In 1980, five years before The Handmaid’s Tale was published, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood was appearing at a poetry festival in Portland, Oregon, when her trip was disrupted by natural disaster: Mount St. Helens, in nearby Washington State, began erupting for the second time that spring. Plumes of volcanic ash and gas grounded all flights in Portland, and with trains booked up as well, Atwood joined forces with the poet Carolyn Forché to find a route out of town. The pair ended up driving south to San Francisco, and over the 11-hour car ride, Forché told Atwood about the horrors she’d witnessed as a Guggenheim fellow during the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador: sexual violence, men kept in cages, torture, death squads. What was happening there, she told Atwood, was going largely unreported.
The conversation came during a pivotal moment in Atwood’s writing life. Four years earlier, in an essay titled “On Being a Woman Writer,” Atwood had bristled at the idea that making art came with a burden of political responsibility. Active involvement in certain movements “may be good for the movement,” she wrote dryly, “but it has yet to be demonstrated that it’s good for the writer.” By 1980, though, she was reconsidering her convictions. Her car ride with Forché led to a creative breakthrough for both women: Atwood helped Forché find an agent for her unpublished book of poems documenting El Salvador, The Country Between Us. And Forché seemed to help Atwood solidify ideals that she has continued to clarify throughout her career. A year later, Atwood gave a speech to Amnesty International in which she testified passionately about the artist’s imperative to engage with political issues. “Such material enters a writer’s work,” she said, “not because the writer is or is not consciously political, but because a writer is an observer, a witness, and such observations are the air he breathes.”