Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest writers of our times. The 82-year-old Canadian writer is astonishingly prolific, having produced over 50 works of fiction, poetry and critical essays in her long career. Burning Questions is the outcome of Atwood’s reflections on a variety of subjects from 2004 to 2021. The chronologically arranged collection includes talks, autobiographical sketches, tributes and political commentary.
Burning Questions will mainly appeal to those who are passionate about literature and deeply concerned about globally relevant subjects such as politics, gender inequality, human rights and climate change. Atwood is a nonpareil communicator who writes sentences of impeccable beauty. She has a subtle sense of humour, which she uses sparingly. The essays and occasional pieces are often short, but each showcases her ability to share her thoughts with grace and conviction.
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The collection doesn’t have thematic consistency and not every inclusion asks a burning question either. However, it is an engrossing read because of Atwood’s felicitous expressions, analytical depth and also because of the choice of topics.
The author asks a series of questions in the introduction itself. “Is the world itself truly burning up? Is it we who’ve been setting fire to it?” “What about the highly unequal distribution of wealth, not only in North America but virtually everywhere?” “What do we mean by ‘democracy’ anyway? Has it ever existed, in the sense of equal rights for all citizens?” Is the social media revolution “…good or bad, or just an extension of old-fashioned crowds in motion?” Living in a flawed world, Atwood knows these questions don’t have easy answers.
Some selections are unusual. There is, for instance, a piece that talks about time spent with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson, whose protagonist from his novel Perpetual Motion is a man named Robert Fraser who wants to invent a perpetual motion machine. It is eminently readable because it is so much more than just another portrait of a person she had known for more than four decades until his death. The memorable concluding sentence says it all: “Robert Fraser is not completely Graeme, of course; but, as I’d said when I’d first met him, his creative life and his real life were one.”
On another occasion, the narrator, an alien from a planet whose name is unpronounceable, questions the earthling’s emphasis on human rights. “You need these “human rights” items spelled out, for the simple reason that a lot of you haven’t got them.” The alien’s take on politics is a stinger: “Some of us have made a study of politics, which we initially confused with cat videos.” It is a perceptive comment dressed up in humour that will make the reader smile and think at the same time.
Elsewhere, she asks a question on beauty in the context of how she and others her age felt when they were young. “So what if beauty was only skin-deep? We little girls did not therefore despise it. No: we wanted beautiful exteriors ourselves, so that other little girls might envy us….” She adds later, “Skin-deep or not, curse or blessing…beauty retains its magic power — at least in our imaginations. And that’s why we continue to buy those countless little tubes of lip gloss: we still believe in fairies.” Atwood’s point of view will polarise readers. Some will disagree, while others will insist it is a fact of life.
The essays and other pieces in Burning Questions came into being when the pandemic made everybody shudder in fear and the #MeToo movement, in which survivors shared their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment, made an emphatic emergence. Calling the #MeToo movement a “symptom of a broken legal system,” she says that “women and other sexual-abuse complainants” used the internet because they frequently could not “get a fair hearing through institutions….” Pandemics have come and gone. That awareness makes her optimistic that the ongoing pandemic won’t be a permanent fixture in our lives. “And take heart! Humanity’s been through it before. There will be an Other Side, eventually.”
Margaret Atwood fans will love Burning Questions. So will those who wish to have a better view of the world in which they live.
Biswadeep Ghosh is a freelance journalist and author
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