Margaret Atwood returns to Tuscaloosa

Margaret Atwood returns to Tuscaloosa
Photo courtesy of Mark Hill

In 1985, Margaret Atwood was teaching at the University of Alabama as the Honorary Chair of the Masters of Fine Arts program. During her time here, she finished one of her most famous novels, "The Handmaid’s Tale," which was recently adapted into an Emmy-winning television show on Hulu.

So when John Estes, the director of the undergraduate Creative Writing program, was looking for a marquee name for the English department’s Visiting Writers Series, Atwood's UA connection was “part of the romance” in inviting her to speak, on top of her long, celebrated career as a writer. 

“It felt like it was time to bring a writer [who] the community could get excited about,” said Estes, the director of the undergraduate Creative Writing program. “Many of us have grown up knowing who Margaret Atwood was even if we haven't read that much – people know who she is. I knew the Hulu thing was coming out and there was no question it going to be good....The novel was having a moment simply because it spoke to certain trends in the body politic.” 

Today, Atwood returns to Tuscaloosa to speak to students and the local community during two events. The first will be a Q&A session with students in Morgan Auditorium at 3 p.m. Then tonight, Atwood will do a reading and speak to an already sold-out crowd at the Bama Theatre at 7 p.m. 

“I'm really excited just to see our students get access and hear from a writer of that stature,” said Kevin Waltman, the assistant director of creative writing. “She's really iconic at this point, legendary, and I think that is something that doesn't happen in everyone's undergraduate experience no matter where they go to school. This is a really special thing and a really special chance for students here that a lot of people don't ever get.”

Waltman said he hopes Atwood’s visit speaks not only students interested in creative writing, but also students who are interested in the broader role of culture in the world. 

“I think it's a chance to really see and think about the role of literature in our world, in our culture,” he said. “Especially for someone like Atwood, she's an author who has such a rich understanding of that role and the commentary through some speculative fiction on our culture and politics in our culture. She's a perfectly situated author to allow students to think about that role of literature.” 

Wendy Rawlings, a professor within the creative writing program, has been reading Atwood’s books since she was a teenager. "The Handmaid’s Tale" in particular stuck with her, she said, because of its commentary on patriarchal societies. It’s something Rawlings said she hopes Atwood will speak to during her visit. 

“She's a very interesting writer because she anticipates things,” Rawlings said. “She’s written about environmental devastation and back in '85 she was really thinking some of the restrictions that we're now seeing to women's reproductive capacity and access to abortion, access to birth control, all that kind of happening right now, not to speak to darkly, but there is a cause – there are reasons for concern.” 

She said she also sees Atwood’s visit as a chance for the English department to “step into the limelight” for a moment and bring the community together. 

“We often have famous people in other disciplines show up,” she said. “A famous lawyer will come or famous biologist but this is our opportunity to have a writer who's known all over the world to come out here, and I'm really just excited because our tickets sold out… so there's people from the community who are really excited. I have people Facebooking me far and wide to ask me about it. It's just fun to have so much excitement around an author.”

Estes said he wants students and community members  to take away a sense of inspiration from the events, and he hopes they encourage people to read more of Atwood’s work. 

“Maybe she'll say something that will change your life; there's always that chance,” he said. “Maybe it brings the community together a little bit even…. You never know what's going to change your life. For many people it will be something they will see and they’ll move on. I hope plenty of students do take advantage of the opportunity whether they know her work well or whether they’re just curious, whether they just want to say ‘I was there.’ But you just never know what's going to move you.” 

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