Sunday, June 12, 2005

Margaret Atwood

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A escritora canadense (36 livros publicados!) esteve em Nova York em abril para um encontro de escritores do Pen American Center. Recebeu-me com carinho e humor afiado para uma entrevista que foi ao ar no Milênio da Globo News.

JP - The far right takes power in America and uses christian fundamentalism as a political tool. That's The Handmaid's Tale, the book you wrote 20 years ago. It could also be a headline in today's paper. And in your book the excuse for the coup is a terrorist attack by muslims.

MA - Isn't that odd? It's so peculiar.

JP - How could you be so clairvoyant?

MA - Well, I'm not really clairvoyant, of course, no one can predict the future, it's too complex, things can change at any moment, but just reading the signs, reading the signs that would be a probability, and I didn't put anything in the book that people hadn't done at some time, in some place, in the past. And studying coups throughout the ages, there's always an excuse of some kind, and people have some sort of righteous flag that they're waving around to justify their activities. So, that was just, let's say, an informed guess.
But we aren't there yet, let me hasten to add, because if we were there, you and I would not be in this room, having this conversation.

JP - But there's a danger because the right is growing and they're gaining political power.

MA - Countries don't usually come up with something entirely new. Even when there's a coup or a change, they're building on something that was there before, as the Aztecs and Mayans used to build temples on top of temples that were already there. So you have a kind of layer. And if you go back down through the layers of the United States, you find at the very beginning a puritan teocracy and then you have layers added to that. You have the eighteenth century enlightenment, you have the revolution, you have the declaration of independence, and the next reinvention would have been the civil war, North against South, again righteous flag (laughs), there's always one, another reinvention probably under Roosevelt, Franklin D., and now you're having another reinvention, but it's always on top of what was already there, there are roots to that culture.
So the question I asked myself was: if you were going to have a dictatorship in the United States, what would be the façade, what would be the ideology, the raison d'être, the justification. It wouldn't be, let's all become communists, not that, we don't want to be that. Just as Stalin was doing something quite different, he was just reinventing and augmenting the secret service of the czar who came before him. You would have in the United States not a communist pretense, and you couldn't say, alright we're going to have a dictatorship in the name of liberal democracy, you would think that would be a contradiction in terms. Although maybe not, maybe that's what we'll have. In the we-had-to-destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it mode of thinking. So what you would be more likely to have would be something with a religious stamp on it, because those are the roots, if you go way back those are the roots of this country. Puritan teocracy. The people at the top were the top religious people, the laws were very strict, for instance, it was against the law to point, point or smile too much, all these things were regulated. So it would be more likely to get something like that.

JP - And the coup that you imagined started by outlawing women at work and women having property.

MA - We've seen that, haven't we? We've seen that in other countries. But it wouldn't be a big step backwards in history to arrive at that situation. People living in a given period have a habit of taking it for granted, we've always had this freedom, we've always been the way we are now, but it's not true, ever. Just go back and back and you find that things were quite different. In the nineteenth century, for women, even in the so-called "western, liberal, demorcatic, free" countries, it was difficult for women to own property, especially if they were married, their property went to their husbands, there were laws governing what they could and couldn't do, they had the responsabilities of adults but the rights of children.

JP - Two years ago you wrote a letter to America...

MA - A little longer then that, it came out just before the invasion of Iraq.

JP - Were you channeling what many people in the world and even in the US are feeling?

MA - Was I channeling? Apparently so. I was asked to do a letter to America, it was part of a series for The Nation magazine, some time before Iraq was even mentioned publicly as something they were going to invade. So I said, sure, it's one of those situations where you're having lunch and somebody says, would you do this, and you say, sure, why not, and then you think, what am I going to write? Now what, now what do I say? Because the situation started changing very rapidly. So instead of addressing myself to, yes invade, no not invade, which was what people were talking about at the time, my worries were longer term. And they were more about the structure of America itself, the United States itself, and the changes that were happening to it. The freedoms and possibilities that were being rolled back. And that's what I wanted to write about because a lot of us grew up with the idea of America as being the kind of beacon of promise and land of freedom, all of these wonderful things, and then you wake up and you think, what happened? Where did that go? So that's what concerned me and apparently, because I got a lot of response from that, it concerned other people too, but I dind't interview anybody, I didn't say, what do you think?

