Margaret Atwood and Jia Tolentino talk Harper’s Letter and horoscopes at New Yorker Festival

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“[Scorpios] are interested in everything underneath,” Margaret Atwood explained. “Sewage systems, underwear, secrets.”

Atwood’s inclination clearly extends to the undercurrents of the human heart as well. The Canadian writer, poet and occasional astrologer has dedicated her life to scrutinizing what’s below the surface of people’s intentions and speculating on what worlds can look like when these intentions are bad. Author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — now a Hulu TV series — Atwood’s work has served as a cultural billboard on the dangers of totalitarianism. 

On Oct. 6, New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino interviewed Atwood for the New Yorker Festival. Held once a year, the festival migrated to an online format in 2020 but retained its star-studded lineup of speakers including Malcolm Gladwell, Jerry Seinfeld and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. During the hour-long conversation, Tolentino and Atwood discussed the November election, the Harper’s Letter on cancel culture and how to ward off numbness towards current events. 

“Are you tired of your work being timely?” Tolentino asked Atwood from the get-go.

While Atwood wished her speculative fiction would be strictly speculative, she continues to see parallels between her fictional worlds and the state of global affairs. Over the years, Atwood’s writing has centered on climate change, reproductive rights and authoritarianism. She discussed with Tolentino how the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court might affect reproductive rights and how President Donald Trump’s power tactics are a threat to democratic governance.

“The U.S. is struggling to maintain its status as a democracy,” Atwood said. “Moves have been made in the direction of authoritarianism.”

All the while, she remained firmly grounded in the present moment — a realist at heart — unwilling to compare the U.S. to the totalitarian patriarchal theocracies of her novels.

“If you and I were in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ we would not be having this conversation,” she told Tolentino. “You are not in Gilead … And long may it remain so.”

Atwood has always been a strong critic of repression of speech. Most recently, she has received attention for her signing of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” also known as the Harper’s Letter, published in Harper’s Magazine on July 7. The open letter was written to condemn cancel culture and what it called an “intolerant climate.” It was signed by 153 high-profile signatories, including Noam Chomsky and J.K. Rowling, and was received with mixed reactions. Journalist  Jeff Yang criticized the letter for being an “elegantly written affirmation of elitism and privilege.” 

The Harper’s conversation exposed a divergence in Tolentino and Atwood’s age and modes of thinking. Tolentino, 31, expressed her surprise that Atwood had signed the letter. Atwood, 80, attributed her signature to her generational position. She went on to compare the climate of the Twittersphere to the Salem Witch Trials.

“When there’s a moral panic going on, that’s what happens,” she said. “Moral panics feed on scapegoats.”

Tolentino, meanwhile, argued that cancel culture is a product less of censorship and more of the raw technological design of social media. Twitter for her is an echo chamber that is meant to amplify certain voices and showcase half-baked truths — the inevitable outcome of a system of likes, retweets and 280 characters.

Both writers, however, agreed that the key to securing freedoms lies in a fundamental curiosity in the world around you. Tolentino brought up the ancient Greek term “acedia” — an apathy or listlessness — to describe how she often feels disillusioned by the state of the world. Atwood’s advice for the disenchanted, delivered with deadpan wit: “Coffee can be your friend.”

The conversation faced significant technical difficulties at its beginning and was paused for over 20 minutes of the hour. Nonetheless, Atwood’s astrological tendencies made sure to find a reason for the poor connection — a Scorpio’s look at what’s underneath.

“Jia,” she explained, “Mercury is in retrograde…” 

Contact Valerie Trapp at trappv22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Valerie Trapp '22 a writer for the University beat. She is interested in International Relations, Symbolic Systems, and Psychology.