As It Happens

Margaret Atwood, Waubgeshig Rice and Daniel Kalla share their pandemic reading lists

In this new time of social distancing, there are all kinds of tips and tricks circulating to keep us feeling connected. But three Canadian authors with a penchant for the dystopian have a suggestion — pick up a book.

Canadian authors turn to history, escapism and Indigenous stories during period of social isolation

Left to right: Margaret Atwood, Waubgeshig Rice, Daniel Kalla (Yvon Theriault/CBC, Evan Mitsui/CBC, Photos by Kathryn)


In this new time of social distancing, there are all kinds of tips and tricks circulating to keep us feeling connected. But three Canadian authors with a penchant for the dystopian have a suggestion — pick up a book.

Margaret Atwood is a celebrated Canadian author who has written more than a few pieces of dystopian fiction. 

Waubgeshig Rice is a CBC Sudbury host and author of Moon of the Crusted Snow, which tells the story of an apocalypse descending on an Anishinaabe community.

Daniel Kalla is an emergency room physician at St. Paul's hospital in Vancouver and writes fiction inspired by real-life pandemics. 

The three authors joined As It Happens host Carol Off (on the phone, of course) to talk about the titles they've found solace in during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's what they had to say. 

Margaret Atwood says it helps to look backward 

Atwood has authored numerous works of dystopian literature, including The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments and the apocalyptic MaddAddam Trilogy. She is also a devoted reader of the genre.

She recommends books that take a historical approach to humanity's experience with global crises, highlighting 1491 by Charles C. Mann, The Great Mortality by John Kelly and A Distant Mirror by historian Barbara Tuchman.

"How awful was the 14th century? Very awful. So you can feel a lot better about our present moment if you take a look at that," Atwood said. 

Atwood holds her new novel The Testaments. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Looking to the ongoing pandemic, Atwood says "this is by no means the worst such episode that the world has ever seen," adding that moments like these offer a "reset button opportunity." 

"Maybe we should look at the way we've been doing things and think of ways of doing them differently," she said. 

For those who look for more levity, Atwood recommends Valerie Martin's I Give it to You, a period piece set during a holiday in a Tuscan villa, and Mona Awad's Bunny, a surreal fairy tale set at an elite American university.

She also notes that some people often turn to horror stories "because they're more horrible than anything that's going on," and suggests Alberto Mengel's two collections of fantastic stories called Dark Arrows and Black Water.

Waub Rice seeks hope in times of crisis

Rice also says he finds comfort in dystopian fiction. He recently finished American War by Omar El-Akkad, which depicts a second American Civil War and a widespread epidemic.

"For me, that is the masterpiece of speculative fiction," he said. 

"When you go deep into a story like that, it just reminds you of the limits of our society and what potentially could collapse, how we could potentially crumble. I think, in a way, it is comforting just to put your headspace there and to think about those perspectives and maybe remind ourselves about what we can do better to avoid those things in the future."

Ian Williams won the Giller Prize for Reproduction. (Sinisa Jolic, CBC)

Rice also recently read Reproduction by Ian Williams, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2019.

"I found a lot of comfort in that, just by exploring the love and compassion amongst the family members there," he said. 

Mainly, Rice says he finds solace in poetry, specifically by Indigenous writers like Rosanna Deerchild, Louise Bernice Halfe, Gwen Benaway and Billy Ray Belcourt.

"I think it's because I feel regaled or spoken to when I read some of those words, and that's comfort," he said. 

When it comes to dystopian fiction, Rice says the Indigenous experience offers readers a different perspective.

"Many communities around the world have already endured apocalypse and they've rebuilt. They've found ways to start over and I think it's comforting as well, and maybe a little hopeful, to think about what is possible on the other side," he said.

When he was a boy, he says his grandmother told him stories about her own grandparents being displaced from their land and banned from practicing their own culture in Canada.

It is possible to rebuild. That's why we need to look to Indigenous people and their stories about the end of the world."- Waubgeshig Rice, author and CBC host 

"So I had a pretty deep understanding of apocalypse from a pretty young age, but at the same time, I was always really hopeful in the stories that my grandmother told me about the way things kept together," he said.

"She would tell my dad and his siblings to go run in the bush whenever they saw a strange car come into the reserve because they may be apprehended. And just the stories of ceremonies happening in basements to ensure that they prolong, that they perpetuated.

"So it is possible to rebuild. That's why we need to look to Indigenous people and their stories about the end of the world."

For that, Rice recommends The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich and Corvus by Harold Johnson.

Fear can be constructive, says Daniel Kalla

Kalla has worked as an ER doctor for 25 years and authored a number of novels about pandemics. His recent novel entitled We All Fall Down, set in modern day Italy, chronicles the return of the Black Death.

Working in the frontlines since the outbreak of COVID-19, he has seen his speculative fiction work come to life.

"I feel like I'm living in the early chapters of one of my books," he said.

While his writing deals with such grim topics, in these times, Kalla says, "I try and stay away from that as much as I can." 

He is currently reading The Gentlemen in Moscow by Amor Towles. The novel follows an aristocratic man living under house arrest in a Moscow hotel during the Russian Revolution.

"Quarantine and self-isolation is a form of house arrest as well, so for me it's kind of ironic and quite enjoyable to get away from what's going on every day," he said. 

Though he says fear is an important element in fiction and life. 

"Fear serves a purpose in this case," he said. "It's going to keep us apart."

In addition to the titles he is reading, Kalla recommends Robert Harris's novel Pompeii, thriller The Arrangement by Robyn Harding and The Soul of a Thief by Steven Hartov.

Written by Samraweet Yohannes with files from Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Interviews produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.