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Posts by Coleen Grissom

Margaret Atwood and Coleen Grissom: A Friendship Forged in Books

Feb 14, 2018 (12:47 pm)

Margaret Atwood is coming to town! My first reaction right after one of elation and anticipation of the joy she will bring to so many of her readers, as well as to those who’ve never picked up an Atwood work, is that it must be winter in Toronto. I know we think we’ve had a hard winter here—even I have a few photos of quickly melting flakes in my yard—but I think winter there may be a bit different.

Atwood has been to San Antonio and to Trinity University several times. Apparently, she likes the city, Trinity, and the literary arts organization Gemini Ink. Once upon a time she even spent most of a semester here while she was editing the Best American Short Stories of 1989. My clearest memories of that visit are her delivering a lecture in the long gone “science lecture hall” and being a good sport about attending a Texas barbecue someone hosted for her.

As happens all too often on university campuses, there was not an overflow crowd for her lecture, but there were enough bright, curious students to engage her. I recall her recommendation that we return to the days when teachers required some memorization. She talked about World War I prisoners who survived in solitary confinement partly because they had memorized long poems in school and reciting them kept their sanity.

On a dark day for San Antonio enlightenment, in 2006 the superintendent of Judson High School banned Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which had been part of the Advanced Placement English curriculum for a decade. Students worked with their parents and some faculty to convince the school board that the book should be read, and the board overruled the superintendent.

I especially admired the reaction of a Judson senior who said: “If we ban The Handmaid’s Tale for sexual content, why not ban Huckleberry Finn for racism? Why not ban The Crucible for witchcraft? Why not ban The Things They Carried for violence, and why not ban the Bible and argue separation of church and state?”

When Atwood learned of the students’ successful campaign, she returned to San Antonio to offer a series of programs for Gemini Ink and to personally thank the high schoolers who had defended her work. Mind you, this was back in the day when many readers thought the book was a bit blasphemous and even ludicrous, since its events could never occur except in the mind of some weird Canadian. Why do I find myself wishing these folks had been right instead of Atwood’s being merely prescient?

I think it was during this visit that I introduced the great Canadian to chicken fried steak. She was unimpressed, preferring fresh vegetables and fruits. Since I am from East Texas, I found this downright bizarre, but I persevered and brought her to my home to show her the gorgeous Hill Country. Again, she was a good sport, even getting down on her hands and knees to call “kitty, kitty” to an unresponsive Princess Prunella, who had no interest in meeting the woman who had created her perfect name.

Gracious, as is her way, Atwood sent a note thanking me for introducing her to such delights, but she did not select a Canadian version of a Hallmark card. Calling upon her talents as a caricaturist, she drew a card featuring me pursuing ill-behaved poodles. The bubble above my head reads, “The hills are alive with the sound of poodles.” Atwood has many admirable qualities, but when it comes to yapping dogs, subtlety isn’t one of them.

“What’s she like?” people ask when they learn that we’ve kept in touch over the years. Well, she’s patient and semi-gracious when I inform her I’ve named yet another animal companion after her creations—Wilderness Tips became Tippy, and Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut became Nellie.

She’s remarkably witty, even sardonic at times—no surprise there—but I’ve never known her to be cruel. She’s so well read that even though I am an active professor and frenetic reader, I feel like a slug in her presence. (Maybe someday I’ll ask her if she’s ever gotten hooked on Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds, but I shudder to imagine what she will think when she hears that I own a couple of televisions and more than occasionally sit in front of them without a book anywhere nearby.)

Atwood’s list of awards and honors is too long for anyone’s blog, but just know that, in addition to receiving the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, she was invited to contribute the first book to the Future Library project. Her manuscript for Scribbler Moon will be read in a hundred years, if the human race survives.

Her interests and commitments beyond her writing are wide and deep. She operates her office on green policies, and she is an environmental activist and an urgent voice in the climate change debate, as well as the inventor of the “long pen,” the builder of a bird sanctuary on Pelee Island, and a committed supporter of many organizations working to save the planet.

I have so many anecdotes about this generous, brilliant, fascinating person, as well as about her literary gifts—poetry, essays, literary criticism, short stories, novels, graphic novels—but this captures it best: In Rosanna Greenstreet’s 2011 interview with the author in the Guardian, Atwood made a statement that crystallizes why I so admire and adore her.

“How would you like to be remembered?” Greenstreet asked.

“By members of a human race who have managed to avoid annihilating their entire species and can thus still do some reading, and remembering,” Atwood said.

What an honor to be able to welcome her once again to San Antonio. 

Coleen Grissom has taught English courses at Trinity University for five decades. She will be onstage in conversation with Margaret Atwood on March 8 at 7 p.m. at Trinity University in San Antonio. This event is sponsored by Gemini Ink in partnership with Trinity University Press. More information here.The event is free but ticketed, and tickets will be available to the public on February 15 starting at 9 a.m