Online ads for an upcoming Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale got me thinking: it’s really about time I read this classic dystopian novel.
The story takes place in a near-future New England. A militia of religious conservatives take over the Northeastern states and push outward to claim more of the U.S. for its own. The people living under militia rule are put into strict class and gender roles. The new way of life is particularly difficult for women, some of whom must become “handmaids” to wealthy men. Basically, these women are government-sanctioned sex slaves so that influential men can have more progeny than a single wife could deliver.
It’s a disturbing story on the face of it, but what has been gnawing at me in the days since I finished the book is how fragile women’s rights are.
In the U.S., women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Women could be fired from a job just for being women until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Women have only had the right to make healthy decisions about what happens in their wombs since 1973 — the year of Roe v. Wade.
Husbands could rape their wives with impunity until 1993.
I had been aware of these progressions since my college years, but their place in history always seemed so settled. After centuries of struggle, women had finally secured these important rights — we would never go back; why would anyone want to?
I’ve been horrified by the attacks on Planned Parenthood, both from the community and Congress, and unnerved by the passage of punitive abortion laws like the one in Texas that demands aborted matter must be given a burial. The Oklahoma state representative Justin Humphrey, who describes pregnant women as “hosts” and has filed a bill requiring women to obtain written consent from the guy who impregnated them before receiving an abortion, makes women sound like cattle.
However, it wasn’t until I read The Handmaid’s Tale that I realized my rights are not a given; they can be taken away.
Creative writing has the ability to communicate with people in a way no other medium can: directly. There is no interpretive performance, except for the one in your own head, and there are no editing tricks to obscure meaning. This communication between the writer who speaks and the reader who answers is sacred. Books change people more than any editorial, article, or listicle ever could because they ask the reader to bring her or his own experience to the writing to make the story complete.
Anyway, books have often woke me the hell up to new ways of thinking and understanding. So, I am grateful to writers who have the courage to put their thoughts down on paper and share them with others.
And it’s why I’m proud the Valley Advocate supports the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The Juniper program focuses on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and is hosted by the UMass Master of Fine Arts program for poets and writers. It’s an intense week of workshops, manuscript consultations, writing, readings, and craft sessions with esteemed creative writers.
Each year, the Valley Advocate provides one full scholarship to the program. Maybe you should apply for it, yes?
This year’s program is June 18-25. Featured writers working with program participants will include Arda Collins, Rachel Glaser, Nathan Hill, Amy Leach, Paul Lisicky, Harryette Mullen, Arisa White, Joy Williams, and Tiphanie Yanique.
I reached out to a past recipient of the Advocate scholarship: Theresa Mac Phail, a professor of science and technology studies at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. She said the experience of living the “author’s life” and being surrounded by so many like-minded creatives for a week was thrilling. She learned new ways to approach storytelling and to write the way she wants to write a story, and not the way other people may want to hear it.
Whether Mac Phail ever writes a novel or publishes a poem again does not prove the worth of the Juniper program. Instead, Mac Phail says, Juniper taught her to incorporate creative writing into her academic articles and applications. For example, in a review she wrote of an book on allergies, Mac Phail says she included a story about her father dying from a bee sting.
“I’m really proud of that piece. It was a mix of personal and academic, so I think it reaches more people that way,” Mac Phail says.
“That piece is a direct descendant of the Juniper program — people just don’t know it,” she continues. “That’s how Juniper works, even if it isn’t obvious.”
And that’s how books work: they inform and transform you, even if it isn’t obvious right away. Creative writing is an art that’s worth preserving, learning, and sharpening so that great ideas can be influential and challenging long after a book is read. To learn more about the Juniper Summer Writing program, visit umass.edu/juniperinstitute. To apply as a young writer or to the adult program go to, junipersummerwritinginstitute.submittable.com/submit.
Contact Kristin Palpini at firstname.lastname@example.org.