“to put presence into absence”: on the occasion of the 2019 Booker Prize Awarded to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo

I wanted to put presence into absence. I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature. I whittled it down to 12 characters – I wanted them to span from a teenager to someone in their 90s, and see their trajectory from birth, though not linear. There are many ways in which otherness can be interpreted in the novel – the women are othered in so many ways and sometimes by each other. I wanted it to be identified as a novel about women as well.

Bernardine Evaristo, April 2019

I think it’s an awesome outcome for both books to be awarded and they could not be read apart from each other. Neither could be reduced out of the other’s frame. For anyone who has been on a jury this means the conversation among jurors kept looping and threading one book through the other. So great.

Margaret Christakos, October 2019

October 17, 2019

1 — “Where is Margaret Atwood?” asks the Toronto Star editorial. “The question is all the more perplexing in light of the fact that on Monday, Atwood won the prestigious Booker Prize, awarded for the best English-language fiction in the world…. Call us perplexed. It’s true Atwood has won a Giller in the past for Alias Grace and a GG for The Handmaid’s Tale. But winning once doesn’t exclude a writer from being celebrated again. And it certainly didn’t stop the Booker judges from honouring her this year, even though she won a Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, never mind being shortlisted for that prize on four other occasions for The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace and Oryx and Crake. Could the jurors, then, be succumbing to so-called “tall poppy syndrome,” where Canadians do their best to cut down those who rise above the rest?

Meanwhile in the other major Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail, Russell Smith weighs in with the same question noting “the outpouring of hatred for Margaret Atwood that I have seen on CanLit Twitter in the past week is head-spinning…. derision toward Ms. Atwood so juvenile and so crass, provoked by her international success, that one might indeed think there was some bitterness involved that isn’t exactly rational. She has been called a bootlicker of the patriarchy. There are people demanding that Canadian media not report on her win at all. New evaluations of her past work have started to surface – including the accusation that The Handmaid’s Tale “appropriates Black pain and slave narratives” (presumably because there is an underground railway for escaped handmaids in the imagined future). Was it perhaps deference toward – or fear of – this vocal group that scared the prize juries off?”

‘The tall poppy syndrome” or at least a knee-capping exercise manifests in the anger of some women critics and writers fuelling a conviction that Margaret Atwood’s second Booker Prize should not have been awarded:

  • Atwood should have recused herself in the first place. Why does she deserve another award? Alice Munro refused awards after a certain point (except the Nobel Prize). I believe Atwood also recused herself from some Canadian awards after a time. Perhaps she should have refused the second Booker. Why didn’t she win the Nobel. Oh right, the brilliant writer and war criminal apologist Peter Handke won this year. He was twinned with the remarkable Polish prose stylist Olga Tokarczuk.
  • The Booker adjudication committee should not have bent the rules to admit twinned co-winners – a practice that has previously occurred four times in the history of the Booker. Apparently the risk of a double winner is anonymity. I’m told no one remembers the lesser known of the double winners now. But does anyone remember some of the other single winners? Not necessarily!
  • Atwood should have given her half of the reward money to the co-winner of the award, the talented and accomplished Bernardine Evaristo, the first Black woman to win in the history of the award. And like most women writers, the Guardian reminds us, a woman with a mortgage. Instead Atwood donated her winnings to a scholarship for Indigenous students in environmental studies in the name of Chief Harry St. Denis.
  • The fact that Atwood’s second Booker Award (her first was for The Blind Assassin in 2001) is coincident with the first Black woman writer’s Booker Prize is seen not as a doubling but as a reduction to one, a kind of erasure of the latter. Similarly the whiteness of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale and in The Testaments is seen as an erasure of the history of slavery.

2 — Atwood has a deep attachment to the natural world. She and her late partner Graeme Gibson spent summers in the country and sometimes years on end. Atwood wrote at least one of her books in an isolated cabin in the woods. Gibson who suffered from dementia died in London less than a month before the Booker Prize. Atwood and Gibson were together for forty or so years. I worked with a woman in about 1979 who loved Graeme Gibson before Margaret Atwood met him. I remember at the time thinking that I might love Gibson a little bit too – for his writing and lanky frame or perhaps simply on the strength of my friend’s passionate suffering over her loss. I never met him. But suffered his loss.

