Day 6

Is The Handmaid's Tale the dystopian nightmare saga we need now?

Next week marks the launch of Hulu's widely anticipated new TV show based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale. The novel has already seen a spike in sales since the election of Donald Trump and become a frequent reference point for explaining the current political mood. Is it the dystopian nightmare saga we need now?
This image released by Hulu shows Elisabeth Moss as Offred in a scene from "The Handmaid's Tale," premiering Wednesday on Hulu with three episodes. (George Kraychyk/Hulu via AP)

by Brent Bambury                 

"The sweeping abortion bill that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law in March gained national attention for prohibiting women from electing to have an abortion due to the race, gender, or disability of the fetus. But the bill contained another unusual provision: It required that aborted fetuses receive what amounts to a funeral." - Mother Jones, July 15, 2016


"The first one is the bereaved, the mother; she carries a small black jar. From the size of the jar you can tell how old it was when it foundered, inside her, flowed to its death. Two or three months, too young to tell whether or not it was an Unbaby. The older ones and those that die at birth have boxes."  - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


In the Republic of Gilead, the tyrannical theocracy imagined by Margaret Atwood in her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, women are not allowed to read or write.

Elites have taken absolute control of younger womens' reproductive rights. They're turned into sex slaves with the outward appearance of clerics. Some ideas and words — like 'sterile' — are forbidden. Smoking is illegal.

But there's still football.

The game is still played in Gilead when the stadium is not being used for public executions.

So when the producers of the upcoming TV series based on the novel chose to promote The Handmaid's Tale during the Superbowl, it wasn't entirely inappropriate.

Still, it was chilling.

The adaptation premieres on Hulu next week. In Canada, it will be available on Bravo starting April 30.

It's not clear if the coming TV show is what has been driving readers back to the novel. But in February, days after Trump's inauguration, The Handmaid's Tale shot up to the number one spot on Amazon's bestseller list.

It's a good time for dystopian fiction. Orwell, Huxley, Ray Bradbury and Sinclair Lewis are vying with Atwood for slots near the top on those lists.

Readers may be turning to these books because of anxieties over shifts in power, a perception of global ambivalence toward democracy, the rise of strongmen in politics, or the erosion of human rights.

But those are just theories — people don't need reasons to read great books.

On Day 6, we asked three writers why they recently decided to go back to The Handmaid's Tale.

Mariko Tamaki is a Canadian writer and graphic novelist; Mallory Ortberg is a columnist with Slate; and Anne Kingston is a journalist and writer with Maclean's magazine.

Here's part of our conversation.



BB: How quickly did you connect Trump's victory to this 32-year-old Margaret Atwood novel?

Anne Kingston: Immediately, actually. I worked at Maclean's, we covered the election. [I] got home at 3:30 in the morning... you know, there was this sort of surreal reality swirling around, a bit of shock, a bit of 'how to process?'

So my way of processing was to pour a big glass of scotch and then think, 'What now?' So I downloaded it. It was sort of the same kind of visceral response. You know, we hear about kids going into the garden to eat dirt so they get the calcium. There was something about The Handmaid's Tale that I needed at that moment... there's a certain narcotic quality to it. I just felt that it would be a useful book to have in my head going ahead.

Mariko Tamaki: Well, I think it's like there's been a general trend for the past, let's say, like, five or 10 years of moving towards dystopian novels and The Hunger Games. I think it's kind of this ongoing thing that maybe the latest election has made more salient; but... every time Planned Parenthood comes up, or the 'right to life'... [as] a dutiful Canadian, like you said, [I think of] The Handmaid's Tale.

Mallory Ortberg: Almost immediately after the election, there was this sort of conversation that sprung up, especially in left-leaning circles, which was: 'What books do we now have a responsibility to read or reread'? And I found that really interesting, because my first response to the election was not to think about what fiction ought I to be reading, and I generally don't approach fiction in terms of 'Should I read this in order to better understand some sort of current political reality?' So it wasn't necessarily my experience, but it certainly popped up almost immediately... so I noticed that right away.

...It felt very much like it was often accompanied by the phrase "Now more than ever." Which is a phrase I think I'm developing a really interesting relationship to. And I'm always really curious what people mean, exactly, when they use it.

I think that the fact that it had this really interesting narrator — a questioning narrator — is part of the power of the book. And it's sort of that spirit that, if anything, is the useful part to take away.- Anne Kingston

MT: I think the thing I felt less comfortable with was when I saw the Hulu ads, and they were like, 'now this is super relevant... Now you should be watching this.' And I'm like, 'Um, I'm sorry, the oppression of women is a new thing?' Now suddenly all these people are... wanting to read 1984, and you're like, 'Well, Facebook has existed for a while...'

MO: The trailer certainly was a lot more on-the-nose than I remember the book being. There was there was way more of a "Wake up, sheeple!" vibe than I recall from the book of just like, "I was asleep when they blew up Congress," and it's like, 'really? Why were you why are you asleep for that, man? That wasn't incremental change, that was a pretty big deal."

