Priscila Uppal on Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother

First aired on Fresh Air (15/09/13)

Priscila Uppal has been called "Canada's coolest poet" for her role as poet-in-residence for Canadian athletes in the last two Olympic Games. In her books Winter Sport and Summer Sport, she offers a poetic take on the events of the Vancouver Games and the London Games, respectively. But her latest work is a memoir: Projection: Encounters With My Runaway Mother is a candid account of a very unusual mother-daughter relationship, and it is a finalist for this year's Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Uppal recently dropped by the Fresh Air studio to chat with host Mary Ito about her reasons for writing the book.


"I decided to write about because I think a lot of people, when you actually go back to have a reunion with an estranged family member, they want it to be that huge, happy Oprah moment when you hug and cry and have a barbeque and sing Kumbaya and all that, and I think that's quite rare," Uppal said. "So I wanted a book for the rest of us: the people who do meet their estranged relatives again but the encounters are really difficult. And maybe you end up without a loving, supportive relationship in the end."

When Uppal was only two years old, and her brother was three, her father was working for CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency. While he was in Antigua, she said, "he was in a sailboat accident where he swallowed contaminated water. And the water attacked his immune system and he became a quadriplegic without 48 hours." Five years later, her mother abandoned the family. "I believe that she had been trying to deal with living with an invalid, and she couldn't handle the stress of it and the trauma of it. So my father, as a quadriplegic, in fact raised my brother and myself as a single parent, which is very rare."

Uppal went on to say that she and her brother basically raised themselves. "I remember having a credit card at eight years old. I had a VISA card and I would go shopping for the family."

Twenty years later, Uppal happened across her mother's website. She noticed a link with her name and her brother's name, and clicked on it. "It was my mother's personal web page, and there was a picture of my brother and I on it, and all kind of information about my mother. And I was in shock," she said.

The website included a comment from her mother thanking "her cancer doctors." Uppal immediately made contact with her mother, who was living in Brazil, and made plans to visit. "In the back of my head, I always knew that I would attempt to find her," she said. "I thought it was almost like a research trip, a study that I wanted to make, about what happens to the imagination when you've been essentially imagining someone who doesn't exist, to you, for many, many years. What happens when you actually find them in the flesh? Here was my opportunity, where I was being told, 'It's time to write this book now, Priscila. You've written a lot of other books. But get on this one.'"

Uppal acknowledged that she takes a somewhat clinical approach at times in Projection, but that it was necessary. She emphasized that she didn't write the book in order to harm her mother or anyone else, but to help people whose situation, though not exactly like hers, may be similar in terms of emotional strain. "I think everyone has difficult relationships with loved ones in their lives. And so it does help to have somebody who maybe is a little bit distanced, a little bit clinical."

Uppal added that being a writer helped her get through some painful moments. "On the trip when I would encounter very frustrating and strange things about my mother, it helped to tell myself, 'you're going to write about it, so just experience it and try to record it...don't let it hurt you as much as it could. Remember that you're trying to document this for other people.'"

What was it like when she met her mother for the first time after so many years? "My mother was completely loving, welcoming, over the top" when she greeted Uppal at the airport. But she slowly came to realize that her mother wasn't really interested in her. "By day three, all she had done was talk, almost incessantly, non-stop, about herself and her beliefs, everything from her opinion on pineapples to Catholicism to cancer treatments to plastic surgery, what have you. She hadn't asked me if I was married, she hadn't asked me if I had children, she hadn't asked what my PhD was about. Nothing."

Uppal came to see that her mother, who's a film critic, "lives in a kind of escapist fantasy-land through film and through art. This is how she was dealing with the fact that she was in a tremendous amount of pain for abandoning her family," she said. "And she couldn't quite face that I was a real person."

Each chapter of the book chronicles one day of the trip, and recounts Uppal's attempts to break through "this wall" with her mother, who kept saying it was too painful to talk about the past. But to Uppal, being able to talk about the past explained the person she had grown up to be. "My mother and I had so many moments attempting to meet, but the majority was actually un-meeting," she said. "It was trying to prepare us for the fact that this is a relationship that in the end only exists in a fantasy. "

In retrospect, Uppal says she believes "we can attempt to understand and empathize with the people who have maybe damaged us. But in the end, too, I don't think we need to feel guilty if we've attempted to reconnect and reunite and we realize this isn't working, these are people who are incapable of actually having a real relationship with us."

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