Secrets, Deception, Celebrity

Reviewed by Sharon Engbrecht

I’ll admit, I’ve been putting off Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019). When it first came out, I bought a first printing, first edition hardcover, as I usually do with her work. But I’ve been conflicted about Atwood’s writing since #ubcaccountable and Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker’s edited collection Refuse: CanLit in Ruins (2018) was published. In 2016, a number of well-known Canadian authors penned “An Open Letter to UBC: Steven Galloway’s Right to Due Process,” which focused on UBC’s handling of allegations surrounding Galloway’s relationship with one of his female students. Many signatories later withdrew their support as concerns were raised around the treatment of the woman’s testimony and the imbalance of power in the alleged relationship. Atwood refused to remove her signature, even after public concern about her response raised questions around the systemic barriers women face in reporting sexual assault. Instead, Atwood continued to champion her position, suggesting that to assume all women, as a group, “are always right and never lie . . . would do a great disservice to accusing women and abuse survivors, since it discredits any accusations immediately” (“Margaret Atwood on the Galloway Affair”). Recounting the case, Constance Grady writes in response to this statement that “The harm suffered by the complainants . . . —both allegedly at Galloway’s hands and then later, over the course of the investigation and its aftermath—[is] brushed aside as unimportant.” Characterizing this controversy as one of many, Refuse speaks to the colonialist, white, often privileged legacy of Canadian literature as a field and publishing industry—the same industry that made Atwood what she is today.


Since Atwood, in her long publishing career, has often used the first-person female narrator to discuss feminist themes of agency, reproduction, equality, and personal struggle, her response to the Galloway affair, and writing since, have been received under this shadow. Atwood has long stated she’s not a feminist, or she’s a “bad” feminist, and that she refuses the “dangers of a dictatorship by ism” (“If” 208). Atwood’s scholarly audience, familiar with the feminist concerns that backlight much of her work, frequently draws attention to this disconnect between how she perceives herself as an author, her status as a public intellectual, and her use of international platforms to voice her opinions on topics from war to environmentalism, debt, and, of course, how authors are treated in the realm of public opinion. It was only when the opportunity to review Burning Questions (2022) arose that I thought I should see what Atwood’s latest novel was all about.


The Testaments’ predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), focuses on the complexity of testimony, duress, and restricted rights for individuals identified as female via female-coded reproductive organs (whether functional or not). The narrative is told through the lens of June (Offred) during her forced incarceration in Gilead; she is essentially a woman forced to become a surrogate mother because of her viable uterus. The dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a vital tool for decoding The Testaments, as Atwood’s sequel sparingly includes descriptions of the oppressive society in which birth rates have decreased and perverted religious zeal, in support of white cis-patriarchy, has taken power. Departing from June’s narrative, The Testaments is told as written testimonial through Aunt Lydia and two younger women, Agnes and Nicole, who turn out to be sisters. The Testaments is set after June’s escape, hinting from the beginning about her role in the kidnapping of “Baby Nicole” and her being the mother of the two girls. However, the sisters don’t grow up knowing each other or their biological mother. Instead, June is a character outside the storyworld, never referred to by name. Agnes is raised in a Commander’s house by an adopted mother and trained to be a Wife in an arranged marriage, while Nicole, then called Daisy, is raised by two guardians, Neil and Melanie, in Canada for the May Day resistance. Daisy, who doesn’t share her identity at the beginning of her testimony, turns out to be Baby Nicole, now an icon of Gilead, who then joins May Day and, undercover as Jade, infiltrates Gilead to transport incriminating documentation that will bring about the downfall of the oppressive society.


