It’s been about 10 years since I first read Margaret Atwood’s masterful The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). It’s one of the earliest books I’ve read that left a memorable mark during a time when I loathed reading — yes, there was a time when I loathed reading. At the tail end of high school, I read The Handmaid’s Tale; it awakened me to dystopian fiction. (I’ve read The Giver in middle school, but it did not have the same effect as The Handmaid’s Tale — perhaps my reading skills were not primed?) I think what captivated me most then was how terrifying and gripping fiction can be only in ways dystopian can. Also, in some preliminary fashion, I glimpsed into the terrifying reality women live in our patriarchal world. I didn’t have the lens or language then to pin-point or describe the discomfort and awry things I felt. I did not yet have my deeper awakening to misogyny — mine and the world’s — that came later and slower. Still, seeds were sown. Something is very wrong, so said 17-year-old Sooho; something is still very wrong, so says 27-year-old Sooho.
I still remember this from the first time: why does Atwood talk so much about Christianity? Why is it the Wizard of Oz or puppeteer figure of the story? Like the Boogieman, it lurks around, scaring and jading people. Internally, I was defiant — that’s not the Christianity I know! Externally, I was a timid high school student, so arguing with fellow students and the teacher was red-light all the way. And I’m mostly glad I did not stand up for Christianity. Sad to say, the more I’ve wrestled with theology, philosophy, sociology, and whatever else, the more I’ve realized how Christianity has been strange bedfellows with many un-Christian things. I’ve heard of Christian cults, abusive pastors and churches, manipulative sermons and talks, blind-sided theologies, and oppressive and marginalizing church polity. These are now the Christianities I know but that I don’t abide by. This second time around, I was almost de-sensitized to Atwood’s cast of Christianity.
What stood out more this time was the narration of Offred (or “Of Fred,” for handmaids have no names). Before, I had little patience for the haphazard style and got frustrated after failed attempts to make a neat linear story. It’s not meant to be linear. It’s not even meant to be detailed. It’s meant to be snapshots that provoke. This is the world of Offred and the handmaids: constrained and always on the verge of madness or meaninglessness. I mean, it does something to these women when the interior design of their housing gives more attention to suicide-prevention than aesthetics: shatter-proof windows, no ceiling fans or any hooks, no sharp corners, no sharp things. How many suicides must have first happened to take such precautions? The haphazard nature also reflects the constrained voice of the handmaids. They have precious little opportunities to say things, and when they speak it is always tempered by their oppressors or superiors: one false word or tone and off to the colonies — the nuclear-waste infested quarantine. Their voices are also constrained by towing on the line between madness and meaninglessness for too long. Often times, Offred would interrupt her memories and say “I don’t want to talk about this,” either because what she had is gone and painful or the numbness and hopelessness of her current situation. And as reader and listeners, we don’t really have the right to be frustrated at her. Let her be heard, in her way and in her timing, for empathy should welcome objectivity or “what really happened” and not vice versa.
I listened to this on Audible because I saw that the long-awaited sequel, The Testaments (2019), 35 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, is also on Audible. According to a few reviews, some were not pleased, calling the sequel a poor shadow of the original. Nevertheless, I bought the audiobook; it will be heard.
I did not, and probably will not, watch the TV series. I don’t think if it’s being snotty or lazy, but I rarely watch video forms of books — maybe because of too many disappointments? The three biggest shockers are probably these: Harry Potter (saw movies 1, 2, and half of 3), Lord of the Rings (saw Two Towers), and Game of Thrones (haven’t seen any, but planning to listen to all available audiobooks).