Monthly Archives: July 2010

Virago Publisher for a Day Contest

Here is a link to the WINNERS page, with winners and runners-up: very funny! Well done!

Here is the original  Press Release…

The Year of the Flood

‘Publisher for a day’ Twitter competition


Virago/ The Year of the Flood Twitter competition – announced 19th July. Opens 29th July

Margaret Atwood has one of the largest literary Twitter followings with 66,718 followers to date. To celebrate her Twitterati and the publication of the Virago edition of The Year of the Flood, Virago are delighted to announce the ‘Publisher for a day’ Twitter competition.

The competition – be Publisher for a day…

Margaret Atwood considered five titles for The Year of the Flood before choosing ‘The Year of the Flood.’ You: Propose a different but appropriate title.  Then write an imaginary back cover quote — from a newspaper, from a celebrity, from one of your friends, from your cat — it’s wide open! Word limit: 140 characters each for title and for quote. (Like Twitter!).  Then email your entry to the Virago website.

What to do…

The competition opens 29th July. On this date, head to where there will be a special page for the competition as well as the original cover blurb. The competition closes on 12th August.

The prize…

Virago will then decide the winner and the runner ups. The cleverest tweeter will win £100. The second and third prize winners will receive copies of Margaret Atwood’s backlist with the new Virago jackets.  Honourable mentions, as well as the winning three, will be posted on the Virago website and shared via Twitter.

For further information please contact Zoё Hood, Virago, 020 7911 8070,


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

G20 Protest and Save Our Prison Farms

Here is the text of the piece that was published in the Globe and Mail on Monday, July 5, under the title, “A Second Chance or a Boot in the Face:”  Thanks to all who Tweeted it so vigorously.


The first protest was a bucolic occasion. On June 6, after an energetic SaveOurPrisonFarms rally in a Kingston church, during which we were meticulously instructed in the behaviour expected of us during a peaceful protest, we ambled along in the sunshine, accompanied by homemade banners, a hay wagon pulled by a tractor, a contingent of smiling nuns, a donkey, and some kids dressed up as sheep and cows. The community – solidly behind our efforts – cheered us on.

We even did a tiny spot of civil disobedience as we walked up a driveway to Correctional Services headquarters and carefully taped our petition to the door, avoiding nails so as not to spoil the paintwork. The petition itself was a plea to the federal government not to go ahead with their scheduled closing of Canada’s prison farms — a vital element not only in local food chains but in the rehabilitation, mental health, and socialization of minimum-security prisoners.

Nobody beat us up or arrested us or tear-gassed us. We did not set any cars on fire or break any windows. The Black Blockers who trashed downtown Toronto during the G20 would have thought us despicably wussy.

People are still poring through the fallout from that Toronto protest. Who did what, when, to whom, and why? Why – knowing of the dangers of holding the G20 in a fenced-off, emptied-out downtown Toronto – did Harper not respond to Toronto’s pleas and change the venue? Why were legitimate NGOs blocked from access to the press, within the security-protected playpen? What accounts for the Ontario Government’s confused instructions about security laws? Why the beat-up journalists? Why the nonchalance about the Black Block rampage? Why the wholesale roundups of bystanders?

And why the factory-chicken detention facilities for those  corralled– scant food and water, no calls to lawyers, and, if witnesses are any indication, nasty language and harassment? Is this “normal”– give a group unlimited, unsupervised power over another group, and this is what happens? If so, who authorized that power? Was the treatment of those arrested some sort of dry run – a testing of the waters to see how far those in authority can move towards Tinpot Dictatorship North, without a vote-losing backlash? Was the Black-Blocker mayhem allowed so there would be a justification for the undue force later? And why is not a public inquiry in order?

On first glance, the Kingston protest and the Toronto one – and the very different responses to them — seem miles apart. Yet something unites them: they’re both about what kind of country we want to live in. They are about crime, or what is perceived to be crime, and they are about punishment, and what kind of punishment our society deems appropriate.

