Interview with Reingard Nischik, winner of 2010 Margaret Atwood Society 'Best Book' Award

On the publication of Reingard M. Nischik's latest book Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood, Hildegard Nagler conducted an interview with the scholar. The interview was first published in German. With the kind consent of the journalist, the interview is here published for the first time in an English translation. Translation by Christina Duck Kannenberg and Emily Petermann. Since the time of the interview, the book has been honoured with the 2010 Best Book Award by the Margaret Atwood Society.

To find out more on Engendering Genre  visit the following link: http://www.press.uottawa.ca/book/engendering-genre


Professor Reingard M. Nischik is considered a renowned, internationally leading specialist on Margaret Atwood. The Professor of North American Studies at the University of Constance in Germany already dealt with the world-famous Canadian author in her literary theoretically oriented post-doctoral thesis of 1991, and she has now published her second monograph (after editing two article collections) on Atwood.

HN: Professor Nischik, what fascinates you about Margaret Atwood?

RN: Her impressive intellectuality and imaginative power, her immense writing talent, her strong visionary power, her unbelievable productivity and diversity, her wide-reaching knowledge as well as her humour and her ready wit; furthermore, that she is also engaged beyond writing in diverse political and humanitarian projects, often in the public eye but also behind the scenes. As I can say from my own experience during personal meetings over the years, Margaret Atwood has remained a kind, accessible, and sensitive person despite her great success and the international hype surrounding her.

HN: How would you characterize the writer in five sentences?

RN: Atwood has been the leading Canadian writer for the past four decades. She is perhaps the most diversely talented contemporary writer overall (including male writers). Her literary œuvre, which is difficult to match in its literary quality, its genre variety, and its breadth, is supplemented by her numerous personal appearances (book tours, interviews, speeches, and television appearances), with which Atwood has, since the 1960s, not only definitively put Canada on the international literary map, but which have moreover made her, with her political and social consciousness, one of the most important chroniclers and critics of contemporary western culture. Her international impact is not only due to her literary skill, but is also supported by her media-friendly, charismatic personality, which captivates thousands of listeners at readings in, say, London or New York. Atwood has also always gotten involved on behalf of those who are socially and politically weaker, whether it be – especially in earlier decades – women, politically persecuted authors, or her own country, especially in relation to the politically and economically overly powerful neighbour, the United States.

HN: Do you still remember the day on which you heard of or read Margaret Atwood for the first time?

RN: I can still remember my reaction as a young doctoral student when I read my first Atwood text. It was her second novel, Surfacing (1972). This novel fascinated me immediately in relation to its thematic complexity and force of expression, as well as with regard to its grandiose language style (which here is idiosyncratically based on the protagonist’s characteristics). Atwood has been my favourite writer since I first read her work at the end of the 1970s, and I have never lost sight of her work.

HN: What was your first contact with the successful author like?

RN: In the situation itself I thought the first contact was actually relatively “normal,” as it was very task-oriented. In hindsight, this was one of the so-called mythical moments of my life. For five years I was the chair person of the English-Canadian Literature and Language Section of the Association for Canadian Studies in German-Speaking Countries. In this role back then I tried to convince Atwood to be the keynote speaker at the Association's annual conference in Grainau in the Bavarian Alps. This was in the pre-e-mail era and when a fax machine was still something unusual. We initially corresponded with each other by letter, which, however, led to week-long delays. At the time, Atwood was in the Provence [in France] writing for several months, and the travel agency there could not locate Grainau, the village at the base of the Zugspitz mountain (which today, by the way, has a legendary reputation in international Canadian studies). One afternoon while I was working at home, my telephone rang: “Hi, this is Margaret Atwood.”

We then talked for about 20 minutes and clicked right away. At the conference in Grainau in 1992 she presented a then still unpublished short story, which she had previously asked me to translate into German (“The Little Red Hen Tells All” from Good Bones) – with overwhelming success. I had never experienced such an electrified audience and people still address me about this event today. Atwood and I then spent the two conference days and evenings together – our long acquaintance is thus based on this first personal contact, which then through occasional written correspondence and various personal meetings in Germany, Canada, and the USA has been maintained to this day.

HN: You speak of Margaret Atwood's “unusual productivity.” You yourself have already published four books about the writer. Are there parallels between you?

RN: Atwood is unique. But I'll take up your question playfully. Of my to date twenty-six books there are in fact four dedicated to Margaret Atwood, though in very different ways. One parallel that could be named, then, is the passion for writing about fascinating topics. As Atwood herself once commented on text-creating productivity, including her own: “What drives them to it? Why this boundless outflowing of words? Is writing … − being speech in visual form − … simply a manifestation of being human?”

HN: You were even awarded with the Best Book Award of the Margaret Atwood Society. Is there any room for further development?

