Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest writers of our time. The 82-year-old Canadian writer is surprisingly prolific, having produced more than 50 works of fiction, poetry and critical essays in his long career. Burning Questions is the result of Atwood’s reflections on a variety of topics from 2004 to 2021. The chronologically arranged collection includes lectures, autobiographical sketches, tributes and political commentary.
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Burning Questions will primarily appeal to those who are passionate about literature and deeply concerned about hot global topics such as politics, gender inequality, human rights and climate change. Atwood is an unparalleled communicator who writes sentences of impeccable beauty. She has a subtle sense of humor, which she uses sparingly. The essays and occasional pieces are often short, but each showcases his ability to share his thoughts with grace and conviction.
The collection lacks thematic consistency, nor does each inclusion pose a burning question. However, it is an engrossing read because of Atwood’s happy expressions, analytical depth, and also because of the choice of subjects.
The author poses a series of questions in the introduction itself. “Is the world itself really burning? Did we set it on fire? “What about the very unequal distribution of wealth, not only in North America but almost everywhere? “What do we mean by ‘democracy’ anyway? Did it ever exist, in the sense of equal rights for all citizens? Is the social media revolution “…good or bad, or just an extension of old-fashioned crowds on the move? Living in an imperfect world, Atwood knows these questions have no easy answers.
Some selections are unusual. There is, for example, a play that talks about his time spent with his partner, writer Graeme Gibson, whose protagonist in his novel Perpetual Motion is a man named Robert Fraser who wants to invent a perpetual motion machine. It is eminently readable because it is much more than just a portrait of someone she knew for over four decades until her death. The memorable closing sentence says it all: “Robert Fraser isn’t quite Graeme, of course; but, as I said when I first met him, his creative life and his real life were one.
On another occasion, the narrator, an alien from an unpronounceable planet, questions the earthling’s emphasis on human rights. “You need these elements of ‘human rights’, for the simple reason that many of you don’t have them.” The alien’s perspective on politics is a stinger: “Some of us did a study of politics, which we at first confused with cat videos.” It’s insightful commentary dressed in humor that will make the reader smile and think at the same time.
Elsewhere, she asks about beauty in the context of how she and others her age felt when they were young. “And if beauty was only skin deep? We little girls did not despise him. No: we ourselves wanted beautiful exteriors, so that other little girls could envy us…” She later added: less in our imagination. And that’s why we keep buying those countless little tubes of lip gloss: we still believe in fairies. Atwood’s perspective will polarize readers. Some will disagree, while others will insist that it is a reality.
The Burning Questions essays and other articles emerged as the pandemic made everyone shiver with fear and the #MeToo movement, in which survivors shared their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment, emerged. emphatic. Calling the #MeToo movement “a symptom of a broken legal system”, she says “women and other sexual abuse complainants” have used the internet because they often could not “get a fair hearing through institution…”. Pandemics have come and gone. This realization makes her optimistic that the ongoing pandemic will not be a permanent part of our lives. “And don’t worry! Humanity has already been there. There will be another side, eventually.
Margaret Atwood fans will love Burning Questions. It will be the same for those who wish to have a better vision of the world in which they live.
Biswadeep Ghosh is a freelance journalist and author