Sunday, November 25, 2012

Margaret Atwood talks zombies, the future at the Chan Centre

Margaret Atwood, she of the sibylline prose and caustic tongue, took the stage at the Chan Centre on the evening of Nov. 22 to speak on the topic of “Writing the Future,” a meditation on the zombie apocalypse.
The chattering of the nearly full auditorium fell into a reverent hush once Atwood stepped on stage. The reverence is well-deserved, for she is probably the closest thing Canada has to literary royalty.
Atwood began the evening with a charming anecdote about her days teaching grammar to engineers at UBC.
“At 8:30 in the morning,” she added, with a sidelong look.
Her appearance was part of The Terry Project’s Global Speakers Series, which was open to all students. Limited spots were reserved for the public.
Staunch fans stood in line cradling well-loved copies of Atwood’s work, ready for the book signing that followed her speech. Oryx and Crake had many devotees. There was also a smattering of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, Booker Award finalist and winner, respectively.
Having written over 35 volumes of acclaimed poetry, fiction and non-fiction, Atwood has come a long way since her first novel, The Edible Woman. The proto-feminist book was composed while Atwood was teaching at UBC, and according to the author herself, was “written in UBC exam booklets — just the right length for a chapter.”
We no longer imagine the future as a stroll in the park.”
—  Margaret Atwood
Atwood then eased into her subject, reflecting on how predictions for the future have become more ominous than the bright visions of the 1930s.
“We no longer imagine the future as a stroll in the park,” she said, “more like being bogged in a swamp. And then there is the zombie apocalypse: another item situated in the future.
“I became interested in zombies, because quite frankly, I initially failed to grasp their charm,” she continued. “But others seem to have grasped it, so an investigation was in order. What was I missing?”
As a part of that investigation, Atwood has been releasing in instalments The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, a serialized novel written in collaboration with Naomi Alderman. Its unexpected popularity prompted her to consider the meaning of our current fascination with zombies. Atwood noted Alderman’s observation that compared to vampires, who are popular in times of prosperity, zombies come into favour in more austere times.
“Zombies exist in the eternal now, because they lack memory and foresight.… They are strangely carefree, like in the old song, ‘The Zombie Jamboree.’”
Atwood gave the speech with her characteristically wry delivery. While she frequently drew appreciative chuckles, there was always a sense of aloof, feline amusement that distanced her from her audience.
During the question and answer period, Atwood demonstrated the wicked humour she is known for with a series of sharp one-liners. She was also swift to dispatch any misinterpretation or oversimplification of her work with regal authority.
The message Atwood concluded with was one of hope. Commenting on the trend in questions she receives during Q&A sessions, Atwood said, “Lately, they have been asking a lot, ‘Is there hope?’
“There is always hope and it is also catching. Maybe that is the true meaning of zombies: they are ourselves, but without the hope.”

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