What would happen if women suddenly developed the ability to be stronger than men? How would this shift the gender roles in our society? That’s what Naomi Alderman explores in “The Power,” in which the world is transformed when teen women gain the power of electricity and can electrocute men. The book won the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction in the U.K. I chatted with author Naomi Alderman on Skype about her origins as a writer, working with mentor Margaret Atwood, and the constant exploitation of women’s suffering that led to this powerful work of speculative fiction. Our conversation has been edited.
Where did the spark (pun intended) for “The Power” come from? What made you want to write this particular story?
I've always been a reader of science fiction and I have loved a lot of feminist science fiction. Obviously “The Handmaid's Tale” is the one everybody has been talking about recently. I also love Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, Marge Piercy. I've always had a real interest in the way that science fiction can portray a world that could be different to our world, which I find a really exciting thought.
Partly it's that everybody has a kind of snap moment. I think a lot of women are having a snap moment over Harvey Weinstein, actually, which is really exciting in some ways. It feels like that moment where you pull out everything from that horrible basement that you knew needed to be cleared out for 30 years. You pull everything out and lay it out, and you just go, “Oh, look at all this and look at what it’s covered in. It’s disgusting, it’s gross.” That is the first step to making it better.
This book, the idea of it, is to start a conversation.
I had a snap moment. I got on to a subway train in London, and I saw a poster for a movie, which was a poster of a beautiful woman crying. Something just broke inside me because I was going through this horrific break up, waking up every morning crying, and then going to get on with my day. It felt like that was the culture that I live in going, “Hey, that crying that you're doing right now, carry on with that, that's sexy, that’s great. We love it when women cry. We love it when women suffer. Do more of that. Hey, it's really attractive.” I just started thinking furiously on this Tube train about what I would have to do, or what would have to change in the world for me to be sitting opposite a poster of a really beautiful, attractive man crying.
The frame of the novel is basically a patriarchy. A male author presents “The Power” as a fictionalized history that he wrote. Why did you choose to tell the story this way, and what does it say about gender roles and norms?
There are a few different reasons. Sometimes I say, “Oh well, it's funny.” The novel is fairly harrowing…and then to end it with something funny I felt was a good, nice gift for my readers.
It is also quite obviously a little tip of the hat to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Margaret Atwood was my mentor whilst I was writing this book, which is just an incredibly fortunate thing, God knows what horoscope I got to have that happen in my life, but you know, I can just be thankful for it.
But also, I feel like there's something [important in] acknowledging that this novel does not exist outside of that patriarchal system. This is why it's people talking about a novel, because novel writing is not like magically immune from sexism. The problems of representing this book, talking about this book in public also have sexism involved in them. There will also be sexism involved in my career as a writer. There will also have been sexism involved in the way that a book by a woman is received. I'm telling you a story, and even the mode that I have to tell a story to you is not immune from the forces that I'm talking about in this story.
All I can do is to try to write a book that invites the reader to consider what the impact would be in their own life. I’ve had some really amazing conversations since the book's been published, with audience members who have said to me, “I come from Afghanistan, what do you think the impact would be in Afghanistan?” I say, “I don’t know Afghanistan, but please tell me.”
This book, the idea of it, is to start a conversation, not to end a conversation. I don't have all the answers, but I think if we agree that this [new power] would make a radical difference in the lives of a lot of women, then I think we have discovered something interesting about the world that we all kind of knew but had been ignoring. Which is to say how much of women's lives are described and circumscribed by the male potential for violence.
If you're a 19-year-old person and you finished a book, you can just take that, own it: You’re a writer.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I grew up an Orthodox Jewish girl in North London. I think when I was 7, at school they got us all to write the story of Joseph and his brothers. I got a bit carried away and wrote 12 pages — everybody else wrote a page. The teacher was so impressed by it that she put it up on the wall for parents’ evening. I thought, “Oh, this is something that I really like that I also seem to be quite good at.” It gets me some praise when I do it, which at 7, you notice those things.
When I was 19 I wrote a novel, which was not very good, but I finished it. I guess I wish I had known when I was 19 that that was quite unusual, because I spent the next decade in doubt and confusion. If you're a 19-year-old person and you finished a book, you can just take that, own it: You’re a writer.
One last question: Is there any advice that Margaret Atwood has given you that inspires you?
It’s not writing advice, it's a piece of life advice but I think it applies to women. “Say no more.”