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The Princess of Asturias Foundation

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Laureates  

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Margaret Atwood

Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2008

It is a great pleasure to be here in Spain, where I have spent many wonderful times, in Madrid and also in Barcelona. And now I am in Oviedo, which I know a little already, through the pages of Leopoldo Alas.

It is an especial honour to have been awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters for 2008. In September I was in Argentina, where people were looking at me with a kind of awe: it is amazing how highly regarded the Asturias prize is everywhere -not only in Spanish-speaking countries. This respect is a tribute to the hard work and thoughtful consideration of the jurors ? work that is often invisible.

I?m particularly touched by this award because I am Canadian, and we too are often invisible; or else we are confused with the United States, a country with a very different history, a different geography, a different blend of cultures, and a different position of power in the world. As one of our well-known songs says, ?Canada?s Really Big,? but its population is comparatively small. It is officially bilingual, but in fact multilingual, with 52 indigenous languages, and many more languages that have arrived more recently. Our society has been formed, not so much by conquest and domination, but by constant negotiation and re-negotiation among different cultures, different languages, different points of view. A Canadian joke goes like this: On the road to Heaven there are two signs. One says, ?Heaven,? and the other says, ?Panel discussion on Heaven,? and all the Canadians go to the second one.

The arts ? writing included ? are frequently the subject of panel discussions among us. Not only panel discussions: in our recent election, our country?s support for our artists and cultural institutions became a deciding factor in the political struggle, with the dominant party taking a dismissive view of the arts, having delivered some crippling slashes to the nation?s arts budget.

But governments that wish to abolish art ? whether through indifference or through a wish to suppress independent voices ? such governments will never be successful; for even if forced underground, if starved, if hidden away, the artistic impulse will nevertheless find an expression. There has been art as long as there have been people, as the marvelous drawings in the Altamira caves testify. The making of art is a symptom of our humanity: every human being is inherently creative, as small children demonstrate so well.

The writing of fiction is an art of time ? through it, events unfold, changes are set in motion; in other words, fiction tells stories; and through stories, we know both ourselves and others. A country without stories would be a country without a mirror ? it would cast no reflection, and it would lead at best a ghostly, shadowy existence. ?Who am I?? its citizens would ask, and there would be no answer. Such a country would also be without a heart, for fiction writing is an art of the emotions. In an age of specializations, art alone can show us the whole human being, in its many variations.

Everything in our societies is influenced, not only by the ground beneath us, but by the imaginative world we build and dwell within. Even our most seemingly solid institutions are sustained by our ideas about them, our faith in their existence. Banks melt away when we lose our faith in them, as we have seen so recently. So it is with nations. It is part of art?s function to imagine the real, and thus call it into being.

My own country?s fiction contains many wonders ? kitchens with bears in them, Native Indian snipers come from the remote forests to fight in the first World War, an icy cannibal monster with feet of flame; but also many women and men who are less outwardly remarkable, living their lives and dealing with their particular times and their often snowy spaces as character, circumstance, and fate drive them on.

Today we find ourselves in a worldwide crisis ? financial, but also environmental. Many people are frightened of the future ? a future that will almost certainly bring food shortages, a dwindling supply carbon-based energy, and more poverty and social turmoil. In such conditions, it helps us to remember our common humanity ? a humanity marked at its best by inventiveness and courage, by nimble thinking and generosity, and by the capacity for joy even when danger threatens. A society rich in the arts is also rich in such qualities. Economists can set no price on them, for they cannot be quantified. Yet without them we will do very poorly indeed. We need to re-imagine ourselves; not only ourselves, but our relationship to the planet that sustains us.

Thank you again for your recognition ?through this prize- of the importance of writing as an art. I am most honoured to have been chosen as its representative for this year; and I wish you, and all of us, the very best of luck.

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