Monday, October 21, 2013

Priscila Uppal, projection: encounters with my runaway mother

I have always avoided talking about my mother. Mostly because when people ask “What did your mother say?” or “What does your mother do for a living?” or “When will I meet your mother?” they assume I have one. And not only that I have one, but also that answers to these questions about my mother will be quick, clear, and simple. And yet, who has a simple relationship with one’s mother, even if that mother did raise you and support you and is still an integral part of your life? Nevertheless, when people innocently ask about my mother, they don’t realize they are unlatching a gate to a house I have kept closed for years. It’s not fit for living in. There’s no one hiding out in the attic or rotting in the basement, no bones buried under the floorboard or secret wills tucked into pantry tiles; in fact, quite the opposite. The house is empty, swept clean, sanitized. No furniture, no gardens, not even a box of baking soda in the fridge. And I like it that way.

From Toronto poet, fiction writer, critic and editor Priscila Uppal, raised in Ottawa and currently a professor at York University, comes an incredible memoir: projection: encounters with my runaway mother (Toronto ON: Dundurn Press, 2013). Already a finalist for both the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction as well as the Governor General’s Literary Awards, projection:encounters with my runaway mother begins with a background on Uppal’s immediate family. The blurb on the book’s leaf tells it best: “In 1977, Priscila Uppal’s father swallowed contaminated water in Antigua, and within 48 hours was a quadriplegic. Priscila was two years old. Five years later, her mother, Theresa, drained the bank accounts, including those of her two children, and disappeared to Brazil. After attempting to abduct her children twice, Priscila’s mother had no further contact with the family. Twenty years later, Priscila happened upon her mother’s website and, a few weeks later, she summoned the nerve to contact the woman who’d abandoned her as a child. After a few awkward phone calls and e-mails, a trip was arranged.” I’ve always been amazed as Uppal as a positive force, both personally and professionally, as well as her impressive output, so I can’t even imagine how difficult such an upbringing could have been, or just how it might have affected someone less willful.

            I want you to understand my psychology.
            Good. That’s exactly what I want too, whatever that means. This is not a typical mother-daughter gallery chat, but a case study. I want to know what makes her tick, what keeps her living when she claims she’d rather die, what thoughts fill her day, what thoughts fill her night, what she has done with the past—whether she has hidden those skeletons, if she’s dressed them up in parasols or Arctic snowsuits, if she ever takes out memories like antique cutlery and sets a special table for them.
            I do not like to fight for things. If someone wants to fight me, I hide.
            She doesn’t believe she’s cruel; although she won’t use the word, she’s labelled herself a coward. It’s the psychology of someone who, as a child, never had to fight for what she wanted. Faced with the possibility of competition, she bolts to avoid conflict, confrontation, failure. Whereas her children fought for everything they have.

Uppal structures the chapters of the memoir through film, using one of the things she and her mother have in common—a love of cinema—as a way to ease into territory that can’t help but be extremely loaded with emotional difficulty. Chapters wrap themselves around a dozen or so features, from Blade Runner and Maid in Manhatten to Mommie Dearest, God Is Brazilian, Throw Momma from the Train and The Purple Rose of Cairo, a structure used effectively to propel the narrative from one chapter into another. The book focuses on the twelve days Uppal spend, solo, travelling south to Brazil to stay with her mother. After decades without any contact at all, suddenly Uppal is under her mother’s mercy in hotels, her home, and finally surrounded by her mother’s family, with little more than a notebook to protect her. Throughout the book, Uppal describes responses by her mother that are quite baffling, and even terrifying, and one can only admire Uppal’s courage to put herself through such a complicated process; and I understand fully, having recently completed such a project myself, that the only way for some of us to work through such a territory is to write it out. Uppal’s exploration is incredibly articulate, open and honest about herself, her mother and just what it is she learns through the process of interacting with a woman who, it becomes increasingly apparent, refuses any responsibility, negativity or blame, and won’t even read a book with an unhappy ending (although Uppal’s maternal grandmother is an absolute delight). As narrator, Uppal refuses easy blame and finger-pointing, attempting as best as she can to avoid easy judgment, and instead, showcasing a wary generosity, an odd humour and a scientific approach in attempting to comprehend the impossible: how any woman could abandon her children. projection: encounters with my runaway mother compares in interesting ways to how other writers, specifically female writers, who have written of their mothers, from Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Knopf, 2011) [see my review of such here] or Ottawa writer Elizabeth Smart’s numerous accounts of her relationship with her mother, including the unfinished Dig a Grave and Let Us Bury Our Mother. Given the nature of discovery, this work could even compare to Monica Kidd’s memoir of genealogical discovery, seeking out her great-grandparents in any other woman: an uncommon biography (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2008) [see my review of such here]. Uppal’s projection: encounters with my runaway mother is a brave, heartfelt, thorough and unforgettable memoir, and one that needs to be read, whatever the nature of your relationship with parents or children. I have been recommending this book for some time.

I’m starting to wonder how much of my mother’s psyche is elusive to me because of culture rather than nature. If I learned one thing on a six-week cross-Canada trip I took starting in Victoria, British Columbia, and finishing on Prince Edward Island, it’s that landscape and environment are responsible for everything: weather, diet, clothing, industry, economy, and especially personality. If you live among the Rocky Mountains, you can’t help but climb them, spend your days looking up, seeking adventure. If you live where you can see for miles without a single obstruction, not a hill or tower or farm, you become a master of patience, of seasoning planning. If you live on an island where the soil is so red it literally stains your skin, no matter where you travel that sand never rubs off and you always feel homesick. São Paolo’s commercial hustle and bustle and arts institutions suit my mother’s hunger for constant entertainment, endless sensory input to fuel her fantasy life. Brasilia seems to feed her need for order and predictability. But she grew up in Rio de Janeiro, I can’t forget this, a city with a reputation for complete disorder and dysfunction and a mess of contradictions: a city of brutal violence on the one hand and the largest dance party in the world on the other, with one of the tallest art deco sculptures of Christ on top of a massive hill, watching over its mansions and apartment complexes and millions living a precarious existence in the favelas day and night. The old capital city. My mother’s family one of the first to move from one capital to another. One of the first to exchange one set of dreams for another. And proud to do so. When my mother first set foot in this futuristic city raised from dust in the desert, she would have been just a wide-eyed little girl, her own dreams like the new species of plants, just beginning to take root under the sun.

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