JP - So what do you feel now, more than two years later?

MA - Well, the thing about the United States is that people who haven't spent much time in it think of it as all one homogeneous material, but in fact it's an extremely varied place, it's regionally varied, it's ideologically varied, there's a great deal of dialogue within it, amongst the people inside it, it's not some sort of monolith, and the part of it that I have always known and identified with is still there.

JP - The blue states.

MA - Well somebody said, let's join Canada and look what a big country we would have. But my family was originally from here. They were those very same teocratic puritans, so that's how I got to say things about them. And one family had to move to Canada, the rest stayed here, I've got a lot of relatives here, distant ones, but there they are and every once in a while someone will come up to me and say, I'm your relative. And it's true, they are. So I understand that part of it. And these are people of conscience, and they are people of tolerance, and they are people of faith in all kinds of things, including decent treatment of other people. And those people haven't disappeared, haven't gone away somewhere. They've been attacked a lot, and called this horrible thing, a liberal, when in our country a liberal is just the name of a political party. But they're still there, and I would say, don't give up.
The danger is, in all of these things, the danger comes back to money. Have they spent themselves into a hole in the ground so deep that they won't be able to get out of it? And if the economy starts collapsing, that's when people say, we need a strong leader and we're willing to give up our freedoms to have that. That's the danger. It's when society gets chaotic that you have the call for these Attila-the-hun-type people.

JP - I don't want our viewers to get the wrong impression that you are a political writer.

MA - I'm not a political writer of that kind, no.

JP - You write in a more intimate, personal level. But even at that level there's always politics at play, power.

MA - Because human beings are human beings, there is why. And human beings are social, they always have been, you can't talk about just one person in isolation, they always have relations to other people, and once you have relations to other people you have social structures, and when you have social structures you have social structures of a certain kind, in which some people are more respected perhaps then others, or possibly some people have lots more money than others, or possibly some people are considered to be divine, god-kings, so you always have a structure of some kind, and therefore it's intresting to examine: who's top dog, who's on the top, who's on the middle, who's on the bottom, there's always something like that, except in very early hunter-gatherer societies when people really had to cooperate on a pretty equal level. Even there, some had better skills at certain things than others and therefore their opinions were sought when it came to how to catch the bear.

JP - When 9/11 and the anthrax attacks ocurred you were writing "Oryx and Crake". Why did you stop writing for a while?

MA - Everybody stopped, glued themselves to the television to see what was going to happen next. Because this was not a story that we had seen before -- in the United States. We'd seen it in other places but not there. And it was pretty spectacular. And of course we all wanted to know what was behind it, what did happen, what was going to happen next.

JP - But there was something else related to what you were writing.

MA - Not the towers, that wasn't my story. The anthrax was very interesting to me. And it now appears that that was an inside job. So pretty close to the kind of scenario that I postulated. And that's very possible. You have a number and number of individuals who have a great deal of knowledge, knowledge as power, and we now have the capability, since we've opened the big box, the big pandora's box, we've opened that box. That box allows us to make new species. So, what will we make? We could easily make modified germs, we could do that. And when I say we I mean the human race, certain individuals. So all you would need is somebody with a grudge, or somebody who feels they can make things a lot better by killing numerous people. This is the problem with extreme utopian thinking.

JP - Some critics mistankenly read "Oryx and Crake" as an indictment of science. Isn't it rather a cautionary tale of how society misuses science and technology with unintended and catastrophic consequences?

MA - Absolutely. Science is merely a tool. It's one of the many many tools we have made over the years. You can make science do a very, very good thing -- the polio vaccine for instance. Or you can use to make a very, very bad thing. And because it's a tool, it's entirely dependent on how people use that tool. Just as you can take a hammer and build a house with it or you can take a hammer and murder your neighbor. But it's not the hammer doing it. I know that sounds a lot like, guns don't kill people, people kill people, which is true, and you can kill a lot of people with just machettes as far as that goes. But it's not the tool you have to look at, it's human nature.
And that's why the arts are important. Because the arts look at the human being in totality and we're now even deconstructing this fabrication called economic man. For a long time we've been getting leaders in society running the model of economic man, that people do things only for money. It's never been true. Money is quite down on the list of why people do things. So we need to know a lot more about why they do things and what they want. The list of what they want is quite long. And it hasn't changed for 10 thousand years.

