This is the next entry in Summer Reading, a seasonal series by New America staff and fellows about the book that changed the way in which they see the world off the page.
As a child insomniac, I often read through the night, eager for the next turn of plot or phrase. And so it is perhaps unsurprising that Margaret Atwood’s novels caught my attention with their moody, shadowy covers. The stories sounded forbidden and adult, and the first one I decided to read was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was one of the first times I had read something written in the first person as opposed to the third, and the perspective changed everything. I was seeing the dystopian future through the eyes of Offred, a woman trying to adjust to being enslaved after the hostile takeover of her country. It provided an entirely new level of intimacy with the story, and gave me a roadmap for how to create that intimacy in my own writing.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a United States where religious zealots, in a coup, have taken over. They immediately strip women of their jobs and access to money. They eventually create a new caste system where women are broken into categories based on childbearing potential and class. Families are split up and women are sent training camps to learn their new roles, then assigned to the higher class homes to fill the role of cook, wife, or concubine. At the time, it sounded terrifying and impossible. As the reader, you only see what Offred sees, and her vision is literally blocked by blinders she has to wear when not in the house. She vacillates between accepting her new reality and trying to find a way out. Glimpses of her past are parceled out in recollections, and I hoped for more details with each turn of the page. I couldn’t put it down.
I then read through everything of hers I could find, and discovered how to write about experience through a political lens. Her stories offered firsthand glimpses into feminism and environmentalism as lived through personal experience. As a pessimistic and political child who wrote outraged poems about the environment and justice, I felt I had found a home. But The Handmaid’s Tale was the first, the beginning of seeing where the world around me intersected with many potential future worlds. How every step today can lead you somewhere seemingly improbable tomorrow.
Many years later, I went to see Atwood when she was on tour for Oryx & Crake, another dystopian novel. I asked her why she was drawn to that form—the dark vision of a world torn apart. “I read the newspaper,” was her response.
Revisiting the novel now, I couldn’t help but hear her words again. In the dystopian future, women hold funerals for fetuses. In the too-real present, our Republican Vice Presidential nominee signed a bill in that would require women in his state to have funeral services for their fetuses. Doctors who had provided abortions in the time before the war are executed and hung on a public wall in The Handmaid’s Tale. Republican Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump welcomed the endorsement of a prominent anti-choice advocate who has said death is an appropriate penalty for abortion providers.
As I’ve gotten older and lived through a political climate that seems to increasingly legitimize stripping away reproductive rights, this story hangs on the periphery. It’s almost like a dare—try to get here from where you are. When I first read it, that seemed impossible. Now, I’m less sure. The brilliance of the book is that it acts like a warning at a trail head—beware of what lies ahead. It makes for a beautiful book precisely because it would make for such a hideous reality.