Atwood and Gibson supported a bird sanctuary a Presqu’ Ile Provincial Park in Northhumberland County on the north shore of Lake Ontario near Brighton. I visited the extraordinary landscape as a child when I attended a summer camp nearby. I knew the extraordinary charm of this place at a young age.

Atwood grew up as a child in the woods in northern Quebec where she lived fairly solitudinously with her parents and two siblings – her father was an entomologist. This natural landscape came alive in her writing. I remember it as a character in Surfacing. And it emerged in her own interest in the lives of settler writers who lived in a clearing carved out of Indigenous lands. Atwood’s early poems The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) were in dialogue with a Canadian settler woman’s journals. This became an ongoing interest- certainly perpetuated in the Handmaid’s Tale eastern seaboard American red-cloaked women.

3 — A friend informs me that what underpins some the women’s anger at Margaret Atwood is secret. There appears to be an awful litany of offence. I would have to do more research to grasp fully its arc. I’ve not followed Atwood’s commentaries for a long time mainly because she was disappointing when I first encountered her in the 1980s: I recall being offended when her ascerbic wit discounted the collective voices of women. So instead, I read her books over the intervening decades. I taught many of them too over almost forty years in the classroom.

But Atwood’s work was and remains a remarkable accomplishment. In terms of range and invention and extraordinary productivity it arrives in your hand as though anticipating your reading. Some critics suggest work’s very popularity and popular culture generic strategies make her work “too commercial” for “high brow” Canadian juries: The Testaments is “a fast-paced adventure novel – a book that incorporates elements of the spy novel and the thriller and includes some action escape scenes that are a little Hollywood.”

Over the years, I kept my eye attuned to Atwood’s work. The writing that arrived with the regularity of a periodical series. The imagination is indisputable. Not to mention my admiration now that I am 68 at the knowing speed of her fingers across the keyboard or in a notebook on a train or in a hotel lobby or at home. The remarkable flights of words from the age of 16 or so have been mapping her imagination to this day at almost 80 – and will, no doubt, beyond.

4 — I am of the mind, and here others will condemn me, that the life and the work are not reducible to the same same. And if judges judge the work as laudable, I’m happy to agree. And the work impresses. It is deserving. The life may be flawed. Atwood is not rewarded for virtue but for her literary accomplishments. Including this book that could have been a throwaway at the end of a life to flesh out the next TV season. But it is not.

5 — ‘The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand,“ wrote Ezra Pound. I don’t discount his poetic accomplishments because he was a fascist. I condemn his despicable ideological excesses. He spent the last years of his life incarcerated in St Elizabeth Hospital, an asylum, visited by some of the greatest poets of his time. I understand that devotion. His work transformed. His life failed utterly.

(I realize it is a stretch towards the operatic to invoke Ezra Pound above, I don’t reduce the life of Margaret Atwood to his. Obviously there are differences in scale of offence – his radio programmes lauding Mussolini earned him imprisonment for treason.)

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak.
that is paradise.
Let the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.

— Canto 120

October 18, 2019

6 — I’ve been engaging in a lively discussion about the Booker Prize and I’m grateful to all of my interlocutors.

I am perhaps especially grateful for the responses from M. Nourbese Philip whose work and incisive creative intelligence I’ve long admired. I am grateful for her essay documentation of a long history of Whiteness and a transformation of literary canon formation and community building in Canada. I recall vividly some of the events and public debates about the issues she describes in her early collections Frontiers and Showing Grit – Showboating North of the 44th Parallel – some of this was part of my our discussion as I recall in our Sounding Differences interview that I published in 1994 or so. And I appreciated our discussions from time to time during these many years.

Nourbese today writes: “I admire that Atwood is continues to write– she’s a great model for older writers like myself. I do, however, think that it was a mistake to split the prize particularly given that it was the first time a Black woman would have won it.”

