Canadian author Margaret Atwood has a new TV series coming out based on her best-selling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a non-specified dystopian American future. She wrote an essay which appeared in the March 10, 2017 New York Times on “What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump,” in which she notes some parallels to events in history.
I couldn’t help noting some of my own…
Early in the piece, I was especially struck by this paragraph:
"I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. 'This used to belong to . . . but then they disappeared.' I heard such stories many times."
"Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. 'It can’t happen here' could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances."
Again, that familiar refrain, “It can’t happen here.” Which I’ve read over and over again in many accounts.
And then the words in the first line and last line in the next paragraph:
"Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view."
How many remember Fred Korematsu or even know about Gordon Hirabayashi, MinoruYasui, and Mitsuye Endo? Anyone in the 442nd?
Later she notes:
"The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center. They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away."
This brings to mind the image of school children pledging allegiance to a flag—but behind barbed-wired fences guarded by armed soldiers in watch towers.
“All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists.”
This can be said of anyone in the midst of war, whether it was behind barbed wire or not…
But most of all, this sounded eerily familiar:
“But there’s a literary form I haven’t mentioned yet: the literature of witness. Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it. This is an act of hope.”
Although she never mentions it, as you’ve probably guessed, these words and deeds bring to my mind all the research and reading I’ve done regarding what happened to US citizens of Japanese ethnicity here in the US during WWII.
“Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?”
Many of the books I’ve read were not even available until recently. Decades of painstaking research into censored and impounded material has finally given credibility to those messages hidden in an old house, behind a wall. Many of the stories that have trickled out earlier were not available in most bookstores or were never published in the first place. If they were, they were often not reviewed, written about or cited. When talking about wholesale injustices in the US or around the world, the fate of these Japanese Americans was seldom mentioned or even acknowledged—despite the fact that the events happened in the most powerful country in the world, in the most written about war. Or perhaps it’s precisely because of that.
So my question is: Will it remain just an obscure and irrelevant tale that belongs in the “minority bin”? Or will it be remembered and given it’s proper place in American history along with other cautionary tales that DID happen here and that could happen again. Not just in popular fiction. But in fact.
Here’s the entire essay.
My Yellow Bowl Project hopes to spur discussion around these questions: Who is an American? What does citizenship mean? How long do you have to be in the US to be considered a bonafide member of this group?