Margaret Atwood in conversation, Part II

By Callam Rodya

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part II of a special two-part feature and appeared in the Dec. 9th print issue of Lambda.

I am sitting in front of a fireplace in a house on Maki Avenue with Margaret Atwood. We are discussing art.

“You cannot dictate to artists what to do,” she tells me. “Well, you can dictate, but you’ll probably get pretty bad art.”

Atwood strongly believes that, while the arts can be a medium for social and political change, they can not be forced into that role. Art is organic and it follows its own path.

“I, as an artist, am certainly not going to stand and tell other artists what they should do,” she says bluntly.

“There are always going to be some limitations on art,” she continues. “Sometimes those limits are financial. Sometimes the limits are put upon by governments. In general, the right tries to suppress sex and the left tries to suppress violence.”

I ask her if she has always been a passionate environmentalist or if it arose later in her life. It all goes back to her upbringing, she says.

“When you’re born a Catholic, you sort of take it for granted,” she says. “When you’re a convert, you really get quite annoying about it. I am the former. I simply take it for granted that that’s how sane people think.”

Both Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson have a great affinity for birds. Gibson published a popular birdwatching book in 2005 entitled The Bedside Book of Birds. They are both very active in the effort to preserve the natural habit of birds. But Atwood says it goes far beyond that.

“Birds are our focus, but they’re just a focus of the bigger issue,” she explains. “When you save the habitat for the birds, you’re also saving that which enables us to breathe. It could be fish. It could just as easily be oceans. All of that is connected.”

Atwood is passionate about the concept of interconnectivity: that all living things, including human beings, are part of the same system of life, and what affects one part of that system will eventually affect the system as a whole. I quote something she had said in the film In the Wake of the Flood by Ronn Mann. On the topic of birds, she says the same things that are killing them will eventually kill us.

“That’s absolutely true,” she tells me. “It’s not fear-mongering or scare tactics. It’s chemistry and physics and it’s just true.”

I begin my next question by saying that people can look at environmentalism from the outside and – I am cut off.

“And they’re a bunch of loonies,” she interjects. “Well, breathe on! Quite soon, it’s not going to be my problem anymore. I leave it to you. It’s your generation that’s going to have to live with the consequences of all this. So thank all those people when you’re gasping for breath. Thank all those people who told you it was lunacy.”

Though her words are strong and passionate, he voice and demeanor remain calm. She gives the impression of a woman who has had all the arguments, all of the debates, and is now resolved herself to simply stating the facts. She is not forceful in her views, but rather lays them out precisely and with a matter-of-factness that makes it difficult to not head them.

She is a fascinating woman, whose brilliance does not intimidate, but rather reassures. It reassures in the sense that there is a mind like hers speaking for the environment. And let’s be clear, she is no lunatic.

If one thing is for sure, this is a woman that ought to be listened to.

Callam Rodya
Arts & Entertainment/Online Editor