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2 September 2016

Margaret Atwood: “A character who is part cat and part owl is accessible to everybody”

The Canadian author discusses feminism, nude selfies and her new graphic novel, Angel Catbird.

By Karen Yossman

Is Margaret Atwood a feminist? That’s what I’m trying to work out during our lamentably brief time together squished around a table in the back of a promotional booth at a comics convention in California. Obviously, you might roll your eyes, Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? Certainly among fourth wave feminists, many of whom, in the UK at least, studied the book as part of the National Curriculum at A-level, Atwood is lionised, especially on Twitter, where she enthusiastically interacts with her 1.27 million followers on a regular basis.

But what many of them forget is that Atwood, who is now 76, grew up on the cusp between first and second wave feminism, a time when women were fighting for tangible goals such control over their reproductive rights rather than the right to publish nude selfies without criticism. That’s not to say there aren’t tangible battles still left to fight, but feminism as a whole has morphed from a political movement to a filter in which everything is viewed in binary terms as either beneficial or detrimental to women. And I’ve always suspected that that’s not how Atwood sees the world.

This becomes evident when I ask her whether she ever considered making the super-heroic protagonist of her latest work, a graphic novel called Angel Catbird about a (male) scientist who gets spliced in an accident with both a cat and an owl, a woman, especially in light of recent criticism that there aren’t enough comics aimed at girls?

“I, as a female person, don’t have any trouble reading Moby Dick. The only female characters in it are the whales and the landlady,” she points out. “That’s it, the rest are all men. So one of the things we can do as readers is empathise with people who aren’t like us, and that is one of the points of diversity. So where do we get off saying that comics for women have to have nothing but women in them? I mean that’s crazy.”

“Wonder Woman was read by everybody,” she continues. “A character who is part cat and part owl is accessible to everybody because nobody is part cat and part owl so, you know, be my guest, empathise. I had the same question, I have to say – after millions of years of people saying to me ‘Why do you write about women so much?’ which got so boring, I wrote Oryx and Crake with a single narrator who’s a man. And the first thing people said was why did you choose a man? And it just gets so tedious. What is the matter with us that we cannot get our heads around reading about people who aren’t us? The whole point of reading is reading about people who aren’t us and expand your universe and put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.”

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As it happens, it wasn’t so much women’s rights as animal rights that were at the forefront of Atwood’s mind when she wrote Angel Catbird, which is illustrated by comic artist and fellow Canadian Johnnie Christmas. The book, a self-knowingly cheesy caper filled to the brim with cat and bird puns, explores the dilemma of simultaneously empathising with both predator and prey. It stems from Atwood’s long-time affection for cats coupled with her awareness that they are a “big factor in the decline of migratory songbirds.”

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“In the real world in which we live nature is in crisis and a big part of that is the precipitous decline in bird life,” she says, earnestly. “Even more serious is the precipitous decline of ocean health, because should the oceans die that would be the end of us and I’m not joking. It’s the oceans that produce the oxygen that we breathe, there is an obvious connection between forests and shores, bird colonies and fish populations, so this is not me making it up, it’s not escapist, it’s the world we’re actually living in and it’s serious business.”

“But it’s no good just preaching to people about that it has no effect. You have to take them there.” Hence her decision to write a graphic novel on the subject: educate people by entertaining them.

It feels sacrilegious to follow up such an impassioned declaration about the state of the natural world with a question about the less-than-natural Kim Kardashian, but our time is running out and I can’t resist. “How do you feel about the current state of feminism in terms of people using nudity as empowerment?” I ask, unable to actually utter the words “Kim Kardashian” in front of Margaret Atwood. She – possibly wilfully – misunderstands the question, asking: “Oh you mean the people who got themselves painted blue in Hull?”

I clarify that I mean young women getting their kit off on social media. “There’s a very good quote which I will now give to you,” she says firmly. “It’s from [Canadian writer] Alice Munro: ‘Do what you want and live with the consequences.’” And that sums up all of this stuff. Do what you want and live with the consequences. In other words, don’t complain if you put up such a picture of yourself and it gets you in trouble.”

Or, in other other words, don’t complain if you ask Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood about nude selfies and it gets you short shrift. 

Angel Catbird is out in the UK on 8 September.