Margaret Atwood On 'The Handmaid's Tale' Sequel, 'The Testaments'

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Margaret Atwood at WBUR in 2015 (Robin Lubbock/WBUR).
Margaret Atwood at WBUR in 2015 (Robin Lubbock/WBUR).

Margaret Atwood is the best-selling author behind "The Handmaid's Tale," now an Emmy-winning Hulu TV series. She's a Booker Prize-winning author, most recently awarded for her sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale," titled "The Testaments."

Both dystopian-future novels center around a theocratic totalitarian regime, which overthrew the United States government and set up their power center in the heart of Harvard's campus.

Margaret Atwood is part of a virtual Harvard Bookstore event for "The Testaments" Thursday night.

Interview Highlights

On what pushed Atwood to write a sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale:"

Margaret Atwood: "History changed. Or I should say, the course we were taking changed. We had the 60s, we had the civil rights movement. We had the 70s. We had second wave women's movement. We had changes in the laws. And then the 80s was pushed back. So I wrote it in the middle of a push back decade. But then along came the Berlin Wall coming down [and] end of the Soviet Union. And that changed everything again. Everybody said, 'Ha ha. End of history. Let's just go shopping.' And people weren't thinking much about politics in that decade."

"But then what happened? We had 9/11 and that changed everything again. And then we had 2008, and that also changed things. And now we're on another moment of big, big change. But in 2016, you can see the currents. You can see the things that have started to happen in the 80s really having grown. And now we see a polarized America. We see America that it's no longer automatically the leader of the free world. We see America as somehow shrinking. And that is not good news for the world. It should be a leader."

On a what redemption means — for characters and for people in general — to Atwood:

"Well, what does redemption mean? Does it mean getting right with your own conscience? Does it mean having other people forgive you?"

"It's actually a term that comes from pawnshops. It goes way back in a Christian terminology, because Christ is the 'Redeemer.' What does that mean? ... So it's not actually sold to the devil yet, but it's parked in a kind of pawn shop of the soul. And in order for it to get out, somebody has to come in and redeem it and redeem the pledge. Because usually you've given that pledge for a loan of money. So in order to get the thing back — your watch or your soul or whatever it is — you have to pay the price plus interest."

"So the idea of Christ the Redeemer is that he does that for you. So what does redemption mean in the case of [a character] like Aunt Lydia? Probably the price that she is paying to get her soul out ... is telling the truth about what she did and opening up a crack in the Gilead regime by getting that information out, because she's also got a lot of dirt on other people. So she's sort of the J. Edgar Hoover of Gilead."

On race within Atwood's books:

"In the first book, this was a thorough going out and out white supremacist regime. And they have done to Black people what Americans — I'm sorry to say — did to the North American indigenous people. So they've marched them on a Trail of Tears all the way to North Dakota. However, in "The Testaments," that turns out not to have been a very good choice because it's quite easy to get from North Dakota into Canada."

"So some have been able to do that, and therefore they're working against the Gilead regime from the resistance in Canada. And as you know, I don't put anything in these in these books that doesn't have a precedent in real life. I was old enough to have known some people in the Polish resistance, the French Resistance, and the Dutch resistance. And some of the Polish and and French ones — and also Norwegian ones — got to England and some of them got to Canada, and they worked with resistance movements there. So that is what is happening in 'The Testaments.'"

"In the TV show, things are different because Hulu has a diversity policy. So you could not have had an all white show. It's against their policy. They wrote the script so that the cast is multiracial, which means that the white supremacism of the regime in the book is not foreground of the way it is in the book."

This segment aired on September 3, 2020.

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