Margaret Atwood, whose sweeping body of work includes “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a depiction of a nightmarish totalitarian future for the United States, is this year’s winner of a lifetime achievement award that celebrates literature’s power to foster peace, social justice and global understanding.
The Canadian writer and teacher has earned the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, officials of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize officials announced Monday. The award is named for the late U.S. diplomat who brokered the 1995 Bosnian peace accords reached in the Ohio city.
Atwood — a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, essays, comic books and, as of late, tweets — in recent years has drawn a new round of acclaim for her bestselling 1985 novel of a dystopian future in which women are subjugated after an overthrow of the U.S. government.
Some readers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” saw in the leaders of authoritarian Gilead similarities to the rise of Republican Donald Trump to president in the election of 2016. The television adaptation on Hulu starring Elisabeth Moss generated yet more commentary, and women dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets, as the handmaids were depicted in the book and TV series, have shown up at political demonstrations.
“You’re not there yet, or else you wouldn’t be talking to me,” Atwood said to a reporter, laughing over the phone. “You’d probably be in an isolation prison or something or dead. … How dare you talk to a female person over the phone and write about them?
“… And if I were a betting person, which naturally I kind of am, I would bet on American orneriness and refusal to line up,” she added. “So I don’t think you’re going to get people marching in lockstep easily. … You could get it, but it would be hard.”
Atwood also thinks people are “alert to the dangers” of undermining the U.S. constitution.
“That is what stands between you and an absolutist dictatorship,” she said.
Sharon Rab, the founder and chairwoman of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation, praised Atwood for popular success with writing that also educates people about pressing social justice and environmental issues.
“Margaret Atwood continues to remind us that ‘It can’t happen here’ cannot be depended upon; anything can happen anywhere given the right circumstances, and right now, with scorn for democratic institutions on the rise, her lessons are more vital than ever,” Rab said by email.
While not all books are conducive to peace and understanding, Atwood said, fiction can help people “learn what it is to be a person different from ourselves, so that might cause you to have more empathy with people who aren’t exactly like you.”