On April 26, 2017, Hulu will release a TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Originally published in 1986, the story finds us in a North America occupied by the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist Christian government where women are a rigidly controlled sexual and reproductive commodity. It’s commonly accepted wisdom that fiction allows the reader (and the writer) to imagine how they might cope with a given situation. By extension, speculative fiction allows the reader to access fears too terrible to cope with literally. Over the past decade, North Americans have watched vampires and zombies worm their way out of the collective unconscious and onto our screens and pages. Lately, it seems our national obsession has turned to dystopian fiction. As real women across the United States witness rooms full of white men in suits debating our right to basic reproductive health care, it’s no surprise that we anxiously await the release of The Handmaid’s Tale series. If fiction provides us with an imaginary landscape in which we might imagine ourselves dealing with the unimaginable, it’s no wonder that women are ready to tune in and don the white cap and red robe of the handmaid, to enter the imagination of a dystopia that no longer feels like such a great leap beyond our lived reality, each of us wondering, What would I do? How will I survive?
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I discovered Margaret Atwood at age fifteen. My best friend and I snuck off to watch the original screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale right after it was released in 1990. We’d seen the trailer, complete with its exceptionally squeamish sexual assault scene. Looking back now, I’m fairly certain my interest in this story had to do with my need to imagine myself as a woman and a sexual being in the world. At fifteen, I wondered how much control I might have over my life, my body, my sexuality. Here it was laid bare on the screen, the worst-case-scenario of what it meant to be female, patriarchy at its nightmare-extreme, and in the midst of it, young women, like the protagonist, Offred, who put their bodies at risk for physical and psychological autonomy and survival. One could call The Republic of Gilead an exaggeration, but I’ve always felt that my youthful consumption of Atwood was a kind of armor. After all, one of the axioms I heard most often growing up female was that I’d better hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
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More than twenty years later, I still think of Margaret Atwood as the wise, cynical fairy godmother of my imagination. Her wisdom is perpetually a few steps ahead of the rest of us mortals. I try to read everything she publishes, but she’s so prolific that sometimes I have to run to keep up. She continues to articulate the many different ways one might chose to live as a woman in this world. Her most recent fiction, from the MaddAddam trilogy to The Heart Goes Last, explores her particular interest in how women might react to different dystopian environments that are only a few steps beyond the way we live right here, right now, in the United States of America in 2017. So when it came time in my MFA career to write the dreaded critical paper, I chose to spend a few months revisiting Atwood’s world(s). In the process of researching the paper, I dove into re-reading the Maddaddam trilogy, published between 2003 and 2013. In the process, I fell in love all over again with another of Atwood’s great feminist characters, the trilogy’s heroine, Toby. I started dreaming up this paper months before the 2016 presidential election. Little did I know that I was looking for a roadmap for resistance and survival.
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Margaret Atwood coined the term “Ustopia” to describe her fiction, and she has stated that she prefers this term over the categories “dystopian” or “speculative fiction.” In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, she said: “Ustopia is a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its opposite—because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.” In a 2004 essay about the genesis of the Maddaddam trilogy, Atwood wrote that as she began writing, she asked herself, “What if we continue down the road we’re already on?” Like the Republic of Gilead, the world of the Maddaddam trilogy is comprised of technology and socio-political conditions that already exist, and are taken only a few logical steps further. By coining the word Ustopia and differentiating her recent fiction from traditional speculative and/or dystopian narratives, Atwood makes a distinction between the imagined and the possible—a useful one if fiction creates space for imagination during this particular catastrophic moment in time.
The North America of the Maddaddam trilogy has experienced environmental collapse, and mass extinction has led to limited resources. Instead of embracing religious fundamentalism, the ruling class has adopted extreme capitalist policies. Society consists of elites living within walled, high-security corporate compounds, while the rest of the country scrapes by in the lawless world of the “Pleeblands.” Women are bartered, sold into sexual slavery, repeatedly raped and brutalized—yet, in typical Atwood fashion, they emerge as leaders. The second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, takes place after the “Waterless Flood,” a man-made apocalypse which has killed off most humans. In a world that must be re-imagined, our hero Toby emerges as one of very few survivors.
