Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Reading for Virago Week

To me, nobody writes of the pain that can be found in childhood like Margaret Atwood. Just as I felt when I read her novel Cat’s Eye, I find myself seared by the words I’m reading in Surfacing. I’m only halfway through this novel, but I have to post these thoughts now.

At first I ran away, but after that my mother said I had to go, I had to learn to be polite; “civilized” she called it. So I watched from behind the door. When I finally joined in a game of Musical Chairs, I was welcomed with triumph like a religious convert or a political defector.

Some were disappointed, they found my hermit-crab habits amusing, they found me amusing in general. Each year it was a different school, in October or November when the first snow hit the lake, and I was the one who didn’t know the local customs, like a person from another culture: on me they could try out the tricks and minor tortures they’d already used up on each other. When the boys chased and captured the girls after school and tied them up with their own skipping ropes, I was the one they would forget on purpose to untie. I spent many afternoons looped to fences and gates and convenient trees, waiting for a benevolent adult to pass and free me…

“If you don’t do it right we won’t play with you,” they said. Being socially retarded is like being mentally retarded, it arouses in others disgust and pity and the desire to torment and reform.

It was harder for my brother; our mother had taught him that fighting was wrong so he came home every day beaten to a pulp. Finally she had to back down: he could fight, but only if they hit first.

It must be something Canadian mothers tell their children. My brother and I were also taught not to fight by our Canadian mother. So unlike the American mothers in my experience, who said, “Someone hit you? Who hit you? Well, make sure you beat the crap out of them next time.”

I wasn’t teased or left out because I was ugly. Or, stupid. Or, anything wrong. I was teased because I wasn’t mean. I didn’t fight, and neither did my brother. We didn’t know how to handle teasing because the words spoken in our home weren’t unkind. We were vulnerable in the face of neighborhood bullying, schoolyard taunting, the cruelty of children everywhere.

This is part of why Margaret Atwood’s writing is so very poignant to me today.

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20 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Reading for Virago Week”

  1. I was taught not to fight as well. I'm a teacher now and in my experience most parents do tell their children to hit back. And then they get annoyed with me when I have to punish their child for violence as well…

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  2. Ms. Atwood is, indeed a master. As the most cursory skim through my blog will tell you, I absolutely adore her writing.I was never told either way whether I should fight or not. I did go through a fighting phase when I was eight or so but I don't even remember what my parents said about it. Interesting.

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  3. I don't recall if I was ever told not to fight, but I suspect my Canadian father would've been furious if I had. Fighting with my brothers was grounds for punishment — usually a stern talking to followed with a spanking. I was constantly teased as a child, but only when I was "the new kid" in class. We moved a lot, so there was a lot of teasing until I made friends. Shy as I was, it usually took a little while.

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  4. Beautiful thoughts, Bellezza. Childhood is such a difficult time, and Margaret Atwood's ability to strike to the heart of the matter of whatever she is writing about is what makes me such an ardent fan of her work. I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts!

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  5. Fight? Such a thing never crossed my mind in childhood. I've tried all day to remember a fight in grade school – without success.We were midwesterners, and we were "nice". Exclusion, teasing, ridicule, snobbishness – those were the weapons of choice. By high school things began to change a bit, but it still was a time and place remarkably free of physical violence.However, there was that one time when "he" wouldn't leave me alone, despite polite requests. When my friends and I left the pizza parlor he was there in the street, still badgering. It took me exactly one swing to take his glasses off and break his nose. It was extraordinarily satisfying.

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  6. I love Atwood, too. Her writing is excellent. I enjoyed reading the bits you included in your post and am now leaning over my desk to get to my shelf and pick up my copy of Surfacing and lay it on the top of my TBR pile. When I got teased in grade school, I told my parents and they dealt with it for me – it wouldn't have occurred to me to fight back. Perhaps that's why I got picked on then. Hmmm.

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  7. Well, I'm Canadian and my Dad told my brothers and I to hit back. We lived in a tough town. The girls were rougher than the boys. If you didn't fight back, you got picked on. And I wouldn't fight back and got picked on for being weak.I wouldn't tell my daughter to fight back now. Times are different.

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  8. Strange that our earliest memories are often the most vivid and painful memories seem to stick in the mind more than pleasant ones. A very perceptive post. I suspect I've not read the best of Atwood (I've only read The Handmaid's Tale) and I need to read more.

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  9. Change of topic: I just read your reply to me on the last post and I'm laughing at the thought of your cats making origami snowflakes. You just never know what they'll get into next, do you? Isabel is such a big fan of water play that I bought her a rubber ducky. Seriously! It's been a big hit, so far! 🙂 Also, glad to know you're thinking if the guys love your header it's worth keeping!

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  10. I love Margaret Atwood as well; her versatility, her voice! Interesting that both the books you mention have such a connection to childhood pain.I don't remember ever being told directly by our mother not to fight, but it was clearly not the preferred way of doing things in our house…even "pig" was pretty serious name calling 😉 Though unknown to my pacifist mother, I did once punch a boy in the face in grade 9, after he was harrassing me for a long while. He stopped.

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  11. Guess I've missed out a lot of life experiences… fighting or teasing had never been an issue when I was growing up in HK. I'm surprised that so many of your commenters have had to deal with physical conflicts, and were told to fight back. Looking back, as a mother raising a child in Canada, I never had to deal with such a problem. But one thing I must do after reading your post: read more Atwood.

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  12. Just popping on this beautiful Sunday morning with my Birthday greeting to you. Happy, happy birthday to you, my dear friend. I hope you're having a lovely day!!

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  13. I've been quite fortunate to never have been in a real angry fistfight my entire life. There'd been a number of childish incidents that could have easily left me with a bruise on my face, but thankfully nothing like that ever happened. I would give my parents and their Bible teaching much of the credit, but I would I say I was also very fortunate to have been around good people all my life.Anyway… Glad to be visiting your blog again my good friend :)I haven't been reading much recently, but I Margaret Atwood's Writing With Intent on my shelf for several months now. It is in my intent to get to that book one of these days.

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  14. Touching post, Bellezza. Margaret Atwood is a sensitive author. I remember as a child being punched in the stomach more than once by a "friend". I didn't ever think to punch her back. Looking back , though, had I not been so well-mannered I may have suffered less.

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  15. I got picked when I was younger. I used to think what I am going to do if this last another 6 years of my elementary school years? By the second year I became top of the class, and the bullies left me alone. As my confidence grew, I was regarded as one that they shouldn't mess about. I grew up with that and it gets carried all the way to my workplace.I hope you enjoy the rest of the book. I want to read more Atwood definitely!!

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  16. I have still so much Atwood goodness to discover :)My brother and I were also taught not to fight, but my mom told us to settle conflicts by using words. So we fought verbally I guess. Not beating the crap out of other is a matter of manners I thing, not really of nationality.

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  17. Friends, how pleasant to come home from a long vacation in Florida to find all your responses here. I've missed visiting your blogs and seeing what you're up to! I'll be around tomorrow as we have a Snow Day; Chicago is getting the 'blizzard of the century' according to every reliable news source. As well as my own eyes.Hope to talk about Margaret Atwood some more with you all, especially as I plan to finish her book although the Virago reading week has finished. (I left my novel behind in

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