Margaret Atwood & Omar El Akkad on dystopian hope

Dystopian versus utopian. Description versus prescription. Ideology versus art. As geopolitical and climate crises deepen, what role should writers play? A conversation with novelists Margaret Atwood and Omar El Akkad as part of the first annual PEN Graeme Gibson Talk.

As geopolitical and climate crises deepen, what role should writers play?

How Margaret Atwood helped save an award for young writers

7 months ago
Duration 2:02
Giller Prize-nominated author Omar El Akkad says that writers can make a difference and tells a story about how Margaret Atwood helped save a literary award for young writers. Filmed at the inaugural Graeme Gibson Talk, hosted by PEN Canada the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

*This episode originally aired on October 13, 2021.

Novelists like Margaret Atwood and Omar El Akkad inhabit a reality that now resembles much of their dystopian fiction: Anthrocepene pandemics, the rise of political authoritarianism and a looming climate crisis.

Our world is arguably more than ever fodder for post-apocalyptic novels, which are themselves more popular than ever.

"And one of the unfortunate things that happens to the truly great works of dystopian literature like 1984, like The Handmaid's Tale, is that they continually keep popping up to the top of the bestseller list because people aren't listening to the central message," said Omar El Akkad, whose own novel American War creates a dystopian near-future in which a second civil war ravages the U.S.

The central message he mentions is that humans need to change how we live to avoid utter disaster. But as Atwood points out, it's a message that has been overlooked for decades, though biologists have been sounding the alarm since the 1950s. 

"The bad place was always 50 years down the road. Now, of course, it's a lot closer and you are seeing immediate effects," Atwood explained, such as wildfires, floods and melting glaciers.

So what role is left to novelists in all this?

Novelists Margaret Atwood, Omar El Akkad and IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed in conversation at Harbourfront in Toronto. (Toronto International Festival of Authors )

IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed spoke with writers Margaret Atwood and Omar El Akkad as part of the inaugural PEN Graeme Gibson Talk. Graeme Gibson was Margaret Atwood's partner, and he was instrumental in the creation of the Writers Union of Canada, the Writers' Trust, and PEN Canada.

Here is an excerpt of their conversation.

NA: The novels both of you have written have often been put into the category of dystopian literature. But what I'm wondering is this: given the escalating climate crisis, the continuing rise of political authoritarianism, the growing wealth gap, the intensifying social divides and geopolitical tensions, have we reached the point where dystopian literature is just realism by another name?

OEA: I tend to think of it along the vector of victim rather than landscape. I think sometimes when we think of dystopian, we think of the territory and what's happening, but that's not generally the vector that ends up getting called dystopian. A few decades ago, a guy named Pat Frank wrote a novel called Alas, Babylon about [a] nuclear apocalypse. And if he had set that story in Nagasaki, suddenly it's not dystopian anymore. Suddenly, it's gritty realism. But he didn't; he set it in small-town Florida, and suddenly it's dystopian because there's a baseline level of privilege that's being violated.

Author Pat Frank (the pen name of Harry Hart Frank) wrote the novel, Alas, Babylon, first published in 1959 at the height of the Cold War. (Wikimedia)

Alas, Babylon talks about this idea [that] all literature has tricks. And no matter how clever you are, eventually your tricks get discovered. But when I'm working on this, in this [dystopian] mode, I'm thinking a lot about the idea of the central trick being inversion, being 'Hey, there's this thing that's happening to somebody who doesn't have much of a voice. I'm going to take it and have it happen to somebody who does have a voice.'

MA: That's exactly what I did in Handmaid's Tale. So I took this kind of story, which is common around the world, and put it into a place where people were in the habit of saying, 'Well, of course, it can't happen here.' Since I believe that anything could happen given a change in circumstances. 

There's no sort of genetic predisposition, and people who live in privileged places that make them exempt from behaving badly when the chips are down. So then: you throw down the chips to make people consider that this thing that they think is far, far away, and just happens to other people who aren't them, is part of something that human beings do under certain conditions. And nobody is exempt.

