Adrienne Clarkson lets down her guard

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      For the first three decades of her life, Adrienne Clarkson stayed away from Vancouver. Speaking from her home in downtown Toronto on October 16, the engaging and insightful former governor general explained to the Straight that the West Coast had negative connotations for her family while she was growing up.

      As her recently published memoir, Heart Matters (Viking Canada, $38), makes clear, Clarkson's first years were difficult ones. Born in Hong Kong in 1939, Clarkson was trapped in that outpost of the British Commonwealth when the Japanese overran it. Along with her parents and brother, the then–two-year-old ultimately made her way to Canada as a refugee.

      The foursome settled in Ottawa, but that was not Clarkson's mother's first choice. “My father,”  Clarkson explained by phone, “having been in Hong Kong, [like] all the Chinese of the diaspora all over the world, knew about the head tax in Canada, and that it was on the west coast of Canada. And my father said to me””even though my mother wanted to go to a climate where she could grow rhododendrons and azaleas””my father said, 'We're never going to move to the West Coast because they have this enormous prejudice against all Orientals, and so we will never go there.' And just told [us]””really, it was virtually saying, 'Put up, because we'll never go.' As a matter of fact, I didn't go to Vancouver until I was 31 years old. My father thought it was fine by then, I'm sure, because he didn't think anything of it. What he meant was we weren't going to move there, move into that set of attitudes about things.” 

      In the book and in conversation, Clarkson reflects on just how far the repercussions of those early years of trauma have travelled. In fact, she sees their impact still.

      “I think that you interiorize those experiences,”  she said, “even though you couldn't sit down and write about them, and you couldn't describe them. But you have them in your body tissue.”  She goes further, describing the anxiety she believes she experienced even before she was born, as well as after: “I had two kinds of survival because my mother was ill, as I recount in the book, when she was pregnant with me. The doctors suggested maybe I should be removed. Both my parents said, 'Well, that's fine.' My mother was only 25 at the time. And 'All right, just so that she [her mother] can be better.' And my grandmother said, 'No, no.'...Then of course, after that, the war and the trauma of the war””because it was not a war that was happening in front lines 100 miles away; we were in a city that was bombarded, terrorized. We had to move from place to place to keep out of harm's way, and we didn't know where my father was.” 

      One of the effects is a natural caution. “All that has made me a very watchful person....I watch things to see how they're going to play out. I never leap in emotionally to anything; even though I might feel it, I don't do it. I have a guard, I've been guarded. And I think that that's explicable to me personally by that experience.” 

      Before she became governor general, Clarkson had a number of public roles, both as Ontario's Agent General to France and as a broadcaster on CBC for some 30 years. In all that time, as Heart Matters explains, Clarkson walked a fine line between privacy and scrutiny. (The scrutiny reached its nadir over budget criticism in her final months at Rideau Hall.) Having just left one of the most visible jobs in the country, she seems ready to return to a fully private life with husband John Ralston Saul. But not too ready: she's at work on establishing an Institute for Canadian Citizenship, “a grassroots thing that I want to do which will help new Canadians get mainstreamed””put in the mainstream””faster than they are now. I think we need to do that, because without doing that we will eventually have a lot of alienation.”  She points to the simple ways that “old Canadians”  can help newcomers integrate: “Just being able to show them how you actually could go and trade your skates in and get new ones, how to join a community centre, how to join a public library. All of those sorts of things that make the basis for our Canadian life, that's what we need to do for everybody.” 

      Throughout Heart Matters, which ranges across her whole life, Clarkson remains similarly upbeat. Those looking for dirt will be disappointed””the office of governor general is concerned with discretion and etiquette, after all””though the careful reader can hear her exasperation about the changeover from Jean Chrétien's government to Paul Martin's, and about the encroaching centralization of power and Americanization that many would argue has only accelerated under Stephen Harper. Clarkson is clear that she won't divulge further thoughts on particulars of government, or on the details of her personal life. She writes movingly about the death of one of her daughters, and””again””the long reverberations that ensued, including estrangement from her other children and divorce from their father. In conversation, she's loath to retread that ground, though she does say, “I'm hoping by reading the hopefulness of my story it will help some people. Really, at some point it comes to the point of, 'These are the people who are responsible physically for bringing you into the world.' And that you have that, you will always have that with them, no matter what....You have to think of the largeness of the situation, that life is long and that it is beyond people's pettinesses and silly vendettas.” 

      Clarkson is in touch with her children again, and with her grandchildren. And she's even happy to come out to Vancouver now, as she's doing this week. It seems that despite a rocky start, it's all worked out.

      “My father told me, 'Fate and timing play everything in one's life,'”  Clarkson said. “And he believed very much in that, as do I.” 

      Adrienne Clarkson delivers the Bill Duthie Memorial Lecture at the Vancouver International Writers Festival this Sunday (October 22) at 8 p.m. at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. For tickets, contact Ticketmaster.