JP - I suppose maybe it was random but you picked Brazil as the first country hit by the plague that wipes out the human species in "Oryx and Crake".

MA - Well, it is big, big, and it has very big cities in it. You'd need a lot of big cities with lots of people in them who interact a lot.

JP - But the virus was hidden in a pill sold as a sex-enhancer and tested in brothels. Was that a sly comment on Brazil's image as a sex haven?

MA - Not really. But now that you mention it. Let's say that such a pill would be quite popular in Brazil , to get enhanced sexual experiences, no consequences, protection against disease, who wouldn't want it. In Brazil especially, when you think about those bikinis.

JP - You were in Brazil for a writers meeting last year. What was the funniest thing that happened to you there, and the weirdest?

MA - That's a pretty tall order. I guess the funniest was: we're trying to get to the pantanal to watch birds and we couldn't land the plane, there was a fog, and the funniest thing that then happened was the revolution taking place right on the plane. People starting orating, accusing the stewards, luckily we had a nice girl sitting next to us who translated all that took place. It was a theatrical performance, it was just amazing. You never find this in North America, everybody would just sit quietly, eat their biscuit, but this was, how could this happen, how could you do this to us, what do you mean we have to get (lifts her arms), and looking around to see if everybody else in the plane was watching, listening to what they said, it was very out there. That was pretty good, we enjoyed that. It was almost better than really watching the birds. Now the weirdest would probably be the same thing.

JP - I heard a famous Brazilian writer here, recently, a man, say that he knows when a novel is written by a woman.

MA - He knows.

JP - According to him women write differently. And he cannot write a novel with a female narrator, it's impossible. What do you say to that?

MA - Mr. James Joyce would disagree. I don't know. I once did a study on this. A long long time ago, about 1972. I had some students and their task was to determine if there was a gender writing style. So we went through a lot of novels. And what we concluded -- and we also read a lot of newspapers, we read reviews to see how the reviewing was different, and in those days it was quite different, I think people are less blatant now -- but we decided that style was epoch specific, that is, people wrote in the style of their time. People writing in the nineteenth century, they wrote in a nineteenth century style, in the twentieth century it changes quite a lot. But if the subject matter could be placed on a scale of 10 to 0 and 0 to 10, with say, childbirth being an extreme 10 on the famele side, and slaughtering a lot of people with swords being 10 on the male side, the things could converge and you could get to practically a zero, it was fairly neutral, and George Eliott we put at about zero -- Middlemarch has got some female characters, some male characters, and just barely balanced. In the nineteenth century you could be like that because you were not allowed to write about sex anyway, nobody could put it in. She couldn't put that in. So therefore she could consider her characters as social characters, just observed in normal situations in which they had their clothes on. She didn't go into any whorehouses, she didn't go into any maternity wards, not in those extreme experiences.
So that's about what we concluded, that yes men can write woman characters quite plausibly as women can write man characters quite plausibly, as long as we didn't have to go to the extreme ends. But even so, if you look at Pat Barker in her trilogy about the first world war, the characters are pretty much all men and they do man things, what used to be man things anyway, killing people in wars, and they're very convincing to me, and I read a lot of novels by men about war.

JP - You have a counterpart in Brazil, Clarice LIspector. Same precision, a prose that sounds like poetry. And she was a poet like you. Being both a poet and a novelist, does it make one a better writer?

MA - No. In fact what you don't want to put on the jacket copy of a novel is, poetic prose, because what that means to people is, a lot of language they can do without. That's a wrong view of poetic. As you say, poetry ought to be the precise use of words, not the use of a lot of unnecessary words. But because we were taught poetry badly, we think that poetry means too many words. I was taught that way in high school, they used to make us write condensed versions in prose of poems, what was the poet trying to say, as if he had some sort of speech impediment and couldn't talk very well. The poet was trying to say, war is hell, the poet was trying to say, love is great. Why didn't he just say it? Why do we have to have a sonnet about this? So it gives the wrong impression of poetry. Anyway, there are lots of prose writers who write wonderful prose and they've probably never written a poem in their life.

