Every Sunday I will be recommending a work of fiction or non-fiction written by a woman who has influenced and shaped my intersectional feminist perspective, with special emphasis on women of colour, women in translation, LGBTQ+ women and women of different religions.
This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone . . . withdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death.Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
Surfacing, published in 1972, was the first Margaret Atwood novel I encountered after her classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. For years I thought of Atwood only as a writer of feminist dystopian fiction not realising the breadth of work she had done, nor the variety of genres she had covered. Surfacing – an unassuming and often overlooked masterpiece – is one of my favourites. Encapsulating the Canadian wilderness and the complexities of a woman’s life, Atwood delivers a beautiful tale of loneliness and isolation.
Picked for my dissertation on sexual difference, I chose Surfacing because of its critical representation of heterosexual relationships. Atwood covers a lot of ground in this regard, from the rigid institution of marriage to the new (at the time) introduction of contraception and ‘free love’. Her unnamed narrator – a woman who doesn’t conform to the norms inflicted on her by Canadian society as a woman – is an introverted, thoughtful and creative individual. She is acutely aware of the pressures she faces but also quietly defiant in the face of them.
Surfacing will always hold a special place in my heart as book that helped me – a cisgender, heterosexual woman – recognise my own oppressions within a society that is similar in many ways to Canadian society. It is important to recognise and admit that Margaret Atwood, the narrator in Surfacing, and I am in a position of privilege. There are pressures on all women within society to conform and I found it easier, once I had fully grasped the depth of my own oppressions, to then recognise the double, triple, quadruple binds on fellow women from different cultures, races, religions, sexualities and abilities.
Although this book may not grant the same awareness to others as it did me, Surfacing is an intricate analysis of the subtle changes that were taking place in male-female relationships in the western world during the sixties and seventies.
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer, poet and essayist. She has published numerous novels which have also been adapted for the TV. Surfacing was originally published in 1972 and was her second novel.