Born and raised in the Pleeblands, Toby is orphaned in adolescence, deprived of educational opportunities, and has had to conceal her fierce intelligence to survive by working in menial, minimum-wage jobs. Even before the Flood, she is on the run after physically defending herself against a monstrous sexual predator. Toby is not classically beautiful. Her figure is described as boyish. She is ropy; she is tough. She doesn’t have the time or energy for romance. But she knows how to grow food and medicinal herbs; how to make something out of nothing. She can wield a gun against a rapist or a feral, mutant pig. At the end of The Year of the Flood, Toby emerges as an armed avenger. Without giving away too much of the plot, she’s coming to the rescue, and she describes herself descending “… like a TV banshee, like a walking skeleton; like something with nothing to lose.”
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This is the only time the world “banshee” appears in the text, and it’s no coincidence that Toby refers to herself as a “TV banshee.” A banshee is a female spirit whose wailing serves as a warning. At a time when we no longer believe in the capacity of warning spirits to literally roam the world, we turn to the TV, the screen, and, for the old-fashioned among us, the page, for warning and reflection. With the approaching release of The Handmaid’s Tale series and the recent renewed interest in the work of Margaret Atwood, it seems clear that we are hungry to hear the banshee’s warning cry. But the truth is, the banshee hasn’t been waiting quietly. We’ve just been lulled into a quiescence that made it hard to hear her. Some of us got a little too comfortable while the Trump Administration was knocking at the gates of our real-life Ustopia. Maybe we were too busy relaxing in our own version of the neo-liberal capitalist compound, too distracted to pick up on the signs.
Last month Margaret Atwood published an essay in The New York Times addressing the current cultural relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale, and made a call for the literature of witness. She wrote: “In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere—many, I would guess—are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.” We are living in a time when, as women, our dignity and independence are threatened, our basic medical and reproductive rights are laid out on the chopping block. It’s time for feminist writers to take up both the writing of witness and banshee wail.
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As a young woman, my original introduction to Margaret Atwood’s work was inspired by my need to manage free-will around my sexuality in a time when “rape culture” and “consent” were not yet a part of the discussion. At that time, The Handmaid’s Tale warned me against the control that extreme patriarchy claims over the female body, and more importantly, how women might use their bodies to resist, might claim autonomy even under extreme conditions. This is still relevant, but my interest in Atwood’s work these days has expanded to my need to understand practical resistance and survival. I’m interested in the resilience of Toby, a woman who not only survives the apocalypse, but in the third and final book of the trilogy, serves as a witness as she records recent history. Toby is the writer, the one who both warns and witnesses, the one who tells the story.
The destroyed world of the MaddAddam trilogy is a world where society itself has been erased. The survivors depend upon each other and their real-world skills—agriculture, herbal medicine, hunting and gathering, combat techniques. In the end, the trilogy is also a story about rebuilding, making something new out of the ashes of a fallen society. Recently, it seems to me that we might need to think harder about what it means to rebuild. I’m not one to argue for the apocalypse, but our best hope may lie in redefinition of what it means for human beings (and animals) to live together in society. The election of Trump has pulled the mask off the ugliest, most disturbing elements of North American culture—the bald-faced, undeniable racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, the primacy of monetary gain to the detriment of collective wellbeing—that must be rooted out for our collective survival and the survival of the Earth itself. There’s a need for intersectional feminist writers to sound the banshee wail against the rise of this ugliness into the most powerful positions within our governing structure. There’s also a need for us to use our collective wisdom towards efforts to create and rebuild.
I currently live in a rural Ohio county where the majority voted for Trump. Out here, trailer parks bump up against acres of chemically-pristine lawns festooned with pro-Trump banners the size of small houses. This is a place where countless people voted against their own economic interest in order to fend off the bogeyman of a racist, xenophobic imagination, blown up fat and beastly with the hot-air rhetoric of Trump.
What is there to do? We witness, we wail. We write—on blogs, on protest signs. The banshee howls into the echo chamber of the internet. But this is not enough. I feel the impulse to tie it up neatly, but now is the time to be uncomfortable, to be left with the feeling that echoes the reality of the present—the sense that something big is off-kilter, not right. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand what’s happening here. I’m not satisfied. But I’ll hold onto the heroes that Atwood has given me like buoys in the storm. I’m looking to Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m looking to Toby.
Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children-sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama. She serves as Lead Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket.