Hitting the Key Notes of Your Time – Learning from Margaret Atwood and Gabrielle Roy

People are inherently story driven. Therefore an important aptitude of successful movements and change-making efforts is aligning with the powerful and shifting cultural stories that are already out there.

You can, of course, learn about storytelling, narrative principles and effective communication strategies at a workshop. You can also learn from storytelling royalty like Gabrielle Roy and Margaret Atwood.

Roy’s stunning masterpiece, The Tin Flute, (Bonheur d’Occasion) set in wartime Montreal won her many of the world’s literary prizes. The first print run of her English translation, published in 1947, was 700,000! Imagine. It was the first time a book by a Canadian author rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The book opened the curtain not just on the linguistic, class and religious divide in Quebec post WW2 but also, on economic and social inequity. Particularly in the areas of poverty and women’s rights.

In a recent essay, Atwood writes that Roy’s biggest contribution was to reveal the cruelty and injustice of a society that expected women to give birth, feed and support so many children with almost no help. “Quebeckers took a good look at its own policies through the eyes of Roy, as did hundreds of thousands of readers outside Quebec, and they were appalled,” writes Atwood. “Even before the second wave of feminism got underway in English North America, it was already underway, in a different form, in Quebec,” she adds.

The book’s impact would make any change-maker proud. It’s also a timely reminder that progressive social justice leadership is built into Quebec’s DNA.

Atwood writes that Roy’s particular talent in Bonheur d’Occasion, was the “annunciation of the future to the present.” Leave it to Atwood to make the connection between Roy’s first name and the angel of communication, Gabriel. If you are interested in hitting the keynotes of your time, here are a few other kernels.

  1. Show don’t tell, lecture, moralize, instruct or judge. The listener/reader is smarter than you think about picking up on injustice.
  2. You can be ahead of your time by challenging accepted opinions but not so far ahead that you leave the reader behind.
  3. Don’t be afraid to reveal the complexities of people. Protagonists can be cold-hearted. Antagonists can be open-hearted.
  4. Soften your gaze – you can describe hard times and hard people in the context of their desires and loves.

On the back of the 2004 Canadian twenty-dollar bill is a quotation from Gabrielle Roy, in both French and English: “Nous connaîtrions-nous seulement un peu nous-mêmes sans les arts?” “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”

“No we could not,” writes Atwood.

Neither could we achieve the justice we seek.

NOTE: Atwood’s essay is excerpted from the book, Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America, edited by André Pratte and Jonathan Kay.


As we contemplate our politically splintered society, as we reach the limits of data-collecting and the divisions and specializations of science, and as we finally turn back toward a more holistic view of human being, Gabrielle Roy’s vision has more relevance to us than ever. (Margaret Atwood)

Musical accompaniment this post is “Les Gens de Mon Pays” sung by Pauline Julien.


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