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'It's Creepily Similar': Margaret Atwood On 'The Testaments' And The State Of The US

Author Margaret Atwood. (Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
Author Margaret Atwood. (Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

People often compare living in the United States today to the totalitarian dystopia of the 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Author Margaret Atwood doesn’t quite agree, but she says the parallels between her theocratic, white supremacist Republic of Gilead and the U.S. are “creepily similar.” She wrote the book to answer the question: “If the United States were to have totalitarianism, what kind of totalitarianism might it be?”

Beyond selling 8 million copies and inspiring adaptations from a graphic novel to an opera, the novel became an Emmy-winning TV series that spawned the red cape costume of choice for Halloween and abortion rights protestors.

Atwood’s follow up, “The Testaments,” came out last year and was a bestseller as well as the co-winner of the Booker Prize. It’s out in paperback this week.

In Gilead, where both novels take place, female fertility has been curtailed by environmental factors. Many women are relegated to the role of child producers for the elite — but Atwood notes that the women of Gilead choose their fate.

“You can be a breeder for the elite or you can go to work in the colonies and clean up toxic waste. Your choice,” she says. “Nobody’s making you do those. You do have a choice.”

“The Testaments” takes place 16 years into the future to explore the inevitable fate of corrupt totalitarian regimes, she says. Compared to the current timeline of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu, the events in “The Testaments” take place far in the future.

In her follow up, Atwood wanted to tell a story about three different women: One who grew up inside Gilead, one who had a drastically different upbringing elsewhere and Aunt Lydia, who readers first met though the narrator’s flashbacks in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“[Gilead’s] aim is to hold onto power so they will do basically anything, but they’ve come in under the slogan of being better, offering people a better life, being pure, being gooder, all those kinds of things,” she says. “When that begins to fall apart, then the seams start giving. So that’s where we are in ‘The Testaments.’ Things are beginning to come apart.”

As the U.S. continues to face a pandemic and protests against police brutality among countless other issues, Atwood reminds people to look out for the key warning signs from “the totalitarian playbook.”

“I think you have to ask yourself and anybody else who is running for office, what kind of country do you want us to be living in?” she says. “If you want to avoid living in totalitarianism, you have to keep an independent judiciary. You have to keep an independent media. And you have to avoid a police state.”

Interview Highlights

On the impact of her living in East Germany with the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire still in place when she wrote the novel

“Yeah, it certainly contributed to the atmosphere. So every Sunday, the East German Air Force would make sonic booms just to remind us they were there. And I, at that time, visited East Germany. I visited Czechoslovakia, which was still part of the Soviet empire, and I visited Poland. So I’m interested in how these things begin, of course, because I’m old enough to have lived through World War II. So we had [Benito] Mussolini, we had [Adolf] Hitler, we had [Joseph] Stalin and shortly after that, we had [Mao Zedong] and we’ve had a number of them since that time. We’ve had Pol Pot, we’ve had the Argentinean generals who got [Augusto Pinochet]. So how did these things get going and then how did they end? So in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ we see them at the beginning. And in ‘The Testaments,’ 16 years have passed and we’re beginning to see the crumbling because quite frequently these regimes become corrupt. Well, why did I say quite regularly? Always, they become corrupt in their aim, even though they may have been idealistic to begin with.”

On Aunt Lydia, who collaborated with the men in power to train other women to be breeders

“So people from oppressed groups who achieve a certain amount of limited power within a system have always interested me. So you get to have some more power than the other people in your oppressed group, but you will never be a top leader. So why do they take those positions? Because there’s never any lack of applicants. So that’s one of the questions that I’m looking at in the book: Why do collaborators collaborate?”

On the Aunts, who help subjugate the women to become breeders, and how poorly this group treats other women

“They’re the control group. When I first published, somebody said, ‘Well, I just love this book. It was just like my girls private school.’ Well, maybe not quite. I think the skirts are longer in my book.

“Oh, that never happens in real life, does it? Oh, yes. I’m a great fan of ‘Mean Girls.’ Anyways, that’s a comedy and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is not. But the women who are the Aunts think they’re doing it for your own good. And sometimes people really are doing something for your own good that you find disagreeable. So we leave it to the reader to decide. And all the things are a matter of what options are available. So wherever we may find ourselves in life, our choices are always limited. I will never, I’m going to share this with you, Robin. I will never be a ballet dancer. Yes, I know. You can be anything you want to be. Well, I’m sorry, but at the age of 80, I think that route is cut off from me.”

