Margaret Atwood: A Biography
“Is it true that artists have to suffer to be creative?” To many, the answer would be yes. To artists of the 1960s, it would be an adamant yes. But to Margaret Atwood? You would get a resounding no, that artists are not victims without choice but rather capable of choosing their own price to pay. Her belief that artist’s should strike their own path eventually led to her belief that her role was not just to be a writer; it was to be a Canadian writer. Over the course of her studies at the University of Toronto and Radcliffe College, Atwood forged a decision that would impact not only her life but the lives and values of her fellow Canadians. Her journey, filled with social struggle and turmoils, laid the seeds of Canadian literature and identity. For Margaret Atwood, staying true to her culture despite flak, criticism, and a dominant American literature empire is what it means to be a Canadian.
Margaret Atwood’s incredible journey is outlined in Natalie Cook’s Margaret Atwood, A Biography. Starting from her time between schools in the US and Canada, Atwood learned an important fact; compared to Canada, the United States was “too familiar to be exotic, too unfamiliar to be comfortable,” and was dominated by American literature. In fact, the sheer amount of American writing compared to Canadian literature was a major factor in Atwood’s decision to become a Canadian writer. Atwood realized that if one can study American literature in a university, then why not Canadian literature? Prompted by a lack of awareness of Canada evident in those around her, “Atwood developed a sense of her place of origin. The Americans she met thought of Canada as “the blank area north of the map where the bad weather comes from.” Seeking out differences between America, a place that in climate and landscape is very similar to Canada, and her native land, Atwood starting seeing Canada as having a shape and culture of its own”. This search would ultimately result in her first book of nonfiction, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, a landmark in the development of Canadian writing and culture. “Survival was both a result of the rising tide of Canadian nationalism and a catalyst for it, helping fuel an explosion of interest in Canadian literature and culture during the 1970s, a time that has been called the New Age of Canadian literature.”
However, Atwood’s Canadian writing did not just start with Survival. Her earliest works such as The Edible Woman “reflect a number of concerns that have remained central to her beliefs: a profound respect for the natural world, a commitment to Canadian culture, and a firm belief in the rights of an individual. In her work, such concerns can be traced back in the themes of nature’s triumph over civilization, Canadian nationalism, and feminism.” These themes came together into a course Atwood taught in the 1970s called Canadian Women Writers. “This was the first time she had ever actually taught ‘Canlit’, and it reflected both the growing impact of Canadian nationalism on university curriculum and Atwood’s own role in that reform.” Atwood initiated a project designed to determine whether Canadian reviewers betrayed a gender bias. “The project spoke not only to the times but also to Atwood’s own perspective on gender bias in the profession.” It was not well received by reviewers, but Atwood didn’t let that stop her. Flak was not an unusual occurrence for her; her early works, Canlit, and later Survival generated a lot of criticism. Instead, it was Atwood’s reactions that make her truly inspirational as a Canadian; she continued with her belief on identity and didn’t let the views of others stop her. In her words, “Refusing to acknowledge where you come from… is an act of amputation: you may become free-floating, a citizen of the world (…), but only at the cost of arms, legs or heart. By discovering your place you discover yourself.” Embracing Canadian identity and striving to put a bit of one’s culture into your work is at the core of Atwood’s beliefs. It’s a belief that is carried into Canadian literature and a belief at the root of Canada. By embracing your identity instead of shying away to fit social norms is how one discovers and connects to being a Canadian.
So where do you go from here, now that you’ve discovered your identity? “Ever onward.”