RN: Oh yes. For example: this prize is given out for each publication year, thus one can win more than once. I would be glad if my latest monograph (Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2009) could capture this prize once again. But in 2009 alone five books were published on Atwood internationally. Far more important to me would be for Atwood to finally be awarded the Nobel prize. She was several times close to it. I would be very happy about it, because I am deeply convinced that she has unequivocally earned this prominent award (much more than some previous winners, by the way). I see my own work in research and teaching and also in organizational matters in connection with Atwood as my very small contribution which is also meant to serve this higher goal.

HN: Your main interest is with the innovative way in which gender and genre connect and cross-pollinate each other in Atwood's oeuvre. Why?

RN: In my articles and books I have already dealt with diverse aspects of Atwood's multifaceted oeuvre. I tackled the connection between genre and gender questions because I noticed over the years that they are especially significant in Atwood's work as well as being theoretically and analytically challenging, and because this aspect had not yet been specifically examined by scholars. At the same time, I also covered several of the numerous genres treated by Atwood for the first time in a detailed and thorough way, such as Atwood's work and experience with film and film adaptations, her impressive collection of essays, or her funny and at the same time profound comics.

HN: Are there genres that Margaret Atwood has not yet dealt with?

RN: Even in the wider literary context regarding the main genres, nothing comes to mind at the spur of the moment – which again confirms the wide-ranging creativity of this writer. Atwood has, though, more prominent and less prominent genres: she is primarily a poet and fiction writer (novel, short story) and can, for example, not really be called a dramatist – her recently published first drama is a dramatization of one of her own narratives, which itself is difficult to categorize generically (The Penelopiad, 2005).

HN: Which is your favourite of Margaret Atwood's works and why?

RN: That is a very difficult question for me. I am especially fascinated by several of her poems and prose poems, some of her short stories, and several of her novels. But again I don't want to be a spoilsport, so I will now choose her historical novel Alias Grace (1996). I would argue that only a literary genius could write such a text.

The way Canadian history and aspects of general historiography mesh here with Atwoodian narrative art cannot be surpassed. As a scholar interested in narratology, it fascinates me how the reader is shown – seemingly in passing, while under a spell by the plot – how we use narration to construct our world and to some extent that of others as well. The title character Grace Marks is able to save her freedom, if not her life, through her highly intelligent storytelling. In this novel Atwood arrestingly demonstrates the power of words and of imagination. Aside from everything else, this novel is also an overwhelming love story – although it remains unspoken between the characters (and as usual for Atwood, without a happy ending). I can imagine that this novel will one day be required reading for, amongst others, prospective psychoanalysts.

HN: Let’s assume that Margaret Atwood would ask you for a subject for her next book. What would you answer her?

RN: Atwood does not even talk about the projects that she is currently working on, so this question about earlier stages is of course totally unrealistic. But your question is also provocative. Now, after Atwood has dealt with globally essential questions about the course of the world in her dystopias, I would find it interesting to see how she would grapple with topics of less cosmic dimensions, for example the microcosm of the university. This idea is, however, so far-fetched in relation to Atwood's constellation of interests that it would never come about. It is probably better that way, as such a text would certainly be a biting satire. On the other hand, Atwood has an unusual talent for expressing criticism in such a rhetorically attractive way that one does not get offended but rather one can often even be amused about it. She has, for example, an ambivalent, partially very negative image of the USA – but American readers still love her. Even more interesting from my perspective would be a North American or continental American novel, which would deal with, among other things, the current relationship between Canada and the USA. After Atwood's “(inter)national” phase up to the end of the 1980s, in which this relationship was often part of the Canadian search for identity, and her “postnational” phase starting at the beginning of the 1990s, it would be interesting to see how she would depict this exciting but also tense relationship between the neighbours USA and Canada today. But Atwood will go for other topics – she surprises us with each book anew.

HN: Margaret Atwood has been repeatedly considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Do you believe that she will receive this award one day? And do you believe that the Nobel Prize would be personally important to Margaret Atwood?

RN: The awarding of prizes is not always justly done, nor is it always unjust. I have believed since the end of the 1970s that one day Atwood will win this prize. In 109 years of the existence of the Nobel Prize (since 1901), not one Canadian writer has received this highest of literary prizes, which in the meantime is really a literary scandal. Even more scandalous is the fact that until now only 11% of all Nobel Prizes in literature have been given to female writers (among 106 Nobel Prize winners there have only been 12 women), although writing is definitely an area in which women are in no way inferior to men (except in prize-winning). In this alone one can see that the awarding of the Nobel Prize is not impartial. I greatly wish that literary quality will prevail and Margaret Atwood will one day win the Nobel Prize: for Canadian literature as a whole, which has also long deserved the recognition of the Nobel Prize committee, but moreover for her own literary achievements, which are Nobel-worthy. I believe that Margaret herself sees this prize with mixed feelings, as even now the hype surrounding her has become ever more difficult to control, and as is well known, one also needs peace and quiet to write. She once said to me: “I do not write to get prizes. One should not write to get prizes.” Perhaps the Nobel Prize would be still more important for a further academic-institutional recognition of Canadian literature as a whole (especially outside of Canada) than for Atwood herself – as she unquestionably already occupies a position at the literary zenith.

No comments:

Post a Comment