NA: American writer of young adult fiction, Ally Condie, says the beauty of dystopia is that it lets us vicariously experience future worlds. But we still have the power to change our own. So, Margaret, is that power to change actually tangible to you?

MA: Well, to me, yes. But it may be illusory. So sure, if you don't have hope, you don't get up in the morning. If you don't believe that we can change things, you don't contribute to certain causes. You don't sign certain letters, you just don't make any effort at all because what's the use and you take that option of 'let's just party.' And that's not an option that I am taking… yet. So I'm still rolling the stone up the hill. 

But my view of the dystopia as a form, and the utopia as a form, is that each dystopia contains a little utopia within it, and each utopia contains a dystopia within it. Because unless we have an idea of what is better and what is worse, we can't do these forms at all. So even in 1984, which is pretty grim, there is a little utopia contained within it, and it's his memory of a certain thing in his childhood, and it's this little patch of nature that he goes to. And it's this little journal that he finds in a store window. I mean, they're small things, but they're better things than what is around him. 

NA: Omar, I wanted to ask you a similar question. Where do you see the power to change most visibly?

OEA: So I read 1984 when I was very young. I grew up in Qatar and one of the things about Qatar in the 80s and 90s is that there were very few local cultural industries. And so everything that you read, listened to, watched was essentially something that you smuggled in from a trip somewhere else. 

So I got my hands on 1984, and I don't know if I'm spoiling 1984 for anybody, I really shouldn't be at this point but it turns on... rats. And one of the things I thought about is: what's your rat? What's the thing that breaks you?

It's hard to talk about literature and novels in terms of hopefulness, particularly when they're in this mode of the dystopian or the grim or whatever because so much of what is ultimately utopian about what it's doing comes in those terms that you might be telling the reader what their rat is. You might be telling them what it is that they have to brace for… and there's something utopian about that.

NA:  I'd like to offer a quote from Graeme Gibson. It's about hope.

Hope is an attitude, so we might as well live as if we can really make a difference and whether we can or can't. Doesn't matter. We have to live so we can make a difference and we do make a difference.- Graeme Gibson

Omar, do you think that novelists make a difference?

OEA: Graham Gibson — I've never met the man. I owe him a significant chunk of my career. When you talk about a difference that writers make, I think the natural inclination is to say within the context of the book and the literature.

So yes, the work can make a difference. It can change minds; it can change lives. But there is work that writers do. And I'm talking now to all of the people in PEN. It goes beyond that and it goes beyond that in a way that changes lives years later to a point where I will never be able to thank this man for what he did. 

NA: Margaret, the last question goes to you, and it's a similar one. Can you speak of an experience, of one experience, any experience that you've had, which confirms the kind of hope that Graham is talking about here?

MA: Well, they probably would be ten experiences, because when we started PEN back in the 80s... we didn't have any money. We had some postage stamps. Wasn't any internet. 

So we put it together with nothing. And I then did a fundraiser for it, which will make you laugh a lot — I hope. [We created] a book called The Canlit Food Book, in which I took passages having to do with food from people's work, such as novels, short stories and poems and writing….

And then I got recipes from writers, and a lot of them couldn't cook. One of them, Michael Ondaatje's, whose recipe was grapefruit: so the grapefruit, you cut out the little sections, you can put a maraschino cherry on top. I had 'toast and tea' from somebody, who was really frightened of cooking. And from a different kind of person, I had taken a big, frozen pike and a chainsaw. Anyway, it was quite funny….

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson on the red carpet at the Scotiabank Giller Bank Prize gala in Toronto, November 2018. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

And I got an agent to auction it. And from that auction, we got the money to get an executive director who could actually run the thing. And we set up the Marian Engel Award with the same money, which then got condensed under the General Writers Award. But now there's another women's award being set up under the name of Carol Shields.

You would be surprised how many of these things are just individual efforts by people who decide they're going to do something. And that, to conclude, is why I have hope: because such people still exist. 

* Q&A was edited for clairty and length.This episode was produced by Greg Kelly. 

Special thanks to Jess Atwood and Josh Knelman for all their help in making this recording possible.

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