Books are displayed at the Harvard Book Store, Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Cambridge, Mass. Readers have been flocking to classic works of dystopian fiction in the first months of Donald Trump's presidency. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

BB: President Trump was toxic to a great many women, and then all of these white women voted for him. In the novel, do women — or do human beings — play a role in their own disenfranchisement?

AK: I guess we can talk about the 53 per cent of white women who voted for Trump and the extent to which they recognize... how this is going to affect their day-to-day [lives]. The reason they voted was the presumption that somehow their life was going to be better, that the system was going to be unrigged and... there would be a return to... almost a populist sentiment, which obviously has not been the case.

But it's interesting... you're looking at this book as this totemic rallying cry. And I think that it's been a bit easy. In terms of going to the novel, there was a sense of absolute, I think, shock. And then what's interesting about the novel is the sense of how normalisation happens. And I think that resonates with a lot of people too.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

...The reason Atwood wrote it, obviously, was she saw the possibilities or recognized the threat, which wasn't just in terms of reproductive rights. It was environmental, and so forth. So I think it's sort of this confluence. But there's also something that's very easy about it — and that's the troubling part for me, because we're sort of just looking at this as some sort of iconic thing... [and] not thinking beyond it, not questioning it as we should.

MK: The revolution in the book… it's a very small part of the book. The pushback in the book is very small.

...I feel like there's something about 'the revolution' that people are kind of holding up for The Handmaid's Tale. And it's really not about the revolution... it's more a book about oppression than it is a book about revolution.

It's really not about the revolution... it's more a book about oppression than it is a book about revolution.- Mariko Tamaki

BB: Atwood said that she didn't include anything in The Handmaid's Tale that didn't have an historical precedent... Do you think the dystopia that she's describing might be less far-fetched than [people think]?

MO: Generally, the people I hear talking about The Handmaid's Tale tend to, like me, be white. And what fascinates me about the book and really strikes me is, as you said, there's historical precedent. In the book you have things like: there's a ban on literacy. There's public executions, there's talk of an underground railroad. There's women having their children taken away from them.

<strong><em>The Handmaid's Tale</strong></em> is Margaret Atwood's classic look at a chilling dystopic future in which all women have been stripped of their reproductive (among any other) rights.
And all of these things have historical roots, [but] none of these things have been carried out in North America against white women. These are all things with historical ties to... native communities, black communities. And... you know, there's one sentence [in the book] about how the "children of Ham" have all been sent away.

...Most of the characters that we engage with [in the book] in are middle class, college-educated white women. And... that's not to say everyone's wrong for wanting to talk or think about it. But I think that's really interesting, and I would love to kind of hear more engagement with that. Because I think, like, the white women who voted for Trump, and the white women who are saying, 'we must read The Handmaid's Tale now more than ever,' are generally not the same people.

MT: I mean, if we're going to come up with our ideal book club, let's say our ideal book club is [that] white women who voted for Trump have to read The Handmaid's Tale and discuss it in groups... or watch the series on Hulu. 

AK: But there's the horrible prospect that people might see it as some sort of blueprint, or a reality that isn't as horrific or dystopian as the one we're talking about right now.

(Credit: MGM Television/Hulu)

BB: One of the things that makes this story so compelling is that Offred resists in some way. Should we expect a novel like The Handmaid's Tale to inspire acts of resistance?

MT: I think that if you want to be part of the resistance, you might be drawn to reading The Handmaid's Tale. [But] I can't imagine that this is the sort of book that if you were like, 'I don't know how I feel about the resistance' and then you read this book, [you'd be] like 'yeah, I'm gonna do it.' ... I think it's more likely [that] you listen to like a Sleater-Kinney song and like feel like you're going to join up.

But I think the one thing that the book does really well — which, I think, is like a slow sink in as opposed to 'grab your flag immediately and take to the streets' — is about the things that people present to you as the truth. And I think it does a really great job of undermining that.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

MO: I'm kind of on the same page there... Generally, I think there is sufficient inspiration in reality to want to resist certain things... I think there are a lot of fabulous reasons to read speculative fiction, Margaret Atwood, and this book in particular. [But] I don't necessarily think that this is necessary to better understand our current reality, or a requirement to feel like you are in some way resisting... the current political administration.

AK: I totally agree in the sense that this is not a mobilizing book in that regard... Reading a book, in and of itself, isn't a political action for me.

MT: Blasphemy!

AK: Well, I don't think it is. I think that taking the book and thinking about the book — that's where the action takes place. ... And I think we should be questioning why we're only talking about The Handmaid's Tale.

...I think that the fact that it had this really interesting narrator — a questioning narrator — is part of the power of the book. And it's sort of that spirit that, if anything, is the useful part to take away.

This transcript has been edited from the original recording for clarity and length. 

To hear more from Mariko Tamaki, Mallory Ortberg and Anne Kingston, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.