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Margaret Eleanor Atwood, (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award several times, winning twice. She is also a founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada’s writing community. While she is best known for her work as a novelist, she has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. Atwood has published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper’s, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, and many other magazines. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Atwood is the second of three children of Margaret Dorothy (née Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist, and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist. Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was in grade 8. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957. Atwood began writing at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and a minor in philosophy and French. In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard’s Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship.
She obtained a master’s degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for two years but did not finish her dissertation, “The English Metaphysical Romance.”
She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967–68), the University of Alberta (1969–70), York University in Toronto (1971–72), the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (1985), where she was visiting M.F.A. Chair, and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English. In June 2011, Atwood was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) from the National University of Ireland, Galway. On November 16, 2012, Atwood received an honorary degree from the Royal Military College of Canada. She also holds honorary degrees from several other Canadian universities, as well as Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the Sorbonne.
In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk; they were divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto, where their daughter Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson was born in 1976. The family returned to Toronto in 1980.
Critical reception The Economist called her a “scintillating wordsmith” and an “expert literary critic”, but commented that her logic does not match her prose in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a book which commences with the conception of debt and its kinship with justice. Atwood claims that this concept is ingrained in the human psyche, that it is apparent in early historical peoples, who associated their understanding of debt with that of justice, ideas that are typically exemplified by a female deity. Atwood holds that, with the rise of Ancient Greece, and especially the installation of the court system detailed in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, this deity has been replaced by a more thorough conception of debt. In 1984, she was the subject of a documentary film by Michael Rubbo, Margaret Atwood: Once in August. In 2003, Shaftesbury Films produced an anthology series, The Atwood Stories, which dramatized six of Atwood’s short stories.
Atwood and science fiction
The Handmaid’s Tale received the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. The award is given for the best science fiction novel that was first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards. Atwood has resisted the suggestion that The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are science fiction, suggesting to The Guardian that they are speculative fiction instead: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” She told the Book of the Month Club: “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” On BBC Breakfast she explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself wrote, was “talking squids in outer space.” The latter phrase particularly rankled advocates of science fiction and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed. Atwood has since said that she does at times write social science fiction and that Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake can be designated as such. She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: “For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do…. speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth.” She said that science fiction narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.
Atwood and feminism
Atwood, who was surrounded by the intellectual dialogue of the female faculty members at Victoria College at University of Toronto, often portrays female characters dominated by patriarchy in her novels. Still, Atwood denies that The Edible Woman, for example, published in 1969 and coinciding with the early second wave of the feminist movement, is feminist and claims that she wrote it four years before the movement. Atwood believes that the feminist label can only be applied to writers who consciously work within the framework of the feminist movement.
Contribution to the theorizing of Canadian identity
Atwood’s contributions to the theorizing of Canadian identity have garnered attention both in Canada and internationally. Her principal work of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, is considered outdated in Canada but remains the standard introduction to Canadian literature in Canadian Studies programs internationally. In Survival, Atwood postulates that Canadian literature, and by extension Canadian identity, is characterized by the symbol of survival. This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of “victim positions” in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the “victor/victim” relationship. The “victor” in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim. Atwood’s Survival bears the influence of Northrop Frye’s theory of garrison mentality; Atwood instrumentalizes Frye’s concept to a critical tool. More recently, Atwood has continued her exploration of the implications of Canadian literary themes for Canadian identity in lectures such as Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995). Atwood’s contribution to the theorizing of Canada is not limited to her non-fiction works. Several of her works, including The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Surfacing, are examples of what postmodern literary theorist Linda Hutcheon calls “Historiographic Metafiction”. In such works, Atwood explicitly explores the relation of history and narrative and the processes of creating history. Ultimately, according to her theories in works such as Survival and her exploration of similar themes in her fiction, Atwood considers Canadian literature as the expression of Canadian identity. According to this literature, Canadian identity has been defined by a fear of nature, by settler history and by unquestioned adherence to the community.
Atwood and animals
Margaret Atwood has repeatedly made observations about our relationships to animals in her works. In Surfacing, one character remarks about eating animals: “The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people…And we eat them, out of cans or otherwise; we are eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us, granting us life.” Some characters in her books link sexual oppression to meat-eating and consequently give up meat-eating. In The Edible Woman, Atwood’s character Marian identifies with hunted animals and cries after hearing her fiancé’s experience of hunting and eviscerating a rabbit. Marian stops eating meat but then later returns to it. In Cat’s Eye, the narrator recognizes the similarity between a turkey and a baby. She looks at “the turkey, which resembles a trussed, headless baby. It has thrown off its disguise as a meal and has revealed itself to me for what it is, a large dead bird.” In Atwood’s Surfacing, a dead heron represents purposeless killing and prompts thoughts about other senseless deaths.
In March 2008 Atwood announced that she had accepted her first chamber opera commission. Pauline will be on the subject of Pauline Johnson, a writer and Canadian artist long a subject of fascination to Atwood. It will star Judith Forst, with music by Tobin Stokes, and be produced by City Opera of Vancouver. Pauline will be set in Vancouver, British Columbia, in March 1913, in the last week of Johnson’s life. “Pauline” has been announced for premiere in May 2014.
