Volume 92, Issue 33

Tuesday, November 3, 1998



Author reveals part of Atwood

By Greg Hubert
Gazette Staff

How does a person's past affect their writing? This question is asked in regard to Margaret Atwood. She was raised in a time when the patriarchal society enforced the notion that a woman's place was in the kitchen. How this exceptional author rose above this ideology is the subject of Rosemary Sullivan's book Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out.

The book is a biography of Atwood's life, starting with her early experiences in the Canadian bush, through her university days and into her adult career.

"A woman destroys her femininity by pursuing art, because art demands absolute ruthless, singlemindedness," Sullivan says. "Women by definition couldn't be geniuses at art. It was almost as if woman were, in those days, considered genetically incapable of being great artists."

Atwood saw the female authors she admired, such as Emily Bronte or Jane Austen as never able to find happiness, although critically acclaimed for their art. On the other hand, other female authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe had "normal" lives, but were considered hacks. Here the line was drawn – live a miserable life and be artistically successful or live a fulfilling life and be bland.

To many people, women could only be the muse of a male author, not become great writers themselves. This is where Atwood's feminism comes out.

"The development of feminism in literature was invented as a response to that misogyny," Sullivan explains. "If we don't have the historical explanation for something, we don't understand it. That was part of the purpose of writing the book with a large cultural frame. It just tells people how we've arrived as Canadians, how the position of woman has changed and why we are like we are.

"If you were a male writer, there were themes – whether they were war or politics or love relationships. It was considered that women's themes were domestic and trivial. You couldn't write about women talking in a kitchen, because it was going to be automatically viewed as peripheral. It was discouraged because there was a sense that it wasn't a large enough scene for literature."

The book looks at Atwood's struggles for acceptance in the world of men and it shows how she succeeded. "I don't think there's a double standard anymore. I don't think it's more difficult for a young woman starting out than for a young man. I think it's difficult for both of them," Sullivan says.

Another aspect the book looks at is the void of Canadian voices in literature. Margaret Atwood was part of a group of authors to change this.

"I think nationalism was a necessary stage which Canadian literature went through in the late '60s and '70s. In dealing with this question Northrop Frye had posed, which is why Canadian writers ask themselves not who am I, but where is here," Sullivan states.

"Canadian literature of today has reached a point of extraordinary energy," Sullivan says. "Part of that is a consequence of the early pioneering work that was done in the '60s. When Margaret Laurence started to write, there was no international forum for Canadian writers. I don't think it was until the late '80s that Canadians became prominent on the international scene as a group. Now there is an interest among publishers and agents from other countries in what's happening in Canada."

Rosemary Sullivan's The Red Shoes is a interesting look at a talented Canadian. It shows how Margaret Atwood rose above the prejudices of the '60s to become one of Canada's most talented writers.

Rosemary Sullivan will read from Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out tonight at Von Kuster Hall, in the Music building at Western, with authors Maude Barlow and Janice Kulyk Keefer.

To Contact The Arts and Entertainment Department: gazette.entertainment@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998