Dear Margaret Atwood

Words by Sarah Kanake

Published on January 29, 2013

Reading your books has taught me that a good writer should always hold out until the very end.  It is a lesson I learned while I should have been sleeping.

It’s early morning and I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the streets of Paddington. I’m not sure of the time. In the last twenty minutes three 385 buses have soared past my window like Boeing 707s, so I guess it must be peak hour.

It’s a beautiful day outside. I can tell, even though I can’t quite feel it yet. I’ve been up all night reading your novel Oryx and Crake and now I’m looking at the morning from the wrong side. I have that slightly hollow feeling. Do you know the one? That feeling which creeps up in the night and settles in your stomach and chest. The feeling that tells us we are just human and can never become owls.

Usually in the morning I would take my vitamins with a cup of coffee but today I can’t. I’m worried Crake has messed with their chemical structure. Just like when he rearranged the DNA of The Children of Crake .

I’ve also been imagining that Jimmy perched in the tree outside my window where the bush turkeys roost at night. Paddington is full of bush turkeys and for some reason they all want to sleep outside my window. We call them the buzzards, and most nights are punctuated with splats haphazardly hitting the driveway. I’m not sure Jimmy would have had much sleep if he lived in Paddington.

I should have known there would be more sleepless nights. Especially after devouring The Handmaid’s Tale in one gulp.  It was my first year out of home. I was studying philosophy at a coastal uni and I was surrounded by surfer kids who still used words like gnarly.  I opened the cover. It was the cover with the woman in the red cloak. The one who looked the girl from that National Geographic cover, do you remember? Inside was a bible quote and I felt immediately uncomfortable, the way I always felt when someone other than my mother showed an understanding of scripture.

I read your book in one sitting. That sitting included a classroom, picnic table, two buses, a short walk, and an armchair.

I knew the story of Rachel and Bilhah already. In some ways I knew it better than the story of myself. But I only knew the story as it was told to me.  I knew Rachel was good and solid, but she was also scared. I knew Jacob too, but it’s always easier to know the men in bible stories. Have you noticed that?  All I knew about Bilhah was that she was a handmaiden.

My mum use to tell me, ‘Sarah was an important woman. That’s why I named you Sarah.’  Secretly though, I wanted to be Bilhah because Bilhah had more of what Anne Shirley called “scope for the imagination”.

At the back of my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale is a transcript of a speech you gave.  It reads, “Applause…  Are
there any questions?” 

I wanted to put my hand up but I was reading the transcript on the walk home and a taxi probably would have got the wrong idea and stopped.

But now you’re coming to Brisbane and you won’t be far. Close enough for the buzzards to get a view of the building if they perch high enough.

Another 385 has just driven past my window. It was slower this time, so it must be after 10.00. I could go to sleep. I probably should. But, see, the thing is I have a copy of The Year of the Flood. It’s right here next to me and I can hear something inside it. Maybe you know what it is? It sounds like bees.

Can I write to you again? I won’t embarrass you, I promise.  Do you get embarrassed? I’ve been thinking about questions to ask you. I can already tell that you are the sort of woman who will only answer one good question. I want to ask you something that will rip the ground open between us and send up great healthy tree trunks. I want to build a forest for us, out of one question.

I will hold out. This is not the end.