On Tuesday, Feb. 12, renowned Canadian writer Margaret Atwood visited UCSB as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the College of Creative Studies and gave a talk in Campbell Hall through Arts & Lectures. Atwood, a prolific author, has published a variety of works ranging from poetry to children’s books to novels, including the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, which were each nominated for the Booker Prize and which the latter won in 2000.
Margaret Atwood, whose career began in the 1960s, has continued to be a significant and influential voice within feminism, environmentalism and political discourse. While entering Campbell Hall, I heard a female UCSB student explaining to her male friend the idea of the patriarchy and how Margaret Atwood had affected her awareness of it.
“She [Atwood] made me realize my body is mine,” the young woman said.
This sentiment towards Atwood’s impact pervaded Campbell Hall, which was packed with audience members of all ages, many of whom held their favorite Atwood novels in their laps to be signed at the end of the talk.
After the introduction, Atwood made her way on stage, dressed in black with a red scarf. She opened the talk discussing the last time she visited UCSB, which was right after the Los Angeles earthquake. She had just arrived in Los Angeles on a flight from the east coast and the environment was in total disarray. But when she arrived in Santa Barbara, all was exempt from that.
“When I got here, it was all serene. Birds were chirping, flowers were in bloom. Is it always like that? Don’t say yes,” she said, smiling to herself as the audience laughed.
She divulged to the audience that she had given the director of Arts & Lectures a choice between two talks that she could give: The deep metaphysical meaning of zombies or the Valentine’s Day Special. Given its timeliness, Valentine’s Day won over Zombies.
Atwood was vocal about her deep fascination with zombies, vampires and werewolves from the start, and encouraged audience members to inquire about the topic during the Q&A. She continued on the topic, explaining her interest in the evolution of representation of these fantastical creatures, while poking fun at contemporary images.
“Zombies are becoming fuzzy-fied, just as vampires have been. In my day, vampires were smelly and wicked. But over time — thank you, Anne Rice, and thank you, Twilight — they have become sexy and sparkly in the sun,” she said, laughing.
She smoothly transitioned into the subject of her main talk, introducing the content she would read.
“These are little odes to various love objects, the first of them being my dead cat,” she said with a deadpan tone that would continue throughout the evening.
She began with the short story, “Our Cat Enters Heaven,” which is published in the collection of poems, The Tent, and is what the title says it is. The tongue-in-cheek tale had audience members cracking up at the thought of a cat asking God (who is also a cat in this world) if he could get his testicles back.
The odes, which were not only short stories or poems but also excerpts from a few of her novels, ranged from sweetly absurd and satirical to heartfelt and sincere.
She ended her readings with what she called “a real love poem” entitled “Variation on the Word Sleep,” which detailed the simple, enchanting desires of a lover.
Following the reading was a Q&A, during which Atwood thoroughly and knowledgably answered audience-member questions. Of course, the first question was an inquiry on Atwood’s thoughts on zombies.
Atwood extensively disclosed that she had gotten into the topic of zombies because of her previous studies on 19th century Gothic literature, which led her into George Romero’s influential film, “The Night of the Living Dead.” She discussed the Zombie Run app, which is an app for runners, as well as her involvement with British author Naomi Alderman on the fictional serial, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, a humorous piece about a place “for loved ones [family members who have turned into zombies] who you can no longer deal with.”
She also discussed her influences and research in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale, a science-fiction or speculative-fiction novel about a totalitarian Christian theocracy and the oppression of women. Atwood noted her first visit to Iran and Afghanistan as influential to the idea, as well as things she has observed in American culture.
“I don’t use anything that isn’t possible,” she said in regards to the content in her literary work.
The final question asked Atwood how she does all the things she does.
“How do I do all the stuff I do? I never figured that out. I’m ambidextrous,” she said.
Margaret Atwood’s talk was insightful and entertaining, and exposed her versatile and multifaceted style. Although many of her answers during the Q&A were rather long, she managed to remain interesting and well-informed throughout. However, it was her self-revealing quips that had the audience bursting into laughter and which kept the talk personal, intimate and ultimately memorable.