The Testaments draws on elements of many of Atwood’s novels, including Alias Grace and The Year of the Flood. The Testaments recalls the mystery unravelling in Alias Grace yet robs the reader of the ambiguous postmodern ending that disrupts the continuity of authority. There isn’t much doubt cast on the multiple narrative points of view, nor are there contradictory historical facts to complicate the testimony—save for the caricature of an academic conference, “The Thirteenth Symposium,” that draws direct connections to the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” in The Handmaid’s Tale. As with The Year of the Flood (2009), readers bear witness to testimonies through multiple narrative points of view. However, Aunt Lydia doesn’t have the same psychological complexity or inner tensions of Toby in The Year of the Flood—inner tensions that also made The Handmaid’s Tale so provocative. Missing from Aunt Lydia’s tale are the complications of duress. Her female body and her experience in the judicial system working on domestic cases and sexual assault, and with female criminals and sex workers (171), seem to have little impact on her empathy and decision making. Her own “faults” of an abortion and divorce, “now a crime” under Gileadean law, are listed but not explored; as she admits to an assumed reader, “No, I was not raped” (149), though she orchestrates many. In fact, her new role as an Aunt doesn’t seem to cause her much moral conflict or internal fretting, unlike being caught for writing down her story. Atwood glosses over Aunt Lydia’s experience as a woman in Gilead, instead drawing attention to her aging body. Her narrative conveys little fear of Commander Judd, even though her life must be constantly at risk as she competes for what little power is afforded women in her station with Aunt Vidala, Aunt Elizabeth, and Aunt Helena (reminiscent of the female competition in Cat’s Eye). At the same time, Commander Judd seems to be a conflation of Orwell’s O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and the fairy-tale Bluebeard, as Aunt Lydia recounts his crimes, his role in establishing and sustaining Gilead, and his wives piling up as skeletons in his closet. Yet Judd doesn’t seem as sinister; Aunt Lydia describes him as a powerful fool, one she is able to constantly outwit.


The contours of the female body, the hairy legs and June’s desperation for moisturizer, are absent. There seems to be more telling than showing as Atwood jests about the threat of penises. “Penises . . . Them Again,” Aunt Lydia states as Aunt Lise shares the traumatic experiences of Becka, Agnes’ friend, who has attempted suicide in response to the prospect of being forced to be a Wife (214). Aunt Lydia’s narrative doesn’t convey the same duress as June’s; nor do the narratives of Agnes and Nicole.


The teen angst that, in The Year of the Flood, imbued Ren’s narrative with contradiction and motivation seems to have been lost in The Testaments’ narrative construction of Daisy/Jade/Nicole and Agnes. The sisters’ actions are plot-driven more than a part of their psychological or emotional growth—they don’t come to any revelation about what they’ve been through or how it has changed them. Although Atwood toys with serious concerns about consent, such as when she vividly depicts the grotesque Commander Judd kissing teenage Agnes at their engagement, she undercuts the political potential in these scenes with tawdry imagery. When she presents the Commander kissing Agnes’ forehead with “unpleasantly warm” lips that make “a sucking sound” (226), instead of focusing on the sexual exploitation, Atwood has naïve Agnes imagine the Commander is sucking her brain out of her head. These perfunctory scenes distract from the political coherence of Atwood’s work. However, The Testaments is also an unusual book for Atwood, as she collaboratively develops the storyworld alongside Bruce Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the “award-winning MGM and Hulu television series” (418). This perhaps constrained Atwood’s choice of descriptions and reflections as the adaptation’s vivid representation of her storyworld solidified the visual depictions of Gilead.


On the whole, The Testaments is interesting. It picks up threads of the Gileadean world without the drama of entanglement from June’s narrative. Men are stock characters more so than love interests, and there’s always a way for women who aren’t handmaidens to sidestep their female responsibilities as wives and mothers. Women still circulate between men as commodities in Gilead, but given the right station, through secrets and deception, women too have power in that world—which seems to compete with the political message in The Handmaid’s Tale—as Atwood seemingly responds to herself metafictionally as an author who performs the role of objective witness rather than a political mouthpiece.


