Each year, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art here in Denmark hosts a festival of literature (I love that: festival of literature), featuring an array of authors. Some are well known on a global scale, others known more for their Scandinavian-ness; poets, writers, essayists. Last year I stumbled upon a reading by Ian McEwan on a sunny afternoon. I sat on a grassy knoll in the never-ending sun of a Danish summer and listened to him read an excerpt from his new book. It was magical. This year, the focus of the festival was women writers. I was giddy with book nerd excitement when they announced that one of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, would be one of the guests. So this past Saturday, dog eared copy of The Handmaid’s Tale in my bag, I made my way to Louisiana. Though I was pipped at the post for a seat within the concert hall where she was interviewed, I was able to sit in relative comfort under a canopy and watch a live feed from inside the museum. Afterward, we pushed our way through the throng of people waiting for the next author (Joyce Carol Oates!) to have our books signed. As my turn approached I thought of all the things I would like to say to her.
In the end, I mostly blushed and thrust my book into her hands.
What I meant to say was this: The Handmaid’s Tale was a game changer for me. I remember reading it during my freshman year of college, sitting up at night terrified to turn to the page. The story scared me more than any other book I had read or have read since, simply because throughout I thought to myself, this could happen. Don’t believe me? Think about how the rights of Afghani women were systematically stripped, one by one. Think about the criminalization of women’s’ sexuality in the United States, how reproductive rights are slowly being rescinded, one by one. Then think about The Handmaid’s Tale.
What I meant to say was that your book was the catalyst for my decision to minor in Women’s Studies at school. (In fact, in the back of my copy, there is a scribbled schedule of an Into to Women’s Studies class). Your book solidified the emotions that until that point, had no focus, had no name. Your book made me vow to fight.
What I meant to say is that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t even my favorite book of yours, but it holds such a symbolic place in my heart that when I trailed my fingers over the spines of your books, deciding which to bring with me, it was a simple decision.
What I meant to say was that I admire your extraordinary talent, your wit, your fearlessness and your imagination. For a woman writing dystopian fantasy before dystopian fantasies were cool, you deserve every accolade you’ve received. It’s not easy to write a genre before there is a market for it, before there is even a name for it.
What I meant to say was thank you for writing about women. Thank you for writing about intelligent women who aren’t always chaste, who aren’t always admirable, who aren’t always even likable, but who are always real. I detested the character of Zenia, but we all know someone like her. I had a hard time with Cordelia, but how many of us grew up without that friend?
What I meant to say was reading your prose makes me polish my own again. And again.
What I meant to say was that I am jealous Canada gets to claim you for her own.
In the end, star struck, I mumbled something about the book being from my college days.
I only hope that my thank you was loud enough for you to hear.