A treatise on Valentine’s Day by Margaret Atwood (picked over the alternative topic of “the metaphysical meaning of zombies” by the audience) should never be expected to remain at the surface of the commercialized romantic holiday that seems to pay homage more to large corporations than passionate individuals nowadays.
On Feb. 13, Atwood came to speak at University of California, Santa Barbara for the second time. During the event, which was put on by UCSB’s Arts & Lectures program, she combined her signature wicked wit and insightful, if not often subversive, observations on life and society to shed light on issues that she is evidently fervent about; these deep convictions functioned almost as intimate love objects for her.
Consisting of readings from Atwood’s poetry, short essays, and excerpts from well-known published works such as her more recent book, “Oryx and Crake,” the lecture also incorporated a Q&A and autograph session at the end.
One of Atwood’s readings included “February,” a poem based on her “neurotic dead cat which has been reincarnated in various forms” in many of her works. It was an endearing ode to a pet, yet suffused with an ironic, detached humor which can be deconstructed by a discerning reader in multiple ways.
Also equally apt was her reading of a scene from “Oryx and Crake,” which Atwood chose to dub as “speculative fiction” rather than as “science fiction.” At once a love story and a dark account of an apocalyptic future brought about by the advent of irresponsible bioengineering, the story clearly conveyed the inextricable link Atwood sees between the personal and the political to the audience of her work.
Popular cultural reference points—such as zombies and werewolves—were also interesting sources of commentary for her. She traced the phenomenon of new zombie movie “Warm Bodies” as one in which “zombies are becoming fuzzified, just as vampires have been.” This engagement with the deeper racial and social politics of the zombie has led her to co-write a zombie novel titled “The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home” with Naomi Alderman, whom she met through a writing mentorship program.
A pressing issue that Atwood identified at her talk was one concerning nature, conservation, and the environment, which was especially relevant for the audience here in Santa Barbara safely ensconced in the midst of balmy Californian weather.
Casually recalling the last time that she was in Santa Barbara, Atwood pointedly noted that it was “right after the earthquake in Los Angeles,” and she had to re-route herself through San Francisco, “narrowly avoiding the New York ice-storm.” And when she got to Santa Barbara, it was “all serene…like it was like that all the time.”
“And no, don’t say yes,” she interjected sharply at the audience, eliciting a deep round of laughter.
On a more serious note, she explicitly stated that what she perceives as the main struggle of the 21st century has to do with “water and resources…it is not ‘weirdo freako eco stuff’ anymore. Don’t let the ocean die. Algae is very important.”
This mindset directly translates to her written works. Her fiction is “speculative” because she writes about issues and topics that are capable of happening and unraveling in real life, rather than being based off imaginary alternative universes alone.
“There’s a (problematic) tendency for people to think: that’s them. It won’t happen here. But you can change the course of things in a lot of ways—many cities and localities are not waiting for state or federal governments to change things and are doing it themselves instead,” she said.
“Another thing to note is the importance of bringing pressure to bear upon politicians whenever there can be. They are creatures of the vote.”