Burning Questions (2022), Atwood’s latest collection of essays, includes some of her editorials, reviews, speeches, obituaries for friends and writers, and occasional writing from 2004 to 2021. It begins with a semi-autobiographical reflection on her career during this time, including the publication of her MaddAddam trilogy, her Massey Lectures (Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth), and The Testaments, events that structure which texts were included in Burning Questions and how they are organized. She mentions two of her previous collections, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose 1960-1982 (1982) and Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982-2004 (2004), both from House of Anansi Press, but omits Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005 (Virago, 2005) and Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005 (Carroll & Graf, 2005). Each collection has overlapping but slightly different content. The references in this review are to Carroll & Graf’s Writing with Intent, though readers may be more familiar with Moving Targets (the most notable omission from the latter collection is Atwood’s essay on pornography from Chatelaine [Sept. 1983]).


The subtext of the introduction is a response to the criticism Atwood has faced in some academic circles, where she has been asked to be more accountable as a literary celebrity with massive cultural influence. Atwood’s response to the #ubcaccountable letter, as Erika Thorkelson suggests, “ignor[es] the long, horrible history of women being erased and destroyed in the reporting process” (185). But in her introduction Atwood ironically emphasizes how each generation claims to have “a monopoly on atrocities” (Burning xv), and asks if authors should “be mere mouthpieces, reeling out acceptable platitudes that are supposed to be good for society, or if we have some other function” (xvii). When it comes to what she calls the “culture wars” (in scare quotes), Atwood writes, “[a]gainst this background, I wrote about the need for truth, fact-checking, and fairness” (xix). But her remarks raise questions, as many of her novels do, around whose truth, which facts, and fairness according to whom? Long-time Atwood scholar Lorraine York, author of Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity (2013), in describing her movement away from scholarship on Atwood’s writing, notes that literary celebrities in Atwood’s position occupy “overlapping intertwined nodes of power in the Canadian literary and media worlds, and in exercising that power to exclude others, they have done considerable harm” (132). The publication of Burning Questions comes at a time in Atwood’s career when her reputation as a literary celebrity and world-renowned author impacts the reception of her work—writing that has capitalized on the feminist themes she publicly discredits.


The collection is divided into five sections, the topics of which will be familiar to those who have read Atwood’s other collections of non-fiction. Many of her essays reflect on her experience as a writer and woman, on what fiction is or can do, and on what it means to be human—themes from her Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002). A number of the essays correspond to earlier works, such as “On Being a ‘Woman Writer’: Paradoxes and Dilemmas,” “The Curse of Eve—or, What I Learned in School” (both from Second Words), and “Writing Utopia” (from Writing with Intent and Moving Targets). Several of the reviews and talks draw on her long-standing environmental activism, although she continues to remind readers that she is “a fiction writer,” not a politician or scientist, which gives her “a big advantage in the truth-or-fiction arena” (61). In reading her essay “Ancient Balances,” I noted that it shares a title with the first section of Payback and is a condensed version of that Massey Lecture. However, “Debtor’s Prism” (2008), from The Wall Street Journal, is missing. This article was part of the marketing and publicity for her Massey Lecture tour but nicely emphasizes the storytelling element in her concept of debt as a dynamic metaphor.


“In Translationland” begins with Atwood admitting, “I’m always a bit of a nightmare for my translators” (222), as her English often includes satirical, ironic, and implicit meanings. Her reflection on Kafka reveals a truism at the core of much of her work: “my real subject was not the author of the book, but the author of the essay: me, a somewhat stern-minded and pedantic neophyte writer preoccupied with her own pressing artistic concerns” (236). “Future Library” is about “Scribbler Moon,” a piece of writing Atwood created for the Future Library project, imagining readers of the future, that won’t be available to read until 2114. “Reflections on The Handmaid’s Tale” traces Atwood’s experience with feminism and the production of that novel, which she calls “not a very cozy book” (245). Her recollection of her research on credit cards—that “if we came to rely on them and only them, [they] could so easily be used to control us” (245)—recalls her essays on The Handmaid’s Tale from Writing with Intent and the files in the Margaret Atwood fonds at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library about credit cards and tracking, which she refers to in The Testaments’ end matter and which are also in the archives under her research for Payback. She mentions “Unfreedom” here, and I was glad to see “We Are Double-Plus Unfree” (2015) has been included, as it’s a useful teaching text that asks readers to consider how individuals benefit from having “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Ultimately, Atwood argues, “The majority of us are double-plus unfree: our ‘freedom to’ is limited to approved and supervised activities, and our ‘freedom from’ doesn’t keep us free from a great many things that can end up killing us” (264). However, I was disappointed that her 2016 keynote for the University of Calgary Faculty of Nursing’s Compassion under Contemporary Conditions Interdisciplinary Symposium was omitted. This speech included an Atwoodian take on what it means to be compassionate and how compassion, especially in caregiving, can sometimes mean caring too much or in the wrong way.