And she describes a pivotal event: “… Atwood’s generosity to the Indigenous of this country does not impress. She was silent when we, Vision 21, challenged PEN around exclusionary racism at its 54th Congress held here in Toronto in 1989. The Gala for that event was held outside of Roy Thompson Hall which was where June Callwood, Atwood’s friend, told me and others to F-off, because we dared hand out leaflets about equitable representation for writers of colour. Including the Indigenous. Atwood was silent in the ensuing debate and uproar. My understanding was that she was concerned that the event would always be known as the PEN Congress that was sullied by racism. Fancy that. Didn’t see her making any donations to help young writers of colour who existed back then. Ironically, at the previous 53rd Congress, held in New York, the issue of the under-representation of women was brought up and Norman Mailer was challenged by the women attending. Interestingly enough, Atwood was selected as a “foreign woman” along with Grace Paley and Cynthia Macdonald to bring their demands before Mailer. No concern about that Congress being sullied by the link with sexism. Sorry but her actions strike me as self-serving in the extreme.”

7 — I just want to respond to one of her comments that decontextualizes my observation inadvertently. Atwood’s early support of an Indigenous school doesn’t erase or absolve her actions in another arena. I’m simply suggesting that her actions like anyone’s actions may not all be of a piece. I don’t imagine that any one action erases another but that there are contradictions. Her failings like her accomplishments arrive in one person. Just like mine. When we come to know Atwood’s life will the summary assessment of support an Indigenous writing school or a scholarship as “a liberal gesture” be the final word because she remained at a distance from cultural politics otherwise?

She donated her £25,000 share ($42,500) to an Indigenous student scholarship fund and made light of her philanthropy in a self-reflection foregrounding how mortality trumps consumption: “I’m kind of really annoyingly virtuous,” she said. “I’m going to put it into one my virtuous things that I do because I’m now so old that there’s no point in spending it on clothing and stuff like that.”

I don’t discount the importance of her philanthropy and her donation of Booker Prize money to the Indspire Indigenous students environmental studies scholarship award – a sign that as settler Canadian writer, she is contributing to a next generation of empowerment. As a teacher, I too support this initiative that Indspire describes with this tribute to Chief Harry St. Denis: “The Chief Harry St. Denis Awards will nurture the talents of young Indigenous leaders to serve in the protection of lands, waterways and species at risk on their territories. These awards are a collaboration between Chief Harry’s Lake Kipawa friend and honourary Wolf Lake First Nation Member Margaret Atwood, along with numerous valued supporters. All donations made in memory of Chief St. Denis will be matched by Margaret and then matched again by Indspire to triple the amount of your gift.” You too can donate to support these students here.

8 — The cultural issues around race and blackness have recently been in the news and it’s tempting here to enter into a brief discussion of the scandal of the Liberal leader’s blackface, the Prime Minister’s earlier masquerade as brownface and blackface that shocked the nation. A sign of his white privilege and his class privilege – at least one of these occasions happened in an elite highschool where he worked. As others pointed out, it is also a sign of how suppressed Canada’s racist history has been where the figuration of blackface has not been a key element in our national storymaking in part because of the whitewashed sense of the good Canadian. It is as others have documented no accident that our national history as an endpoint in the underground railway of escaped slaves circulated while, for instance, the history of slavery in Canada remained hidden. (See the remarkable research by

I watched a CBC interview with Trudeau the other day where he said that this public scandal has made him ever more committed to anti-racist work – some anti-racist work was accomplished in his first term. I hope that he wins a minority and that he acts on his commitment in the next four years. Certainly we can be sure that the Scheer government’s social justice initiatives in many spheres will be few and far between.

Whiteness with as much Indigenous DNA as Elizabeth Warren though no claims to Cherokee or any other Indigenous tribe

9 — My own settler formation and white privilege teach me. I make a point to work to undo racism in myself and in the world. Though I am not without my own blindnesses and lapses in judgement. My own failings loom large as I look back on my life.

10 — I don’t imagine I came to Atwood’s defence at the time I was working to complete my dissertation and finishing my book of interviews. Nor did I spend much time critiquing her in my writing as I was always astonished and admiring about the nature, range, and volume of her writing. Now I find myself in conversations where I “defend” Atwood. Perhaps it is just a sense of the familiarity of a constant target over more than 40 years. Or the sentimentality of older age as I sink into my white skin folds. Or the fact that I don’t feel comfortable with Atwood as an unending site of critique. Almost anything she writes or does is a site of denunciation. For instance, her recent advice column “Not sure how to vote? Start with the parties that recognize there’s a climate crisis” urging Canadians to vote thoughtfully for environmentally-focused and potentially winning candidates became controversial. That was too “Liberal” for some resentful feminist readers – even though her advice might lead one to vote for one of several parties.

