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Author Margaret Atwood opens Manchester Literature Festival 2016

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An evening of literary insight, Shakespeare-styled rap and a even a jibe at Donald Trump. The Handmaid’s Tale author speaks to writer and broadcaster Alex Clark

By Emily Oldfield
Image courtesy of Margaret Atwood/John Parker Lee

Though she has written over 40 books, including best-seller The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s more to world-famous author Margaret Atwood than just literature. From starring as a hockey goalie in an unexpected YouTube video, to life as an academic and even writing rap in her just-published novel Hag-Seed, this writer has many talents and all was revealed as she opened the 11th Manchester Literature Festival, in conversation with writer and broadcaster Alex Clark at the RNCM on October 7th.

It was a big night for Manchester as Atwood, aged 76 and still writing, can be considered somewhat of a giant on the literary scene with numerous awards already under her belt including The Booker Prize. Her latest novel Hag-Seed, published in October 2016, shows Atwood’s varied talent as a writer, as she uses the form to create a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She’s the latest to be involved in the acclaimed Hogarth Shakespeare Commissions, where writers are invited to retell a Shakespeare play of their choice.

So why did she choose The Tempest? Full of wit and humour, Atwood explained how the situation had come about – in the form of “one of those emails which asks – will you do this mad thing…?” Atwood had already shown us that she doesn’t shy away from the unexpected, having opened the talk by elaborating how she is the unlikely star of a YouTube video, showing people how to be an ice hockey goalie.

She said, “It was part of a series which showed celebrities doing unusual things. I was standing there with black socks over my figure skates.”

She used this anecdote to suggest it was a similarly unexpected email which asked if she would tackle the task of retelling Shakespeare in the form of the modern novel. Atwood already knew what she wanted to do, as “The Tempest had been in my consciousness for over ten years. And it’s the closest Shakespeare comes to putting on what he himself did every day; which was putting on plays.”

The Tempest was written by Shakespeare in the 17th century is a tale set on a distant island, where the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero, is practicing as a magician, having been usurped by his brother Antonio. Prospero plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful title, and does this through magic and a play-within-a-play – along with the help of a mischievous sprite named Ariel.

In her retelling, Atwood turns this into a prison drama of the 21st century; setting the book in a fictional institution ‘Fletcher Correctional’ and showing a series of inmates attempting to engage with a literary programme, with Felix Phillips, our modern day Prospero, attempting to put together a performance of The Tempest. Ousted as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival, he is now working with inmates; and this is a tale told with Margaret’s signature mischievousness and wit.

What is especially impressive is that Atwood engages so closely with The Tempest, despite it being a play which she didn’t study at school.  “Back in the 1950s – no internet,” she said with a wink, explaining how accessing Shakespeare was different then too. Schools typically started with Julius Caesar: “One of the few plays without sex in it.” There was also a travelling troupe of actors, the inventively-titled ‘Earl Grey Players’ who would put on plays, but with a cast so small it  required students, like Atwood, to get more closely involved.

And close involvement is what makes Atwood’s revisiting of characters like Prospero so powerful. Traditionally, he’s a figure who casts spells, makes the dead walk around and Atwood explained, “You kind of want to ask him – why are you doing that?! But don’t you feel sad for Prospero – come on?! His brother has tried to kill him basically!”

Atwood engages with this emotional turbulence in Hag-Seed, but gets rid of the iconic ‘shipwreck’ symbol many associate The Tempest with. “A shipwreck wouldn’t work in today’s world,” she explained and she also talked about the challenge of re-creating a character like Miranda who has “never seen a young man of her own age,” therefore presenting her character as one who has already passed away.

The audience was treated to a joint reading from the book between Atwood and Clarke, which included lines of rap about “devil bro Antonio” and a real peek into a ‘Shakespeare in prison programme’, in action, therefore uncovering the work of ‘the bard’ like you’ve perhaps never seen it before.

 Atwood was also clear to emphasize her views that literature has the power to change people for the better. When people read novels it “allows them to imagine what it is like to be somebody else, fosters empathy” she said. And indeed gave the examples of reading materials used in prisons and correctional facilities.

This exploration of the positive powers of literature was a fitting way to open Manchester Literature Festival 2016, and Atwood brought passion, humour and insight to the stage. The conversation ended with an audience Q&A, and on being asked why so many of her novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale with its theme of female objectification, seem disturbingly relevant, she confessed, “Unfortunately I do not have mystic powers… but what I do involve are things that are entirely possible.”

What Atwood clearly possesses is the power of the story, and she emphasized their moral role, saying, “It is impossible to remove morality from narratives – language has value judgement built in.” She went on to talk about research confirming that ‘literary fiction does increase empathy’, as well as a variety of topics including politics, religion…. And then came the final subject of Donald Trump.

Atwood smiled ironically as she asked, “When Donald is praying, what is he praying for?” Then the loaded mimicry of his voice: “Please make my hair better…” The audience erupted into applause and laughter.  It was a wonderful evening with an inspirational author – and suggests that this year’s Manchester Literature Festival is going to be better than ever.

Manchester Literature Festival runs until 23rd October.

Emily Oldfield is a second year English student and writer, who loves poetry, music and Manchester.

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