. “But you know what would make you even more attractive?” he said and held a corner of my headscarf across my face so that only my eyes were uncovered.

Margaret Atwood at the Annual Literary Awards Festival

I came away unscathed but in those few days I felt I had walked in and out of a kind of Gilead. The most chilling aspect of Atwood’s world is this – that Gilead exists within the familiar and uncanny. “This will become ordinary,” says Aunt Lydia to the terrified women before they are turned into handmaids. Oppression does become horribly ordinary, and those who are in close observing proximity to it become somehow inured too. Atwood is right when she suggests that Gilead is not science fiction. It is not even speculative fiction. There are parallel worlds, secret and sometimes not so secret that we look through or away from, bristling dangerously next to our own.

Photographs by Getty Images, Hulu, and Wikipedia

Further reading