JP - You collect news clippings, so you probably saw this one: some researchers found that women are more complex and have more genetic variety than men because of their extra chromosome X, which is full of genes that men don't have. A newspaper in Brazil headlined: "Science confirms, women are more complicated".

MA - (big laugh) What is true is that there's a bigger connection between the two halves of their brains, so that men are able to be very, very focused and of tuning out anything that is not related to what they're focusing on, whereas women tend to be receiving from all sides.

JP - But the question is, even if men are focused on women, is it hopeless for them to ever understand women?

MA - Why do you want to understand them? All you have to do is act correctly, that doesn't require understanding, it just requires a certain low cunning (big laugh). You just have to do things you know they like. And that list is fairly short, just as the list of things they do not like is very short. But everything is individual. But I'm not in favor of everybody trying to understand everything about everybody else. I think it can get pretty dismal. And I like surprises, I always like to have a man produce a new facet of himself that I haven't know about before. I don't want to know everything all at once.

JP - Opening "The Blind Assassin" at random -- it wasn't at random, I'm cheating...

MA - (huge laugh) Already you're telling too much truth...

JP - Yeah. I found this: In paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. Are writers forever in debt to Eve and the snake?

MA - I think so. Yes, because think about it, if no Eve and snake, if no expulsion from paradise, fruit in the morning, a nice nap, a little lunch, a banana maybe, a little nap, dinner, a little nap, what else to do? Think about it. No story.

JP - And this from Oryx and Crake: The Fall, is the fall from ignorance to knowledge.

MA - True.

JP - Is that our curse?

MA - One of them. What would you like to be, ignorant in bliss, or with knowledge and a more complicated story?

JP - Now a question that I think everyone who loves the work of a novelist would like to ask her. The passion, the rapture that I feel when I read you, is that what you feel when you write, or is it just a long, hard slog?

MA - Well, I was in the cafe the other day getting some take out coffee and a man who worked in the cafe was taking his coffee break and he said to me, you are the author, and I said, yes, he said, you're Margaret. He was from the Philippines. He said, is it a talent? And I said, yes it's a talent, bu then you have to work very hard. And he said, so you have to have the passion. I said, that's right, you have to have the talent, the hard work and also the passion. And if you only have two of any of these three things, you won't do it. And he said, I think it's the same with everything. And I said, so do I.

JP - You're involved in several different causes. For instance, in the fight against racism, and against torture, to help the victims of torture. Tell me about that.

MA - Oh that's just the beginning. In general I do three kinds of things. I do environmental work, and Brazil holds the key to the future of the world as you probably know, because twenty per cent more rain forest gone, there goes the thing and we all choke, so you have a lot of responsability. So environmental, human rights, and within human rights, because I radically consider women to be human beings, laugh at me if you like but I do think they're human beings, within that umbrella, women's human rights. So these are the three things in general that we can speak about, but each of those things may have little threads coming off it, made into another little pocket of concern. You can't do it all. I don't do hearts and kidneys because a lot of other people do that. But I do do these kinds of things. I've always done those kinds of things, I grew up in a family that did those kinds of things and I think it's part of wether or not you consider yourself a citizen. For me those are things that you do as a citizen. Am I saying that all artists should do them? No. Some artists cannot do them, they need all of their concentration for their art and they can't function if they do these other things. And I have to say that I did too many of them. They ate my life. But that's just the way I have been.

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1 comment:

Anna Maria Ribeiro said...

Delicia de entrevista. Daquelas raras em que o entrevistador levanta a bola com maestria e inteligência. A grande maioria das entrevistas se transforma num monólogo desconchavado revelando que não existe um roteiro do entrevistador. Pula-se de um lado para outro o resulta num "não perceber" o entrevistado. Para mim entrevista sempre deveria ser um diálogo. Como esta!