10 — I guess I simply want to register my different position. And I want to explore the intensity of affect generated by “Margaret Atwood” – the tweeting, novel writing, award winning phenomenon. Russell Smith reviewed The Testaments when it was published assessing it as ..

A few months later he explored the reception of this work and attributed The Testaments lack of Canadian prize nominations in part to the reticence of the judges to enter into the world of controversy generated in Canada. He writes about the negative response to her second Booker Prize in “Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments may have won the Booker, but she still can’t get any love from Canadian prize juries“:

“It is true that the outpouring of hatred for Margaret Atwood that I have seen on CanLit Twitter in the past week is head-spinning. The feminist icon was denounced as a traitor to women and the #Metoo movement. Since then she has been showered with insults of every sort, most of them personal, but some of them seeking to show misogyny and even racism in her work, even in her most famously feminist work.”

This week I have read on social media, from writers and academics, derision toward Ms. Atwood so juvenile and so crass, provoked by her international success, that one might indeed think there was some bitterness involved that isn’t exactly rational. She has been called a bootlicker of the patriarchy. There are people demanding that Canadian media not report on her win at all.”

11 — I’ve no doubt about Atwood’s racism at that time, and I don’t doubt that she may have failed to act at times. More recently she has been dismissive and rude to younger writers who have said so in public. And that is not acceptable. I wonder whether this is a departure from the way she corresponds with some non-racialized women – she can slice and dice interlocutors with ease. (I would like to see something that documents these incidents as I’ve not read anything other than anecdotes in relay. I don’t doubt they happened.)

12 — And I myself have been accused of racism in the intervening years between then and now. There was the time I criticized a Black feminist who was unfamiliar with the history of feminism in Canada. She made a comment that I deemed uninformed. I told her she was wrong and then accused her of “selling white feminism down the river.” The phrase came naturally. It leaked out of me in a river of words. No matter that I may have been right about this particular Canadian local history, why was I so aggressive? And how ironic that the language I swim in, my choice of words, roots itself in the history of slavery.

The origin of the phrase is instructive: “the threat of being ‘sold down the river’ was tantamount to a death sentence.” The river would have been the Mississippi or Ohio. The slaves most likely male as “white planters valued men over women as labourers. The family separation and the destination down river meant “brutally hard labour.”

I apologized but the damage was done. One fails from time to time in ways that are difficult even in their memory.

13 — Atwood has been critiqued as failing in some of her personal communications and her positions on some issues. I have been given no details of this and cannot comment.

14 — And Atwood has also been critiqued for her support of the former head of Creative Writing at UBC, a writer fired by the university, an extraordinary event in a tenured world. Recently Stephen What’s His Name sued the unlucky graduate student in my department among others for allegedly defaming him. What’s His Name deserved to be fired. The union never questioned the decision, only the process was found to be inadequate by the union. He was awarded a year’s salary. There was never a suggestion the actual dismissal was not deserved – the fact he didn’t sue the university suggests he would prefer the complete story and related evidence, still secret, remain secret. And he is truly a horrible person for singling out these young woman who can ill afford lawyers when the outcry against him was a chorus of many. But that is another longer story.

15 — In any case, even if it means standing up for a stinker, Atwood is entitled to her opinion that I imagine originated in a general sense that this writer was not treated fairly – a tip of the hat to her work founding the first and only writers’ union in Canada.

16 — Perhaps underneath my commentary about Margaret Atwood today is my admiration for her own writing work to struggle against injustice then and now. Her endurance and her energy. Her ability to create work in the 1980s that resonates so vividly with the contemporary fascist world, the ultra right authoritarian religious Puritanism that she researched and wrote about as a young woman in 1985 manifests on the newscasts today. The parallel fictional world she created stands in for our encounters with ultra right Xian orthodox bigotry – the misogynist and racist and homophobic and transphobic elements in the Scheer and Kenney and Trump governments.

17 — In any case, Atwood has become a cultural signpost of social transformation and resistance to it, a pivot on which cultural crises spin from one decade to another. She is a signal of the remarkable creation of a “Canadian” literature in the early 1970s, the efforts to give voice to stories of violence against women and other feminist and human rights issues – torture for instance, the limits of whiteness, and the subsequent revisions of related cultural institutions. Her participation was significant in the creation of the House of Anansi and the Writers Union – publishing and writers groups that still have carved out remarkably productive histories for writers in Canada.

