UEA Spring Literary Festival – Margaret Atwood – review

Hymns, marine botany, Biblical lore, mushy peas: just a few of the topics covered last night at Margaret Atwood’s talk for the UEA Literary Festival.

Canadian author Atwood poses for a portrait in Toronto

The 75-year-old Canadian author took the stand with highly amusing anecdotes about Norfolk and Norwich from both the past and the present. Within minutes the audience were completely absorbed by the eclectic mixture of warmth, dry wit and fierce intelligence she exhibited, speedily weaving through topics as diverse as ghost stories in Blakeney, mushy peas on Norwich market, and beginning The Handmaid’s Tale in Berlin.

Atwood then moved on to give several readings from her own work. She began by singing hymns from The Year of the Flood, a speculative fiction novel published in 2009. There followed another reading from MaddAddam, which follows on from The Year of the Flood. Atwood’s incredible prose balanced excellently with her dry intonation to create an air of humour that kept the audience well entertained. She then read three poems: the first concerning werewolves, the second a moving piece about a cat with dementia, and the third exploring her childhood fascination with gasoline (wartime rationing turned the fuel into a rare gift). Overall, the first half hour was an impressive showcase of the author’s expansive literary talent.

Andrew Cowan, UEA’s Director of Creative Writing, then stepped in to question Atwood. The air of comedy continued when the author produced ‘mini-Margaret’, a voodoo-like doll which had been given to her by a fan, and who apparently takes the questions the real Margaret does not want to answer.

The following discussion traversed a broad range of subjects, one of which was the widely-used description of Atwood’s most famous works as ‘Jeremiahs’ (a reference to the Old Testament prophet of doom) or ‘cautionary tales’. After a brief clarification of the fact that a Jeremiah can be a cautionary tale, but a cautionary tale “need not be a Jeremiah”, the author illustrated different genres using what she termed the tree of “wonder tales” – distinguishing between fantasy, speculative fiction, and science fiction. In a nutshell: fantasy concerns dragons, speculative fiction things that could happen but haven’t occurred at the time of writing, and science fiction “tight costumes.” Atwood and Cowan’s entertaining, jocular repartee often took on the air of a stern (yet not unkind) teacher correcting her apprentice – and the audience often seemed to be involved in this apprenticeship.

The last section turned to questions from the audience, one of which concerned spirituality – Atwood is a “strict agnostic” – followed by another which sparked a discussion about marine botany. It was here that the evening briefly took on a sombre tone: Atwood warned of the dire consequences of humanity neglecting to protect its oceans. As with her novels, the audience was left with a strange combination of fear, hope, inspiration, and admiration for the vast knowledge and creative abilities of an immensely gifted author.

As a visiting UNESCO City of Literature Professor, Atwood is residing in Norwich for two months and will give masterclasses for students wishing to hone their writing skills.


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May 2022
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