Although Atwood’s politics are commonly described as being left-wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term. Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson are members of the Green Party of Canada (GPC) and strong supporters of GPC leader Elizabeth May. Atwood has strong views on environmental issues, and she and her partner are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. She has been chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada and president of PEN Canada, and is currently a vice president of PEN International. In the 2008 federal election she attended a rally for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and stated that she would vote for the party if she lived in Quebec. In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority. During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood spoke out against the deal, and wrote an essay opposing the agreement. Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada’s most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: “When people ask if there’s hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it’s become a symbol of hope.” Atwood’s reputed left wing attitudes may have been changing in recent times. Despite calls for a boycott by Gazan students, Atwood visited Israel and accepted the $1,000,000 Dan David Prize along with Indian author Amitav Ghosh at Tel Aviv University in May 2010. Atwood commented that “we don’t do cultural boycotts.” She is a supporter of convicted felon Conrad Black in his attempts to remain a member of the Order of Canada. In the Wake of the Flood, a documentary film by Canadian director Ron Mann released in October 2010, followed Atwood on the unusual book tour for her novel The Year of the Flood. During this innovative book tour, Atwood created a theatrical version of her novel, with performers borrowed from the local areas she was visiting. The documentary is described as “a fly-on-the-wall film vérité.” Since February 2013, Atwood made it clear via Twitter that she strongly opposed the University of Toronto putting in an artificial turf field and hinted that she might write the university out of her will if it proceeded with the plan. This was not the first time she had openly challenged the university.
Novels The Edible Woman (1969) Surfacing (1972) Lady Oracle (1976) Life Before Man (1979, finalist for the Governor General’s Award) Bodily Harm (1981) The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, winner of the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award and 1985 Governor General’s Award, finalist for the 1986 Booker Prize) Cat’s Eye (1988, finalist for the 1988 Governor General’s Award and the 1989 Booker Prize) The Robber Bride (1993, finalist for the 1994 Governor General’s Award and shortlisted for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award) Alias Grace (1996, winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, finalist for the 1996 Booker Prize and the 1996 Governor General’s Award, shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction) The Blind Assassin (2000, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize and finalist for the 2000 Governor General’s Award, shortlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction.) Oryx and Crake (2003, finalist for the 2003 Booker Prize and the 2003 Governor General’s Award and shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction.) The Penelopiad (2005, nominated for the 2006 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and longlisted for the 2007 IMPAC Award) The Year of the Flood (2009, Oryx and Crake companion, longlisted for the 2011 IMPAC Award) MaddAddam (2013) (third novel in Oryx and Crake trilogy)
Short fiction collections
Dancing Girls (1977, winner of the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction and the award of The Periodical Distributors of Canada for Short Fiction) Murder in the Dark (1983) Bluebeard’s Egg (1983) Wilderness Tips (1991, finalist for the Governor General’s Award) Good Bones (1992) Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994) The Labrador Fiasco (1996) The Tent (2006) Moral Disorder (2006)
Double Persephone (1961) The Circle Game (1964, winner of the 1966 Governor General’s Award) Expeditions (1965) Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein (1966) The Animals in That Country (1968) The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) Procedures for Underground (1970) Power Politics (1971) You Are Happy (1974) Selected Poems (1976) Two-Headed Poems (1978) True Stories (1981) Love Songs of a Terminator (1983) Snake Poems (1983) Interlunar (1984) Selected Poems 1966–1984 (Canada) Selected Poems II: 1976–1986 (US) Morning in the Burned House, McClelland & Stewart (1995) Eating Fire: Selected Poems, 1965–1995 (UK,1998) “You Begin.” (1978) – as recited by Margaret Atwood; included in all three most recent editions of her “Selected Poems” as listed above (US, CA, UK)
The Door (2007)
I’m Starved For You (2012) Choke Collar: Positron, Episode Two (2012) Erase Me: Positron, Episode Three (2013) The Heart Goes Last, Episode Four (2013) Anthologies edited The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1982) The Canlit Foodbook (1987) The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1988) The Best American Short Stories 1989 (1989) (with Shannon Ravenel) The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1995) Children’s books Up in the Tree (1978) Anna’s Pet (1980) (with Joyce C. Barkhouse) For the Birds (1990) (with Shelly Tanaka) Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003) Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (2006) Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery (2011) Non-fiction Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) Days of the Rebels 1815–1840 (1977) Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982) Through the One-Way Mirror (1986) Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995) Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002) Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982–2004 (2004) Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose–1983-2005 (2005) Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008) In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011) Drawings Kanadian Kultchur Komix featuring “Survivalwoman” in This Magazine under the pseudonym, Bart Gerrard 1975–1980 Others appear on her website. Television scripts The Servant Girl (1974) Snowbird (1981) Heaven on Earth (1987) Libretto The Trumpets of Summer (1964) (with composer John Beckwith) Frankenstein Monster Song (2004, with rock band One Ring Zero) Audio recordings The Poetry and Voice of Margaret Atwood (1977) Margaret Atwood Reads “Unearthing Suite” (1985) Margaret Atwood Reading From Her Poems (2005)
Awards and honours
Atwood has won more than 55 awards in Canada and internationally, including:
Governor General’s Award, (1966, 1985) Companion of the Order of Canada, 1981 Guggenheim fellowship, 1981 Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, 1986 Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction, 1987 Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1988 Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year, 1989 Trillium Book Award, 1991, 1993, 1995 Government of France’s Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1994 Helmerich Award, 1999, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust. Booker Prize, 2000 Prince of Asturias Awards for Literature, 2008 Nelly Sachs Prize, Germany, 2010 Dan David Prize, Israel, 2010 Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Canada, 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize “Innovator’s Award”, 2012
Trent University, 1973 Queen’s University, 1974 Concordia University, 1980 Smith College, 1982 University of Toronto, 1983 University of Waterloo, 1985 University of Guelph, 1985 Mount Holyoke College, 1985 Victoria College, 1987 Université de Montréal, 1991 University of Leeds, 1994 McMaster University, 1996 Laurentian University, 2001 Harvard University, 2004 Ontario College of Art & Design, 2009 Bard College, 2010 National University of Ireland, Galway, 2011 Ryerson University, 2012 Royal Military College of Canada, 2012