18 — As M. Nourbese Philip notes, in spite of the remarkable efforts of the Writing Thru Race group in the Writers Union, the controversies endure. I remain critical of cultural appropriation not because good writers can’t imagine other lives but to do so can materially affect the working lives of racialized writers – the Joseph Boyden case is a dramatic performance of this. I recently learned some Indigenous writers are intent on establishing their own independent national union, a productive outcome of TWUC’s controversies.

19 — To return to the issue that sparked my interest in writing about Atwood yesterday. To my mind, the decision of the Booker committee to award the prize to two exceptional writers this year is a productive broken rule that reminds me it was invented to inhibit the inevitable rupturing of judgment when the arbitrariness of a single prize and the concept of the “best” breaks down. (The subject of a Guardian column on this prize winning.) It signifies that the two writers are both deserving, and extraordinary, at different stages of their career, and writing through their different histories. (Atwood will be 80 next month on November 18 and Bernardine Evaristo is 60.)

20 — I am eager to meet Evaristo’s work as I’m especially drawn to “experimental” work – I love for instance the wonderful short short prose pieces that Atwood published in book form decades ago.)

21 — “Fifty years, 300 books — only four black women have been shortlisted,” said Evaristo when she won. “Hopefully this will mark a new direction.”

Considering this shocking statistic that only 4 of the 300 shortlisted Booker writers have been Black women, I understand the significance of this prize and why some people feel the first Black woman winner of the Booker Prize should have won the award on her own so as not to diminish the impact. That is a fair argument. Evaristo notes that there are rarely so many women writers on the jury. In this case there were four.

22 — I also understand the interest in rewarding Atwood’s 60-book multi-genre creative life and the way her work weaves together literary and popular communities of readers and viewers. Winning with a writer of international stature is no small tribute. And the publicity effects of the publishing powerhouse novel machine “Margaret Atwood” – might be put to good use in this regard. And perhaps winning with Margaret Atwood not only attracts exponentially more publicity to both of this year’s prize winners, but it provides an opportunity to look forward and through the rear view mirror of the ongoing transformation of women’s writing – with its barriers, openings, brick walls and opportunities.

In any case, the two writers seem to have enjoyed winning together. For Atwood, it was one of her first outings after the death of her beloved and four-decade or so partner and fellow writer Graeme Gibson.

“After their names were called, the pair stood arm-in-arm on stage and Atwood joked: ‘I would have thought I would have been too elderly, and I kind of don’t need the attention, so I’m very glad that you’re getting some.

‘It would have been quite embarrassing for me… if I had been alone here, so I’m very pleased that you’re here too,’” said Evaristo.

23 — This scene itself tells a story. One writer accustomed to fame, having enjoyed a creative lifetime of being a leading light in the field of women’s writing in Canada and later around the world, resists the familiar attention. And another writer who enjoyed less widespread popular recognition due to Sara Ahmed’s brick walls and racist resistances exhibits unease in the public sphere while having published eight outstanding books and devoted her life to the empowerment of Black women writers. She notes in an interview last April:

“I wanted to put presence into absence. I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature. I whittled it down to 12 characters – I wanted them to span from a teenager to someone in their 90s, and see their trajectory from birth, though not linear. There are many ways in which otherness can be interpreted in the novel – the women are othered in so many ways and sometimes by each other. I wanted it to be identified as a novel about women as well.”

Evaristo work wants “to put presence into absence” and certainly her book, the effects of the Booker prize, and the controversy about the twinned award will go a good way to accomplishing this.

24 — And after the fact, a friend writes

(Note: to be revised and expanded – posted in haste as I raced to the Alberta Legislature to demonstrate in support of the diminutive Wonder Woman Greta who is saving the world.)

1 thought on ““to put presence into absence”: on the occasion of the 2019 Booker Prize Awarded to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo”

  1. Interesting writing Janice!! I love the integrity of your reflections on just about anything!! And the fluidity if analysis of royals garb and weddings!! Let’s talk soon. Funeral tomorrow and then I will return to my monastic life with great pleasure. Xoxox k

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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