Books

Margaret Atwood awarded 2020 Dayton Literary Peace Prize

The prize celebrates literature’s power to foster peace, social justice and global understanding.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood speaks during a press conference at the British Library to launch her new book 'The Testaments' in London, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant) (Alastair Grant/AP)

Margaret Atwood is the winner of the 2020 Dayton Literary Peace Prize's lifetime achievement award.

The award celebrates literature's power to foster peace, social justice and global understanding. The Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award is named for the late U.S. diplomat who brokered the 1995 Bosnian peace accords reached in the Ohio city.

Atwood — a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, essays, comic books and, as of late, tweets — in recent years has drawn a new round of acclaim for The Handmaid's Tale, her bestselling 1985 novel of a dystopian future in which women are subjugated after an overthrow of the U.S. government.

Some readers of The Handmaid's Tale saw in the leaders of authoritarian Gilead similarities to the rise of Republican Donald Trump to president in the 2016 election. The television adaptation on Hulu starring Elisabeth Moss generated yet more commentary, and women dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets, as the handmaids were depicted in the book and TV series, have shown up at political demonstrations.

Atwood said sales have gone up around earlier elections, but they "really went up" after the 2016 election and then they "really, really went up" when the Hulu series launched in 2017.

The series has been a popular and critical success.

"Lucky for me, it's well done," said Atwood, who did a brief cameo in which she delivered a slap to Moss' Offred character. "I'm quite aware of where it could have gone off the trolley tracks quite badly."

Author Margaret Atwood talks to Adrienne Arsenault about the catalysts for The Testaments, the loss of her husband, a top-secret project and turning 80. 10:34

Sharon Rab, the founder and chairwoman of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation, praised Atwood for popular success with writing that also educates people about pressing social justice and environmental issues.

"Margaret Atwood continues to remind us that 'It can't happen here' cannot be depended upon; anything can happen anywhere given the right circumstances, and right now, with scorn for democratic institutions on the rise, her lessons are more vital than ever," Rab wrote in an email.

Atwood thinks an American defiant streak is the country's defense against the kind of nightmarish totalitarian future she depicts for the United States in The Handmaid's Tale.

"I would bet on American orneriness and refusal to line up," she told the Associated Press. "So I don't think you're going to get people marching in lockstep easily. ... You could get it, but it would be hard."

While not all books are conducive to peace and understanding, Atwood said, fiction can help people "learn what it is to be a person different from ourselves, so that might cause you to have more empathy with people who aren't exactly like you."

Atwood published her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, in 1961, and her other books have included Cat's Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), and the MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013). 

The Testaments, her 2019 sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, quickly joined her other bestsellers. It co-won the 2019 Booker Prize and broke Canadian sales records.

The Toronto resident's longtime partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, died at age 85 a year ago in September.

Atwood, 80, said she tried to keep herself busily distracted after the loss, doing book promotions and other travel until the pandemic grounded her in March. She has since signed thousands of inserts and bookplates to support independent booksellers, and has given talks via Zoom.

She considers herself "a realist, but on the optimistic side, because if you're pessimistic, you don't do anything... I think it's people who are realistic but inclined towards optimism who actually try to change direction."

Atwood also thinks people are "alert to the dangers" of undermining the U.S. constitution.

"That is what stands between you and an absolutist dictatorship," she said.

Followers of Margaret Atwood know that she's been posting frequently on Twitter throughout the pandemic, sharing her thoughts on everything from new books to check out to making soup with dried mushrooms from the back of her pantry. She checked in with Tom Power on Zoom from her home in Toronto to let us know how she's occupying her time, and what she thinks about the role of the arts in our lives during this difficult time. 13:54

The Dayton lifetime achievement award carries a $10,000 U.S. ($13,169.45 Cdn) prize.

Previous winners include Studs Terkel, Taylor Branch, John Irving, Gloria Steinem and Elie Wiesel.

The awards gathering, originally planned for October, is being rescheduled for spring 2021 because of pandemic precautions.

Atwood will be joined by the 2020 winners of awards for fiction and nonfiction. Finalists for those will be announced in October 2020.

With files from CBC Books.

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