Restorying Canada: Margaret Atwood, Leah Kostamo on the yin and yang of utopia and dystopia

Margaret Atwood and Leah Kostamo. Photo: Peter Robb

Margaret Atwood still has the first copy of George Orwell’s 1984 that she bought as a young teenager. The paperback had a slightly salacious cover with “lots of cleavage.” No matter. She read it and remembered it and has that original copy still.

In 1984, Atwood started a book that is assuming a similar kind of status. The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been turned into a TV series, has drawn lots of attention to Atwood in this time of Trump.

She relayed the memory during a presentation for the Restorying Canada Conference on The Future of Religion in Canada called Utopia or Dystopia at Tabaret Hall. Atwood appeared with Leah Kostamo, a B.C.-based eco-Christian, who with her husband, has founded a branch of the A Rocha movement in her home province, a community that in many ways reminds one of God’s Gardeners, the moral heroes of Atwood’s science fiction trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.

Kostamo described what she and her comrades are trying to achieve as stewards of the land they occupy. That is to rebuild the environment, offering her community’s example as a way to rebuild the natural world. “How do we live well so we can repair (the land) and become more sustainable,” she says.

The 77-year-old Atwood was suffering from a cold Friday night but that didn’t deter her at all. In fact during her talk, she included a reading of a sermon from her MaddAddam trilogy and even sang a hymn that she included in the trilogy.

She began by explaining how she met Kostamo.

“I wrote about a Christian-cum-naturist-cum-ecological group in the near future that lives on urban rooftops and cultivates gardens on them. And they also chose hope and tried to reconcile science and ecology with scripture. Sound familiar?

“Because I had written this group, I was invited to be on a TV show. And Leah and Markku (Kostamo) appeared miraculously from behind the woodwork and there they were, what I had written.”

Atwood’s own deep understanding of Christianity comes from her earliest school days “when there were two school systems, a Roman Catholic one and a Protestant system. We had Bible readings and prayers all the time in school.”

That grounding would prove very helpful when it came time to study English literature in depth.

“You can’t study English literature, in its first five centuries, without knowing something of the history of Christianity. God’s Gardeners came out of the fact that (in Christianity) there were several different divisions” in the understanding of the relationship of humans to the natural world.

“One (involves) what you might call the Rapturists. God is going fry everybody but them. They will be up in the sky watching as the Earth is destroyed and God will make a new one just for them. I wouldn’t count on that.

“The Dominionists … think God gave man dominion (over the earth) which is equated with permission to do whatever you want. They think they can destroy any old thing and it doesn’t matter because you’ve got dominion. The third is the Stewardship group. This group feels that yes they were entrusted with this (world), but their duty is … to take care of the garden.”

Despite these differing schools of thought, Atwood doesn’t blame religion for all the world’s ills.

“Atheist regimes have done a good job of oppressing and murdering people too. It is true that Christianity has some dark moments. But I don’t think you can put that down to a religion. I think you can put that down to human beings.”

Atwood is well versed in utopian and dystopian literature, part of that deep study, and since that was the topic to hand on Friday night, she got down to business.

“The 19th century was an age in which a lot of people wrote utopias, books that present a world that is better than the one the writer is living in. Some examples might be W.H. Hudson’s A Crystal Age, William Morris’s News from Nowhere and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Coming Age.” This latter book spawned a cult-like following of people that even included Adolf Hitler.

The First World War put an end to utopian literature, she said, and opened an era of dystopias.

Atwood says every dystopia contains within a little utopia. And every utopia contains a little dystopia. In both there is usually a group of people identified as standing in the way of happiness.

Atwood has written two books that have religion in them. One is The Handmaid’s Tale and the other is the MaddAddam Trilogy.

“The religion in MaddAddam is benevolent but in the Handmaid’s Tale it is not benevolent. It is a totalitarian theocracy. Does that mean I am anti-religion? No. It means people have frequently used religion as a means of controlling societies and of getting rid of people who don’t agree with them. That is just historically true.”

