On May 1, author Margaret Atwood was awarded the 2014 Harvard Arts Medal to recognize her excellence in the arts and her contributions to the public good. My good friend Mary and I were lucky ceremony attendees.
Margaret Atwood is a prolific writer, having published more than 40 books, volumes of poetry, numerous plays, and even an opera libretto. She is also an environmental activist and is perhaps best known for her feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The auspicious proceedings began with a professional reading of Atwood’s one act play, Happy Endings. Then actor John Lithgow, memorable from the sitcom Third Rock from The Sun, served as Atwood’s interviewer, and the audience was treated to a lively, unscripted conversation between the two of them.
You don’t have to be in a room with Margaret Atwood for long before it becomes evident that she is a quietly powerful presence. To lighten things up, Lithgow read a list of some of the more cutting observations in Atwood’s work and asked her if it makes her feel accomplished to come up with a witty line that stings. She was bemused. “You think it’s noteworthy [to be caustic] because you’re a nice person. I just think of it as descriptive writing.”
Lithgow and Atwood had great fun with the fact that Atwood harbors a secret, i.e. she’s Canadian. Of course, that’s hardly a secret, but it is significant. It goes deeper, and Atwood revels in the fact that she can “pass as something else”. “One of the perks of being Canadian is that people don’t know,” she joked. Still, her identity as not American – at Harvard as a young woman, as a hallowed woman of letters now – has allowed her to define what it is to be Atwood.
I remember one of my college professors introducing Atwood’s Surfacing as an example of “a perfect novel”. Even then, I knew there was no greater compliment for a book or writer. The Handmaid’s Tale is the most striking Atwood novel for me; it’s a terrifying read because it could happen so easily (the news about the Nigerian Boko Haram group is a chilling current example). Her writing does leave a mark, and that’s her signature. She has things to say, and she will say them.
After a brief survey of Atwood’s novels and some discussion of her upcoming opera, Lithgow alighted on her poetry, which was a revelation to me. He read Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing, a poem that left the audience stunned and deeply moved. The final line: You think I’m not a goddess?/Try me./This is a torch song./Touch me and you’ll burn. This brash, brilliant piece is pure Atwood – observant, wry, and unapologetic.
Atwood does not hold back or worry what others might think of her truth. Just as important, she has figured out how to speak her mind without sounding shrill or hysterical. She explained it this way: “you make a promise to the reader, and you have to deliver on that promise, not violate that commitment.” By putting the reader first, she early on in her career dispensed with self-doubt and went about the business of being courageously authentic. For that she deserves the highest honors.