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Margaret Atwood: A Canadian Colossus

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, in 1939, and spent her girlhood summers in northern Ontario and Quebec, where her father, a well-known entomologist, introduced her to the pastimes of roaming and playing in the open wilderness, a much loved preoccupation which appears quite often in her writings up to this day, critics describing it as a true leitmotif of her oeuvre .
An accomplished student, she attended the University of Toronto, Radcliffe, and Harvard. She has served as the chairperson of The Writers’ Union of Canada and has tirelessly supported Amnesty International and P E N Canada. Margaret Atwood lives with writer Graeme Gibson, and they have a daughter, Jess, who was born in 1976.
A decade after Margaret Atwood had won her first Governor General’s Award, Tom Marshall commented, in an issue of the Malahat Review dedicated to her work, that “Atwood is young enough for us to suppose that her best work is in the future.”
Atwood, who is perhaps Canada’s best-known author both in her homeland and abroad, has so far written more than 30 literary works and has been translated into more than 25 languages, including Romanian (the Romanian postmodernist writer Mircea Cartarescu, who met her at an international reading a couple of years ago, confessed to me recently that Margaret Atwood is one of his favourite writers of all times and cultures). Although she has also written poetry, non-fiction and children’s literature, she is perhaps best known for her novels – The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), and The Robber Bride(1993), in addition to her numerous collections of short stories.
Margaret Atwood made her literary debut in the 1950’s when she, a teenager, had no hunch of modern poetry. “In high school we did not study any Canadian poets; we studied dead English people. But there were a lot of people around my age who were coming into it, who had begun to write. There were people on the west coast and people here [Toronto] in the coffee-shop movement; there was that kind of public reading going on... It was such a small community.... Something wiggled on one side of it and those on the other side felt the ripple.”
In 1972 Atwood published her ground-breaking book, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, in which her chief hypothesis was that much Canadian literature is concerned with discrimination by the natural environment. Another seminal book is her The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, published by the famous Oxford University Press in 1982, a landmark in the spreading of Canadian literature beyond its national borders.
When she won the Governor General’s Award in 1966 for The Circle Game (she won the prize a second time in 1986 for The Handmaid’s Tale), her prolific career had already been launched.
Several of Atwood’s writings have been turned into films, including the poem “The Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer” and the novels Surfacing, The Edible Woman, and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Margaret Atwood has won wide international acclaim and numerous awards, highlighted by France’s Le Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, England’s Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence, the Canadian Authors Association Award, the Ontario Trillium Award, the American Humanist of the Year Award (1987), the Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award, Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year for 1986, the Welsh Arts Council International Writer’s Prize (1982), and the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction in 1986. In 1987 and 1989, she was short listed for the Booker Prize and was made Companion of the Order of Canada in 1981.
Journalist Robert Fulford, longtime editor of Saturday Night, wrote in 1977 that Atwood, as “feminist, nationalist, literary witch, mythological poet, satirist, formulator of critical theories ... is beyond question the chief literary heroine of this era.” He asked, “Who is Atwood? What is she up to? What is she up to now?” In 1995 she partly deflected a similar question in the Poetry Canada Review: “Biographically-minded people are constantly pushing interpretation towards the inner and personal and the subjective, but, in fact, a lot of what poets write about is there in the world. It’s out there, not in here. Or it may be both, but it’s certainly out there. So you’re not writing about dire things because you happen to be oriented towards dire things; you’re writing about dire things because they exist.”
But trying to present Margaret Atwood in such few words is as if trying to noose a cloud: when you get the impression that the contours of your portrait have finally shaped, you realize that you are still there in the initial position of your illusory journey into the realm of the giants. For what else could Margaret Atwood be than a Canadian kolossos riding a no-more-balky, poetry-fed Pegasus under the Maple Leaf constellation of tomorrow?

Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
The edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
this far
we are learning to make fire

You Fit Into Me

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye


Daniel Deleanu - Toronto    4/12/2003


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