Margaret Atwood and the Frankfurt Peace Prize

'A book is a voice in your ear,' Margaret Atwood said in her acceptance speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Saturday.  Our capacity to create narratives and our delight in listening to them is what will save us in 'this strange historical moment' we find ourselves living through.  Unlike animals we tell stories to pass on important information so that each generation can learn without having to discover things from scratch.  But, she also warns, the narratives can fail.  Like most human tools, they can be used for both good and bad.

"Along will come a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or even a wolf in wolf’s clothing, and that wolf will say: Rabbits, you need a strong leader, and I am just the one for the job. I will cause the perfect future world to appear as if by magic, and ice cream will grow on trees. But first we will have to get rid of civil society – it is too soft, it is degenerate –– and we will have to abandon the accepted norms of behaviour that allow us to walk down the street without sticking knives into each other all the time. And then we will have to get rid of Those people. Only then will the perfect society appear!

..... The rabbits freeze, because they are confused and terrified, and by the time they figure out that the wolf does not in fact mean them well but has arranged everything only for the benefit of the wolves, it is too late. 

Yes, we know, you will say. We’ve read the folktales. We’ve read the science fictions. We’ve been warned, often. But that, somehow, does not always stop this tale from being enacted in human societies, many times over."

Her dystopian, futuristic books are a warning of what may happen if we don't pay enough attention to the narratives available to us.  The Emperor has a habit of walking out in invisible clothing.  She makes the point that in ancient times, artists and writers worked in the service of the state, but that, in more recent times, we have been expected to speak 'truth to power', give a voice to those who have been silenced and tell the stories that have been suppressed.  We have been imprisoned for it, we have been shot for it - something that is very relevant today. Across the Middle East, Asia, Russia and China, there are journalists in prison for what they have written.  Even here in Europe freedom of speech is under attack. I'm still reeling from the news that Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, was assassinated while investigating widespread corruption in the highest echelons of government.  Her last blog post ended with the words 'There are crooks everywhere you look.  The situation is desperate.'  She was killed by a bomb placed under her car.

Margaret Atwood references the dangers in her speech.   We are at a very dangerous historical junction when all our moral norms are in question and fake news sometimes obliterates the facts. 

"The United States is experiencing such a moment. After the 2016 election, young people in that country said to me, “This is the very worst thing that has ever happened;” to which I replied, both “No, actually it’s been worse,” and also, “No it isn’t; not yet.” Britain is also having a difficult time of things right now, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. And – in a less drastic way, but still – in view of its recent election – so is Germany. You thought that crypt was locked, but someone had the key, and has opened the forbidden chamber, and what will come creeping or howling forth?  Sorry to be so Gothic, but there is cause for alarm on many fronts."

She also holds out hope, that while there are writers who are prepared to risk everything to communicate the truth, however unpalatable it might be, and while there are still readers willing to listen, we might just be able to survive. 

Margaret Atwood was awarded the Frankfurt Peace Prize for her 'Political intuition and clairvoyace'.  Read the complete speech Here.

My thanks to Rita Meier for the complete transcript of the speech.


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