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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Explained: The message behind Margaret Atwood’s ‘unburnable’ The Handmaid’s Tale

In a world where books are becoming an increasing casualty to right-wing intolerance, Margaret Atwood's 'book burning' video is both publicity and protest.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 31, 2022 11:21:37 am
Margaret Atwood's iconic book 'The Handmaid's Tale' was first published in 1985.(Youtube/PenguinRandomHouse)

In a short YouTube video released on May 24, Canadian literary giant Margaret Atwood, 82, plays out what is increasingly no longer a dystopian vision — she takes a flame-thrower and hurls it at her most well-known work, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

The book doesn’t burn, but that’s precisely the point. In a world where books are becoming an increasing casualty to right-wing intolerance, the video was both publicity and protest. A special single-copy “unburnable” version of Atwood’s masterpiece is up on auction at Sotheby’s till June 7. It also registers a protest against a culture of censorship taking root around the world, and especially in the US.

Author Margaret Atwood. (AP Photo/File)

A joint project among Atwood, publishing house Penguin Random House, PEN International, independent creative agency, Rethink, and The Gas Company Inc., a graphic arts and bookbinding atelier in Toronto, the auction was announced ahead of PEN America’s annual fundraising dinner gala in New York on Monday. PEN America will be the recipient of the proceeds of the auction.

In a press note, Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle commented: “We are at an urgent moment in our history, with ideas and truth — the foundations of our democracy — under attack. Few writers have been as instrumental in the fight for free expression as Margaret Atwood. To see her classic novel about the dangers of oppression reborn in this innovative, unburnable edition is a timely reminder of what’s at stake in the battle against censorship…”

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Dystopia, she wrote: Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

As the US stands on the cusp of a historic judgment that could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade verdict that made abortion a constitutional right in the country, the theme of The Handmaid’s Tale is of particular resonance.

Set in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic totalitarian patriarchy that replaces the US government, The Handmaid’s Tale is an audacious reimagination of a world where a fertility crisis is countered by misogynistic biological determinism — a group of women known as the handmaids are forced to become surrogates for the infertile wives of the ruling dispensation of Commanders. Their histories and familial relationships erased, these handmaids become a mere reductive summation of their biological parts.

Disquieting and premonitory, the novel was widely appreciated as a masterpiece that took on gender, sexuality and inequality, and won a slew of awards, including the 1985 Governor General’s Literary Award and the inaugural Arthur C Clarke award in 1987. It was also shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize.

Throughout her career, the Booker Prize-winning feminist writer has insisted that the novel was less science fiction, more a reflection on the circumstances that women and men live through in different parts of the world. In 2019, The Testaments, her sequel to the novel, was released.

Awards, adaptations and teaching bans

Since its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale has been reinterpreted and adapted across media. In 1990, a cinematic adaptation directed by Volker Schlöndorff was released, for which British playwright Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay. Danish composer Poul Ruders adapted it into an opera that premiered in 2000 in Copenhagen. In 2017, a critically acclaimed series was released on OTT platform Hulu, for which Atwood was a consulting producer.

But as it found its way into the pantheon of classics, the novel also encountered opposition and calls for bans against teaching it in literature curriculum in the US. In 2006, a suburban San Antonio school in Texas banned the book from its school curriculum on grounds of obscenity and sexual content. The ban was later reversed.

In 2020, too, its inclusion in a reading list for twelfth grade at a high school in Georgia in north Atlanta, was challenged for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”. The book was eventually retained on the list. Over the years, challenges to the book’s inclusion in curriculum have come from schools mostly in Republican states.

In the press statement, Atwood commented, “The Handmaid’s Tale has been banned many times — sometimes by whole countries, such as Portugal and Spain in the days of Salazar and the Francoists, sometimes by school boards, sometimes by libraries. Let’s hope we don’t reach the stage of wholesale book burnings, as in Fahrenheit 451. But if we do, let’s hope some books will prove unburnable — that they will travel underground, as prohibited books did in the Soviet Union.”

Recent book banning incidents in the US

Atwood’s unique protest with the unburnable version of The Handmaid’s Tale comes in the wake of an ongoing right-wing cultural conservatism in the US as well as in several other parts of the world.

In January this year, a school in Tennessee had removed Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel, Maus, from its eight-grade curriculum, a decision that was later reversed. In March, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) was reinstated in the curriculum of Wentzville School District in St Louis, Missouri, after a class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on behalf of students.

According to the American Library Association, which documents attempts to challenge and ban books in schools and libraries in the US, there has been an unprecedented rise in calls for book bans in the country in the last decade, especially on LGBTQ+ themes, depictions of sexuality, race and religion. Besides Morrison and Atwood, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960); John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), and George (2015) by Alex Gino have repeatedly featured in banned-books lists.

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