Let’s consider the context. With the secrecy and autocracy we are coming to expect, the Federal Government has moved to close down Canada’s long-running prison farms, and to implement a mega-prison system modelled on some of those in the United States. The overall plan – called “A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety” – has now been denounced by, among many others, Conrad Black. “It is painful for me,” he said, ”to write that with this garrote of a blueprint, the government I generally support is flirting with moral and political catastrophe.” (As he points out, he’s not exactly your average bleeding heart.)

As for the “Truth in Sentencing Act,” the Parliamentary Budget Office has produced an exhaustive report that disproves the assumptions on which it is based. Neither the Act nor the Roadmap will do anything to decrease crime; but they will do everything to increase costs. Not “tough on crime,” but “stupid about crime,” says Jeffrey Simpson.

Are the government’s useless but expensive measures a job-creation gimmick: more prison guards? But once prisons are seen as an industry, prisoners become the raw material, and must be constantly supplied. The methods for creating criminals are well known; they include poverty, lack of employment and education, dehumanized prisons where novice criminals may learn from experts, and the criminalization of petty offenses. In the 19th century, the Australian penal colonies felt the need of more women for sex, so men were transported for hard crimes, but women for stealing a ribbon.

What are prisons for? Rehabilitation? Keeping us safe? Or harsh punishment, pure and simple? This Prime Minister has shown a suspicious interest in the infliction of pain. Remember his last-election plan to lock up fifteen-year-olds for life? His government doesn’t seem remotely interested in helping the incarcerated achieve productive lives. What sort of slogan does it intend to write above the doors of its mega-prisons? “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here?”

“Bring your knitting,” the Kingston Saveourprisonfarms volunteers were told. “It will be fun!” That’s the Canada we thought we knew: civic responsibility, lending a hand, second chances. Which accounts for the outrage over the Toronto events: it was our image of ourselves that was attacked. The well-meaning knitter and jolly world-improver image got a boot in the face.

But that image could save us yet. Clap your hands if you believe in it—better still, vote for it — and maybe it will come to life again.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Lit.COLOGNE and Dortmund, Nellie-Sachs-Prize. March 17-20, 2010. A Blog Catch-Up

On June 22, I had lunch with Reingard Nischik  (Engendering Genre, The Works of Margaret Atwood – with special attention to the comix!) and Gabriele Metzler from

Germany – whom I have known for many years. They were here for the International Short Story Conference, as Reingard is a literary scholar and Gabriele — though a political scientist — is also interested in literary forms. They wanted a Canadian experience, so we sat outside at Live in the pouring rain, protected by an assemblage of four umbrellas – two patio ones, two pedestrian, resulting in a sort of cascade effect – and talked of suicides at Niagara Falls and ate vegan food as the drops dripped down our backs. Now that’s Canadian!

To make it even more Canadian, I apologized (Guilt!) for having neglected, on my dreaded blog (Overwork! Protestant Ethic!) – the last occasion on which I’d seen them. I’d promised to write it up, and I hadn’t… (Shame!) So here it is at last, Reingard and Gabriele.

Lit.COLOGNE is the giant, highly successful literary festival in Cologne, Germany. This year was its tenth anniversary, and how it has grown! Writers stay in the round Hotel am Wasserturm, actually a former water tower. To see this year’s programme:  On Page 72 you can see the extraordinary list of invited writers and performers. (Right after me, for instance, came Patti Smith.) The event took place in a hall full of rollicking Cologners – known for their good humour, it seems – and young stage and film actress Birgit Minichmayer (The White Ribbon) did a fine job of the readings in German. Old friend Suzanne Becker orchestrated the mix of readings and interview – she did the interviewing herself. Then we had dinner, with Reingard and Gabrielle, and Suzanne Becker, and Astrid Holzamer, a very old friend who is with the Canadian Embassy – a prime mover for Canadian culture in Germany. Birgit Schmitz and Anna von Hahn from Berlin Verlag were there, as well. Then we went off to the festival’s gathering spot, a pub in a chocolate factory – this is a bit hard to explain, but there was everyone, hoisting a stein or two.