On whether the idea that women can do anything they want is sugar-coated

“There’s always a sugar-coated fairy tale and sugar-coated fairy tales usually have something to them. And so what we’re told in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is nobody will ever aggress you on the street. That’s true. It’s pretty locked down. It’s very organized. It’s very structured. So unpleasant surprises, for instance, you’ll never go out and get trashed in a bar and have somebody put a rape drink into your drink because you’re not going to be in a bar, period. Like that, you’ll be very safe within limits. They also go in for very early marriages just to make sure you’re really safe.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Testaments’


The Ardua Hall Holograph

Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.

This statue was a small token of appreciation for my many contributions, said the citation, which was read out by Aunt Vidala. She’d been assigned the task by our superiors, and was far from appreciative. I thanked her with as much modesty as I could summon, then pulled the rope that released the cloth drape shrouding me; it billowed to the ground, and there I stood. We don’t do cheering here at Ardua Hall, but there was some discreet clapping. I inclined my head in a nod.

My statue is larger than life, as statues tend to be, and shows me as younger, slimmer, and in better shape than I’ve been for some time. I am standing straight, shoulders back, my lips curved into a firm but benevolent smile. My eyes are fixed on some cosmic point of reference understood to represent my idealism, my unflinching commitment to duty, my determination to move forward despite all obstacles. Not that anything in the sky would be visible to my statue, placed as it is in a morose cluster of trees and shrubs beside the footpath running in front of Ardua Hall. We Aunts must not be too presumptuous, even in stone.

Clutching my left hand is a girl of seven or eight, gazing up at me with trusting eyes. My right hand rests on the head of a woman crouched at my side, her hair veiled, her eyes upturned in an expression that could be read as either craven or grateful — one of our Handmaids — and behind me is one of my Pearl Girls, ready to set out on her missionary work. Hanging from a belt around my waist is my Taser. This weapon reminds me of my failings: had I been more effective, I would not have needed such an implement. The persuasion in my voice would have been enough.

As a group of statuary it’s not a great success: too crowded. I would have preferred more emphasis on myself. But at least I look sane. It could well have been otherwise, as the elderly sculptress — a true believer since deceased — had a tendency to confer bulging eyes on her subjects as a sign of their pious fervour. Her bust of Aunt Helena looks rabid, that of Aunt Vidala is hyperthyroid, and that of Aunt Elizabeth appears ready to explode.

At the unveiling the sculptress was nervous. Was her rendition of me sufficiently flattering? Did I approve of it? Would I be seen to approve? I toyed with the idea of frowning as the sheet came off, but thought better of it: I am not without compassion. “Very lifelike,” I said.

That was nine years ago. Since then my statue has weathered: pigeons have decorated me, moss has sprouted in my damper crevices. Votaries have taken to leaving offerings at my feet: eggs for fertility, oranges to suggest the fullness of pregnancy, croissants to reference the moon. I ignore the breadstuffs — usually they have been rained on — but pocket the oranges. Oranges are so refreshing.

I write these words in my private sanctum within the library of Ardua Hall — one of the few libraries remaining after the enthusiastic bookburnings that have been going on across our land. The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory.

But among these bloody fingerprints are those made by ourselves, and these can’t be wiped away so easily. Over the years I’ve buried a lot of bones; now I’m inclined to dig them up again — if only for your edification, my unknown reader. If you are reading, this manuscript at least will have survived. Though perhaps I’m fantasizing: perhaps I will never have a reader. Perhaps I’ll only be talking to the wall, in more ways than one.

That’s enough inscribing for today. My hand hurts, my back aches, and my nightly cup of hot milk awaits me. I’ll stash this screed in its hiding place, avoiding the surveillance cameras — I know where they are, having placed them myself. Despite such precautions, I’m aware of the risk I’m running: writing can be dangerous. What betrayals, and then what denunciations, might lie in store for me? There are several within Ardua Hall who would love to get their hands on these pages.

Wait, I counsel them silently: it will get worse.

Excerpt from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood copyright 2019 by O. W. Toad, Ltd. Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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