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Excerpt: Mortification

In a new collection, 50 writers tell tales of their public humiliation. Here, a bestselling novelist shares three of hers.

By Margaret Atwood - May 14, 2004

"Futility: playing a
harp before a buffalo."

—Burmese proverb

Mortifications never end. There is always a never-before-experienced one waiting just around the corner. As Scarlett O'Hara might have said, "Tomorrow is another mortification." Such anticipations give us hope: God isn't finished with us yet, because these things are sent to try us. I've never been entirely sure what that meant. Where there is blushing, there is life? Something like that.

While waiting for the mortifications yet to come, when I'll have dentures and they'll shoot out of my mouth on some august public occasion, or else I will topple off the podium or be sick on my presenter, I'll tell you of three mortifications past.

EARLY PERIOD

Long, long ago, when I was only 29 and my first novel had just been published, I was living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It was 1969. The Women's Movement had begun, in New York City, but it had not yet reached Edmonton, Alberta. It was November. It was freezing cold. I was freezing cold, and I went about wearing a secondhand fur coat—muskrat, I think—that I'd bought at the Salvation Army for $25. I also had a fur hat I'd made out of a rabbit shruggie—a shruggie was a sort of fur bolero—by deleting the arms and sewing up the armholes.

My publisher arranged my first-ever book signing. I was very excited. Once I'd peeled off the muskrats and rabbits, there I would be, inside the Hudson's Bay Company Department Store, where it was cozily warm—this in itself was exciting—with lines of eager, smiling readers waiting to purchase my book and have me scribble on it.

The signing was at a table set up in the Men's Sock and Underwear Department. I don't know what the thinking was behind this. There I sat, at lunch hour, smiling away, surrounded by piles of a novel called The Edible Woman. Men in overcoats and galoshes and toe rubbers and scarves and earmuffs passed by my table, intent on the purchase of boxer shorts. They looked at me, then at the title of my novel. Subdued panic broke out. There was the sound of a muffled stampede as dozens of galoshes and toe rubbers shuffled rapidly in the other direction.

I sold two copies.

MIDDLE PERIOD

By this time I'd achieved a spoonful or two of notoriety, enough so that my U.S. publisher could arrange to get me onto an American TV talk show. It was an afternoon show, which in those days—could it have been the late seventies?—meant variety. It was the sort of show at which they played pop music, and then you were supposed to sashay through a bead curtain, carrying your trained koala bear, or Japanese flower arrangement, or book.

I waited behind the bead curtain. There was an act on before me. It was a group from the Colostomy Association, who were talking about their colostomies, and about how to use the colostomy bag.

I knew I was doomed. No book could ever be that riveting. W. C. Fields vowed never to share the stage with a child or a dog; I can add to that, "Never follow the Colostomy Association." (Or any other thing having to do with frightening bodily items, such as the port-wine-stain removal technique that once preceded me in Australia.) The problem is, you lose all interest in yourself and your so-called "work"—"What did you say your name was? And tell us the plot of your book, just in a couple of sentences, please"—so immersed are you in picturing the gruesome intricacies of... but never mind.

MODERN PERIOD

Recently I was on a TV show in Mexico. By this time I was famous, insofar as writers are, although perhaps not quite so famous in Mexico as in other places. This was the kind of show where they put makeup on you, and I had eyelashes that stood out like little black shelves.

The interviewer was a very smart man who had lived—as it turned out—only a few blocks from my house, in Toronto, when he'd been a student and I'd been elsewhere, being mortified at my first book signing in Edmonton. We went merrily along through the interview, chatting about world affairs and such, until he hit me with the F-question. The do-you-consider-yourself-a-feminist question. I lobbed the ball briskly back over the net ("Women are human beings, don't you agree?"), but then he blindsided me. It was the eyelashes: They were so thick I didn't see it coming.

"Do you consider yourself feminine?" he said.

Nice Canadian middle-aged women go all strange when asked this by Mexican talk-show hosts somewhat younger than themselves, or at least I did. "What, at my age?" I blurted. Meaning: I used to get asked this in 1969 as part of being mortified in Edmonton, and after 34 years I shouldn't have to keep on dealing with it! But with eyelashes like that, what could I expect?

"Sure, why not?" he said.

I refrained from telling him why not. I did not say: Geez Louise, I'm 63 and you still expect me to wear pink, with frills? I did not say: feminine, or feline, pal? Grr, meow. I did not say: This is a frivolous question.

Whacking my eyelashes together, I said: "You really shouldn't be asking me. You should be asking the men in my life" (implying there were hordes of them). "Just as I would ask the women in your life if you are masculine. They'd tell me the truth."

Time for the commercial.

A couple of days later, still brooding on this theme, I said, in public, "My boyfriends got bald and fat and then they died." Then I said, "That would make a good title for a short story." Then I regretted having said both.

Some mortifications are, after all, self-inflicted.

This is excerpted from Mortification, edited by Robin Robertson. The excerpt is copyright © 2004 by Margaret Atwood, and the book is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers . Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Mortification at Amazon.com.



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