NELLY-SACHS-PRIZE: The next day, Astrid and I went to Dortmund by train, where we were met by Hans-Georg Schutz of the Nelly-Sachs Prize, of which I was the 2010 recipient. (Actually it was for 2009, but the City of Dortmund had some politico-economic problems that caused the event to be postponed). The Prize was presented by the Mayor, Birgit Jorder, and the excellent speech was delivered by esteemed literary critic Frauke Meyer-Gosau. The Canadian ambassador, Peter Boehm – a very old friend indeed, as he was the student  researcher my novel for Life Before Man, back in 1979 – was present, as were Suzanne Becker and the head of my publisher, Berlin Verlag, Elizabeth Ruge.

The prize is given by the City of Dortmund in commemoration of the poet and Nobel Prize winner, Nelly Sachs, who fled from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust just in time, and lived out the war in Sweden. Her poetry was composed in great hardship and grief, which was also its subject. She died in 1970.

The ceremony itself was interspersed with music chosen by Herr Schultz around the theme of birds and birdsong, as a tribute to my bird-related activities. It was sung and played enchantingly by a group led by Monika Bovenkerk. The other artists were Magdalene Harer, Zoe-Marie Ernst, and Dorothee Lehna. For others who might like to stage a “birdsong”concert, here is the programme:

William Williams (1701?), Sonata for D, in Imitation of Birds; M. Quignard, “Printemps” (1749), Rossignol amoreux; Jacob van Eyck, ca. 1590-1657, Engels Nachtegaeltje; Marco Uccellini, Sonata in D, “Die Hochzeit der Henne und des Kuckucks.”

Nelly-Sachs-Prize Speech

Sehr Geehrte Frau Burgermeisterin, Sehr Geehrter Herr Botschafter, Verehrte Juroren, Sehr Geehrte  Damen und Herren, Liebe Gaste:

It is truly an honour to have been chosen as the recipient of the Nelly-Sachs-Prize. I’m aware that I join a long and distinguished list of earlier recipients, the first of which was Nelly Sachs herself. This list includes not only many of my favourite authors of earlier generations, but several contemporary friends and colleagues. I thank the jurors of the prize for placing me in this stellar company, and I thank also the City of Dortmund, which, despite the challenges facing it, has seen the value of continuing this very special tradition.

It’s a tradition that pays tribute to an exceptional artist, Nelly Sachs – a poet who lived through desperate times, and who, in the face of many difficulties, managed to use her talents to bear witness to those times. This prize also pays tribute to the verbal arts, and thus to one of the oldest gifts we have – one shared by all human beings. By this I mean our ancient, complex and intertwined human languages – languages that are like no other creaturely languages, since – with their elaborate syntax and their past and future tenses – they allow us to gaze far back in time, and also far forward in it. We alone can take stock of ourselves as a species: not always a cheering prospect. We can praise our own strengths, but we are also highly aware of our failings. Close to the angels, sometimes, maybe; but frankly, not often. And when we go to the other extreme, we can be terrible indeed. Dante spent more energy describing Hell than he did on Paradise because it was more real to him.

Increasingly, those who study human origins are coming to see art, and especially narrative art, as an evolved adaptation – an ability that helped us survive during the thousands of generations before recorded history. Each of us has a story-of-my-life that situates us in time and space and roots us to a specific part of our planet. What we do for our individual selves, our artists do for our collective selves. This is where we’ve been, they can tell us.  This is what we’ve done. This is what humanity is capable of. The high notes and the low.

The literary arts are remarkable in another way: through them we come as close as we can ever come to the experience of being fully inside someone else’s mind. We can imagine ourselves as the other. And the more we can do that, the less we are likely to treat that other as a mechanical object, devoid of feeling or humanity. We are also more likely to avoid the road to the Inferno if we can visualize it clearly ahead of time: this too is among the roles of the artist.

So I thank you once again for choosing me as this year’s Nelly-Sachs torch-bearer. For all who win prizes of this kind are just that: we’re allowed to hold the torch or the title or the cup for a brief moment, and then it must be passed on. This is the nature of language itself, and the nature of story, and also the nature of song. For unless it travels, from hand to eye as in reading, or from mouth to ear to air as in singing – unless it travels, it dies.

I’m very happy to have travelled this short distance with you. Thank you.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog