Author Margaret Atwood discusses economic inequality

Introduced by Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice director Carolyn Forché as “one of the most important of the world’s living writers,” Canadian author Margaret Atwood spoke in Gaston Hall Monday about accountability and fairness in today’s political and financial climate.

Atwood is probably best known for her work in the genre she calls “speculative fiction,” which distinguishes itself from science fiction in its discussion of possible potential events, rather than those that could never take place. Or, in Atwood’s words, “no Martians.”

Beginning her talk with a reading of one of her works, “Our Cat Enters Heaven,” from her 2007 collection of short stories entitled The Tent, Atwood captured the audience’s attention with her eloquence and wit.

Continuing with the story’s theme of balance and justice, Atwood proceeded to read from her newest book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. The non-fiction book discusses debt as a motif in literature, religion, and as a more abstract concept in human interaction, and it was the latter topic that Atwood chose to focus on in her talk.

Noting that “the antidote to revenge is not justice but forgiveness,” Atwood remarked on how embracing that phrase would have changed the course of events that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

When prompted by audience questions, Atwood commented on issues in contemporary American politics. Comparing income disparities in today’s society to those in the time preceding the French Revolution, she expressed her view that the Occupy movement is succeeding in “call[ing] attention to the growing inequality, the growing gap between a few people at the top who are getting richer and richer and richer, and everybody else, who isn’t.”

Her observation that protests against the French aristocracy began peacefully as well, but turned violent when they went unheeded, seemed to betray some concern for the future of the movement. Atwood stressed the importance of resisting bitter and spiteful rhetoric: “People should be saying, ‘How do we work together and get ourselves out of this mess?’”

During this interactive segment of her talk, Atwood also answered the controversial question of whether corporations are people, raised by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in a sarcastic stage whisper: “Actually, they’re not!”

Atwood also made a humorous reference to the striking resemblance that Canadian politics bears to The Lord of the Rings: in her analogy, Canadians who were once simple and carefree Hobbits have gotten hold of the Ring of Power—oil—and are turning into the creature Gollum as a result.

She also observed that because of the importance of independent American women as swing voters, Republicans’ “unhealthy, and really slightly kinky” focus on “certain isolated parts of women’s bodies” is an unwise strategy for that party. Also on the status of women, Atwood warned in closing that advancements for women are “really recent. Like, really, really recent. And you don’t have to go back very far to reverse [them].”

Photo: Lucia He

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