Margaret Atwood: Being a war kid shaped my whole life

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood features in the book 200 Women. Image: Kieran E. Scott

“I think that when you were born is very important, because it determines what was going on when you were ten, when you were twenty, and so on. If defines what is within your living memory and what is – on the other hand – in the land of legend.

“I believe there is a huge gap between the lived memories of the depression kids, the war kids and then the baby boomers – those are very distinct generations. Equally anybody born in the year 2000 doesn’t even remember the Vietnam War – it is a mythical thing to them that was long, long ago and far away – and they can’t envisage a world without cellphones. For them, World War II is way back there – it is like people in 1880 thinking back to the Battle of Waterloo.

“I’m a war kid. In the fifties, when I was an early teenager – it was an impressionable age – 1984 had just come out. The Cold War, Stalin and Russia were very much on people’s minds. If you had a fear in that period, it would have been of being blown up by an atomic bomb, followed closely – in the case of women – by a fear of getting pregnant. Because there was no pill at that age, sexual politics were really quite different then. The fifties was a decade in which the prevailing ideology was to get women back into their homes and tell them that they wouldn’t be fulfilled unless they had four kids, an open-play house and a washer-dryer. Women’s jobs were to make life happy for others and get rid of their selves. Luckily – because Canada was a cultural backwater – that messages wasn’t being pushed in our magazines.

“My parents were very egalitarian and keen on the outdoor life. I grew up without electricity or running water, which gives you a whole different mindset. I had few material possessions; at first, this was because of the war, and after that, my parents simply weren’t interested in such things. Other girls complain about having been put into a frilly dress. I complain about missing out on that. So, I drew dresses! I spent my time drawing, then reading and finally writing.

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“My writing is important to me. I tried my hand at writing romance stories when I was sixteen, because they paid the most. No-go – that was not going to happen. Then I thought I’d be a journalist – until my parents invited one to dinner. He said I’d just end up writing the ladies pages and obituaries, which some people say I’ve done anyway.

“I’m very proud of my work. It’s unique to see something like The Handmaid’s Tale take on a new aura of urgency in a time when various state legislatures move towards phasing out not only women’s reproductive rights, but their health rights. What is the plan here? All of it is pretty frightening and it doesn’t only affect our women – because you can never change the condition of women without offering things for men.

“Happiness if quite often a matter of inheritance, I’m sorry to say. Some people are more cheerful than others, and some people battle depression all their lives – it’s a chemical thing. I’m congenitally rather cheerful, and with all the dire things I write about, you would think I would be very depressed all the time. But that’s not the case; dark things don’t consume me, and I am generally an annoyingly chirpy person – which can be very irritating to other people when the news is quite gloomy.”

200 Women: The Listening Ground, sponsored by Westpac, is an interactive exhibition, book and podcast series featuring interviews with 200 notable women from around the world, including Maggie Beer, Susan Carland and Jane Caro. Margaret Atwood was one of the women interviewed – you can listen to more of their stories here.

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What sort of personality are you? Are you always annoyingly chipper like Margaret?


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