“Am I a Bad Feminist?” (2018)—not to be confused with Roxane Gay’s concept of edgy feminism in Bad Feminist (2014)—has been included. When she asks, “Do Good Feminists believe that only women should have such rights?” (326), Atwood is being purposely inflammatory as well as reductive. Her attempts at wit reveal that she may be out of touch with current intersectional feminist research, as she glosses over her motivation for supporting Galloway (he’s part of her in-crowd of Canadian literary celebrities). The case remains controversial, even as her argument implicitly supports Galloway: “A fair-minded person would now withhold judgement as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see” (336). Given her themes in The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, and even Alias Grace, it’s strange that she’s calling for reports, evidence, and proof—essentially asking the victims of sexual assault, whether alleged or not, to offer their bodies and traumatic experiences up for public consumption without vast networks of support to shelter them. In the bad feminist case, she seems to be arguing against the court of public opinion but fails to articulate her own stake and political positioning in that fight.


“Greetings, Earthlings! What Are These Human Rights of Which You Speak?” (2018), a speculative fiction, seems misplaced in the collection, especially as it’s followed by the tenth-anniversary introduction to Payback and “Tell. The. Truth” (2019), Atwood’s acceptance speech for the Burke Medal, awarded by the (Trinity) College Historical Society.


In the closing section, Atwood reflects on COVID-19, a pandemic eerily reminiscent of the plot in Oryx and Crake. She also includes a review of Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents that recounts the sexism she experienced during her time at Harvard. In interviews, she often uses the story of her having to serve tea during breaks to the men in her classes at Harvard. Her usual response is to say that’s just the way it was, because it happened before second-wave feminism was part of the mainstream. While an interesting snapshot of her experience in the 1960s, the essay reductively argues in polemical terms about women and men. Given that the essay was written over forty years after second-wave feminism, Atwood could possibly have contextualized the misogyny better.


As suggested above, Burning Questions can be read as an ongoing correspondence with many of her earlier non-fiction works, especially Second Words and Writing with Intent. While many of the essays and reviews are openly accessible in digital form, some of her speeches in Burning Questions are only available in the Atwood archives. If you work on Atwood’s writing, this is a hugely valuable collection to have.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004-2021. McClelland & Stewart, 2022.

—. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1985. McClelland & Stewart, 2014.

—. “If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything at All.” Language in Her Eye: Views on Writing and Gender by Canadian Women Writing in English, edited by Libby Scheier, Sarah Sheard, and Eleanor Wachtel, Coach House, 1990, pp. 15-25.

—. “Margaret Atwood on the Galloway Affair.” Walrus, 17 Nov. 2016, Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.

—. Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. Anansi, 1982.

—. The Testaments. McClelland & Stewart, 2019.

—. Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose, 1983-2005. Carroll and Graf, 2005.

Grady, Constance. “Why Handmaid’s Tale Author Margaret Atwood is Facing #MeToo Backlash.” Vox, 17 Jan. 2018, Accessed 17 Mar. 2022.

McGregor, Hannah, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, editors. Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. Book*hug, 2018.

Thorkelson, Erika. “Hearing the Artificial Obvious: Margaret Atwood, UBCAccountable, and the Power of Listening.” McGregor, Rak, and Wunker, pp. 184-90.

York, Lorraine. “How Do We Get Out of Here? An Atwood Scholar Signing Off.” McGregor, Rak, and Wunker, pp. 131-36.

This review “Secrets, Deception, Celebrity” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 27 May. 2022. Web.

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