Get out your party hats, dear readers, (or maybe your handmaid’s bonnets?), because today we’re celebrating the birthday of the author, poet, environmentalist, literary critic, essayist, and inventor Margaret Atwood.
A household name after Hulu picked up her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, turning it into a serial show (and expanding it beyond the book), there have been multitudes of articles, bios, summaries, and commentaries on her work and life. This will not be retold here. What will be told is a brief celebration of Atwood’s mark on my life.
I discovered Atwood my freshman year in college; I suppose many young women do. A new friend of mine suggested her to me–The Handmaid’s Tale, of course. I devoured it and never looked back. End of story.
Not really. Like with every relationship, there have been ups and downs.
I’m not a fan of everything she’s ever written. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, is nowhere near the creative scope of some of her other works and I shudder to think if that work was the first one I had read instead of one of her best, I would likely not have given her a second look. But after The Handmaid’s Tale, I steadily picked up each of her other works where I could find them (I’m dating myself by admitting this was before the heydays of Amazon ordering ease): novels, short story collections, poetry. My favorites: Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace. Those which I need to re-read to appreciate with older eyes: Surfacing, Cat’s Eye. Those which disappointed: MaddAddam, The Heart Goes Last.
Atwood has been with me during my entire adult writing career. I’ve looked to her use of language and character development as how-to examples; I’ve used her poems as portals to explore metaphor and subtleties of language and imagery; I’ve followed her prolific career as a trail of bread crumbs: be diligent, work hard, and behold the upper echelon of author-dom.
I met her once. On her book tour following the release of The Year of the Flood, 2009 I believe. She came to DC. A part of the book was performed. I stood in line, got the book signed. Then I reached out–I wanted to shake her hand.
I said: “I just wanted to say you are wonderful.” I’ll never forget the look she gave me: a small, amused smile. Her eyes danced. Her hand was thin, dry, and very light. It felt breakable. I don’t recall what she said in response but her expression will always remain because she looked directly at me.
I flushed with embarrassment (what a stupid thing to say!), clutched my signed book, and walked away. But I had done it. I met an idol. And so I continue, every few years, to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale, re-examining those twists of scene and narrative. The ending. The locked room of Offred. Each time I revisit, I gain something new. I’m overdue this time around, so I think I’ll pick up my worn copy this weekend. An old friend.
Happy birthday, Margaret Atwood.