If there was a biometric gauge that measured human enthusiasm, right now Margaret Atwood’s face would flatline.
“Are you the interviewer?” she asks, looking at me warily, like a resigned patient sizing up an endodontist seconds before an emergency root canal.
It’s Thursday, just before 4 p.m. We arrive seconds apart outside the home of her dear friend, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson. The plan is to discuss Atwood’s latest award, named after Clarkson, over “afternoon tea in the Annex,” which sounds far more civilized than my usual “shots of Jack Daniels in East York.”
Abra Rissi, Clarkson’s executive assistant, opens the door and greets us warmly. I remove my shoes and Atwood stashes her umbrella, which is co-ordinated with her black-and-red ensemble. Even the cherry-coloured lanyard, from which crimson reading glasses dangle around her neck, is in sartorial sync on this cloudy day.
Settling into a living room — there appears to be more than one — we flop on antique sofas, around an oversized coffee table lined with books such as The Encyclopedia of Stupidity and To Fight Against This Age.
The lighting is dim, the decor regal.
Two minutes later, Clarkson enters in a canary yellow dress with white frill and orange blazer. Throw in a fascinator and Canada’s former governor general would not look out of place at a royal wedding.
They break into charming chatter about the weather and gardening, two famous luminaries lamenting soil conditions and a lack of September rain.
As students at the University of Toronto, they met at the age of 18. Six decades later, the banter is just as meandering and rapid-fire as when the teens bonded over a love of literature, meeting to read their poetry and short stories to one another.
And on Wednesday evening at Koerner Hall, they will share a stage and converse for the public when Atwood receives the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship.
The award ceremony will serve as the exclamation point on three days of programming around 6 Degrees, an annual symposium of events hosted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. Clarkson and her husband, the writer and public intellectual John Ralston Saul, co-founded the charity in 2006.
The goal then, as now, is to inspire Canadians “to be inclusive, embrace fresh thinking, practise active citizenship, and own our collective culture and spaces.”
But at a time when anti-immigrant rage is bubbling up around the planet like toxic lava, their work has never seemed more crucial — or challenging. So even though Atwood needs another award like the rest of us need more junk mail — about the only thing she hasn’t yet won is the Stanley Cup — her enthusiasm does finally redline when she talks about 6 Degrees.
“The award itself is making a statement about what’s going on in this world, which is a world in which people are closing doors, building walls, trying to fragment people into groups that are hostile to one another,” Atwood says. “And the award is saying, ‘We can do other and better than that.’”
Clarkson nods in agreement.
“I think the reason why we chose Margaret Atwood was that a novelist like her has a vision that is prophetic,” she says, citing The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood’s dystopian exploration of totalitarianism and the subjugation of women under puritanical rule is now a popular TV series. But when the book was first published in the mid-1980s, some critics dismissed it as farfetched. It has since gained a new following, including admirers who detect eerie parallels to the current political climate south of the border.
Put it this way: at the Women’s March in Washington last year, one protester hoisted a placard that read, “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.”
“All great novels have this idea of what the future could hold for us,” says Clarkson, who has previously bestowed her award on Ai Weiwei and Aga Khan.
Clarkson reminds Atwood of a conversation they had about 20 years ago. At the time, they wondered what life might be like at 80. That milestone birthday is no longer a guessing game that requires a crystal ball.
Next year, 80 will become a reality for both.
“I said, ‘If we are not dead, we’ll still be doing what we’ve always done,’” recalls Clarkson. “And that’s true. We are still doing what we’ve always done.”
Atwood doesn’t miss a sardonic beat.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m writing and Adrienne is buying shoes.”
Clarkson throws back her head and laughs so hard, she risks whiplash. But the mirth tapers off when the subject of populist nationalism arises.
Atwood traces the onset of isolationist ideology that’s spreading across the West to the fall of the Berlin Wall: “The old rule, the old stasis that had prevailed in the Cold War, was gone.”
“I have another way of looking at it,” says Clarkson. “I think we got very affluent. But not everybody got affluent. And now the gap between people who don’t have very much and the people who have more than they could ever want is so huge.”
“Yeah, we are in that moment just before the French Revolution,” warns Atwood.
This sounds ominous. What does it mean for Canada?
“I think we are, unfortunately, not immune to having what I think is a kind of conspiracy of nativism and populism in the world, which we are receiving through social media all the time, so that we don’t really know what we really think,” says Clarkson, shaking her head and itemizing the socioeconomic benefits newcomers bring to Canada, bundled with their dreams of a new life.
“We need immigrants,” says Clarkson. “We also know that when they come, they do fit in. They learn the language. They go to schools. They participate … All the other stuff is just rhetoric and populist nonsense. It’s racist. It’s prejudice and bigotry.”
“People who say we don’t want immigrants,” adds Atwood, “it comes out of fear.”
Later, when I ask for their takes on Doug Ford, I fear they might spit into the china cups that just held smoked black tea infused with lychee. Don’t expect to see either woman lining up for free hot dogs at this weekend’s Ford Fest in Vaughan.
“First of all, it’s early days,” says Atwood of Ontario’s new premier. “But, second, we realize totalitarian moves when we see them. You should not interfere with a vote in the middle of an election, the way they just did. It’s just wrong.”
And then a little later: “And if he did it to us, he will do it to anybody that annoys him. And that is called tyranny. That is when the will of the dictator is the only thing that decides what happens.”
As I turn off my tape recorder, the Star’s Richard Lautens moves in with his camera. He needs to ask them more than once to look at the lens. It’s an endearing sight.
After all these years, the chatter just won’t stop.
For more information to 6 Degrees, which starts on Monday, visit 6degreesto.com
Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @vinaymenon