The twenty-first century has been a crazy ride so far. 9/11, the financial crash, the election of Donald Trump, and now a global pandemic–a lot has happened that we wouldn’t have deemed possible two decades ago. And then there’s of course also the background noise of climate change, terrorism and unchecked technology–threats that only seem to become more urgent as we approach this mysterious land called the future. In her latest piece of nonfiction Burning Questions, Margaret Atwood shares her thoughts on the most pressing issues of our times as she attempts to answer the burning questions that have come to define this new century.
Burning Questions is Atwood’s third collection of essays and occasional pieces, spanning the years 2004 to 2021. The collection includes speeches, essays and reviews on multiple topics, including the arts, environmentalism, feminism, renowned authors and literature, and her own life.
A burning question that reappears in the collection is: (how) can we use stories to change the world? As an author, Atwood is naturally a defender of the arts, writing and storytelling. Stories have been around for as long as humans have existed, she tells us. They haven’t been an extra, but they ensured our species’ very survival: “Hearing second-hand how to avoid being eaten by a crocodile would have been very useful in an environment that abounded in crocodiles.” (Atwood’s advice: If you ever find yourself running away from a crocodile, choose a zigzag instead of a straight line, crocodiles can’t turn corners quickly). In the twenty-first century, it’s no longer crocodiles that threaten our existence, but much bigger threats: climate change, the loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels, and deadly pandemics. With everything that goes on in the world right now, we need stories more than ever.
“But I do know that as long as we have hope—and we still do have hope—we will be telling stories, and—if we have the time and the materials—we’ll be setting them down; because the telling of stories, and the wish to listen to them, transmit them, transmit them, and derive meaning from them, is built into us as human beings.”
Another important topic that features prominently in many essays is Atwood’s environmentalism. For years, Atwood has been vocal about our responsibility towards nature and animals, warning us that we’re heading towards the future with our eyes closed. In several pieces in Burning Questions, including reflections on her MaddAddam trilogy and tributes to environmentalists Barry Lopez and Rachel Carson, she reinforces her fears and thoughts about the climate emergency. It’s not too late to act now, she tells us. But we need to understand that we’re not the only species inhabiting this planet.
“What with Hurricane Sandy, climate change, a new rash of mutated diseases for which antibiotics no longer work, biosphere depletion, rising sea levels, and level of methane in the atmosphere, we no longer imagine the future as a stroll in the park. It looks more like a slog in the swamp.”
Burning Questions proves yet again that Margaret Atwood is one of the most brilliant minds of our times. Her wit and intelligence run through the book, making it a thought-provoking read. Admittedly, I couldn’t relate to all of the pieces. Especially the in-depth reviews of books or authors I haven’t read were hard to follow (which isn’t to say that they are badly written). My favourite parts were her speeches and reflections on her own work, which I found fascinating to read. All in all, I highly recommend Burning Questions to all who are intrigued by Atwood’s fiction and her take on the pressing issues of our times!
Have you read Burning Questions yet? What is your favourite book by Atwood? Let me know in the comment section below!