Asked by the evening’s moderator, University of Ottawa professor Emma Anderson about The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood described the influences that led her to the novel.

“One was my study of 17th century Puritan New England. I have a personal connection because some of my ancestors were creepy 17th century Puritan New Englanders. One was even implicated in witchcraft. She’s in a book by Cotton Mather. That’s why The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated to Mary Webster. My granny was a Webster.”

Puritan intolerance of other religious beliefs has never gone away and it has periodic resurgences, she says. “We are seeing one of those moments right now.”

She says her writing was also prompted by rise of the religious right in the early 1980s.

And finally her interest in dystopias as a literary form also played a role in sparking The Handmaid’s Tale.

“I had never written one to that point. I had read a lot of them. If you figure out how old I am, you will figure out that I was at a very impressionable age when 1984 was published (in June, 1949).

“I read it at about age 13. There were these cheesy editions in drugstores. People bought them because they looked like true romance literature. And then you would find yourself reading Hemingway or Faulkner. I still have that copy of 1984. There is a lot of leering and cleavage on the cover. I was also reading Ray Bradbury and (Aldous) Huxley and H.G. Wells.”

When Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale she says she considered what kind of totalitarian dictatorship could occur in the U.S. She settled on a theocracy after ruling out a Communist state and a liberal democracy that crushes freedom to protect itself. Today, she said, somewhat tongue in cheek, “I may be wrong. We will wait and see. … Somebody should tell the American right (the novel) is not a blue print, but it kind of is.”

A lifetime of study and thought means Atwood ranges across many topics when she is talking. And what she says is always thought-provoking and often funny. So here are some comments that caught this reporter’s ear.

On grammar and religion: “Once you have a language with a pluperfect and a future perfect (tense), sooner or later, if you hang out with four year olds a lot, they are going to say ‘Where did I come from? Where did people come from?’ And then they are going to ask ‘What will happen to me when I die, or Where did Grandpa go?’ … Ultimately there will have to be an answer because I don’t know isn’t satisfactory. It’s either going to be a religious origin story or ‘Hey we’ve almost found the missing link’. You can’t help it once you have those tenses.”

Religion as inspiration for writing:”Religions are noteworthy for the enormous number of stories they contain.”

On language: “You cannot tell a story without your listener putting some kind of moral interpretation on it. So Goldilocks finds an empty cottage. In it there are three chairs and there are three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks goes into the cottage and she sits on the first chair and it’s too hard. She sits on the second chair and it’s too soft. And she sits on the third one and it’s just right. And then she addresses herself to the bowls of porridge; one is too hot, one is too cold and one is just right and she eats it all up. And then the three bears come home. And Goldilocks runs away. What’s the moral? People come up with different things: Don’t eat other people’s porridge. Where are the parents? What was she doing in the woods alone? These are remarkably civilized bears. You will put a spin on it one way or the other. You can’t help it because that’s what people do.

On fundamentalist Christianity: “One thing that has happened over the past 77 years, which is the number I have been on this planet, is that the centre of Christianity abdicated. I think a lot of people left the church who were the stable centre and that created space for more extreme people to come in and create a power base for themselves.”

On the alt-right and racism: “The alt-right in the U.S. has conflated religion with a number of things that didn’t belong there. (For example), there is no scriptural basis in the Bible that supports the idea that white people are superior to black people. It’s not there. … In this country residential schools, a lot of them run by churches, were used to indoctrinate the idea that this culture here was superior to that culture there.”

On utopias: “I’m suspicious of utopias because I have studied them so much. They do tend to contain, ‘Let’s get rid of those people.’ I’m more of a hold the line and repair the cracks in the dam kind of person.”

On the environment: “There are problems we need to address pretty quickly and that’s why I spend so much time on conservation and thinking about solutions to obvious problems. If we kill the oceans, (for example), that’s it for us, because the green algae in the oceans makes 60 to 80 per cent of the oxygen we breathe. Plants would be fine, but we are not plants.”

On possessions: “I’m not interested in having stuff, I’m more interested in doing stuff.”

On atheism: “Atheism is a dogma too.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.