By J.S. Porter
In September 2019, Margaret Atwood was on the cover of Time Magazine and Bianca Andreessen was on the front page of The New York Times, a rare, successful Canadian invasion of US media. Atwood was on her cover for her new novel The Testaments and Andres was on hers for her victory in the US Open.
Atwood has a bemused look, knowing, regal, fitting perhaps for a near 80-year-old who has seen and experienced a lot of things in her time on earth. The Times photo of Andreescu at 19 (not the one above) has her sprawled out on the tennis court, flat on her back, hands on her head, a gesture perhaps of disbelief, pride, and private celebration.
The image of Andreescu I personally prefer is the one above, eyes looking skyward waiting for a ball to fall, racket cocked and loaded about to fire a bullet into Serena Williams’ court. Strength. Power. Concentration. No distractions. She has a mission and it’s to win. Off court, she is personable and fun. On court, she is ruthless and relentless.
Andreescu started playing tennis at age seven. She joined Tennis Canada’s National Training Program in Toronto at 11. She made her international debut in 2015 and won her first career title at the Australian Open in 2016. She was named the Tennis Canada Female Player of the Year in 2017. But all hasn’t been smooth sailing. She was injured in 2018 and out for part of the season.
By the end of 2018, Andreescu hadn’t broken into the Top 100. After her victory over Serena Williams at the US Open, she is now in the Top 5. #SheTheNorth is the talk of the town, the talk of the tennis world. She has the power of Serena’s serve and the tireless energy of her youth.
Why is Bianca so successful? Maybe’s it’s her good luck charm, her dog Coco. Maybe it’s her mother teaching her mindfulness – how to shut out the world and concentrate on one thing of importance, whacking a ball with spin, sink or curve over a net. She certainly was able to shut out tens of thousands of noisy fans at the US 0pen. Maybe it’s her coach Sylvain Bruneau. Or, maybe it’s her drive, guts, and determination. Maybe it’s her skill, stamina, and strength.
September was a golden month for Bianca Andreescu and Margaret Atwood. Andreescu scored big for Canadian tennis and Atwood scored big for Canadian literature.
On Tuesday, September 10, Atwood published her much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale – The Testaments. The book launch was filmed in London with interviewer Samira Ahmed and readers Ann Dowd, Lily James, and Sally Hawkins and screened in over 1,300 cinemas worldwide. I had a ticket for the Hamilton screening. As I was watching the launch, I was mindful of people like me in Jo’burg, Berlin or Sydney also watching, eagerly awaiting the word from a giant of literature.
Ms. Atwood does it all in the writing biz. She writes novels, short stories, poems, children’s stories, screenplays, graphic novels, essays and reviews at a very high level. She’s the reigning Queen of Letters, if not the best in any one genre certainly the best in the aggregate of genres.
I once had the privilege of reviewing her Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing for The Globe and Mail at the invitation of Books editor Martin Levin. Words from my review appeared anonymously on the front cover of the paperback edition. The review is still online (here).
The book was subsequently reprinted as Margaret Atwood on Writers and Writing. My front cover words are used on the back cover – “Atwood teases, probes, tickles, punches and enlightens…a writer who has scratched her name on the tablet of the English language. She belongs to the world” – and as the first blurb on the inside of the book. I went on to review Moving Targets, another of Atwood’s books of essays.
As much as I admire Atwood’s essays, I personally prefer her poetry, with lines like this:
“It is dangerous to read newspapers.
Each time I hit a key on my electric typewriter, speaking of peaceful trees
another village explodes.”
Clearly the world at large prefers her great dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale that has become a riveting TV series and now the more hopeful The Testaments. These books speak to our time and perhaps to all times. The drive for freedom, after all, transcends any one individual culture or any one time period.
So, how did it come to be that Atwood scratched her name on the tablet of the English language? How did she become a writer of the world? If you listen to Shelagh Rogers’ recent interview on the CBC, you may hear one possibility:
“I grew up in the woods with some pretty peculiar parents for those days. My mom was a tomboy and my dad was a biologist. They never told me what I couldn’t do because I was a girl. They sometimes said, ‘You can’t do that because you’re not old enough.’ But that’s an entirely different message. So if you grow up with a speed-skating, canoeing, good-at-archery, horse-riding mother, you don’t actually think of yourself as a frail Petunia.”
She had some pretty amazing teachers along the way as well, including the great Northrop Frye.
Now, what do writers and tennis players have in common? Discipline. Dedication. Imagination. Andreescu is not yet the Queen of Tennis, but she’s the Heir to the Throne, and like her elder Margaret Atwood, she has given a usually quiet country something, and someone, to cheer very loudly for.