How She Met Her Mother: Priscila Uppal comes face to face with the woman who abandoned her as a child
This fall on Canada Writes we're celebrating new writing by bringing you excerpts of new work by Canadian authors. This week, an excerpt of Priscila Uppal’s memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction.
“What does it mean to have a mother? Is it the necessary condition of humanity? If you don’t have a mother (or have no contact with her), what is the value of your invented memories or projections of this person over the years? Does this change how you suffer, love, hate, care, run, or dream?”
When Priscila Uppal was just eight years old, her mother drained the family bank accounts (including her children’s piggy bank) and ran away to Brazil. She left Priscila, along with her nine year old brother, clutching the guardrails of their paraplegic father’s bed frame. She was never seen again.
That is, until Priscila came across her mother’s website some twenty years later. This discovery led Priscila to learn that her mother had become a well-known journalist, professor and movie reviewer in Brazil.
Priscila had often wondered what happened to her mother and had even entertained the idea of one day embarking on a trip to find her and write about that experience. Projection recounts that trip—its a story of two strangers who spend 12 days together to see what, if anything, they have in common.
"I decided to write about it 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," Priscila said in a recent interview with Mary Ito on CBC’s Fresh Air. "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."
Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction. Here is an excerpt ..
Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother
by Priscila Uppal
On the flight, I am seated beside a woman named Dalva with gorgeous olive skin and friendly eyes. She introduces herself, telling me her name means morning star. She points to my phrasebook.
“First time to Brazil?”
“You look Brazilian. Are you visiting family?”
I note that this beautiful Dalva is acting motherly toward me. Do I look like a need a mother? I’m not sure that’s a look I should be going for.
“You’ll be fine. Just relax. You’re from Ottawa, aren't you?”
“How did you know? My accent?”
“I work at the Brazilian consulate. Not at the booth, but in the office. I saw you today. I saw your application. I knew your mother and father. It’s a coincidence that we’re on this flight together, but I know your story. It’s a sad story. You haven’t seen your mother for some time.”
I’m not as shocked by her words as I imagine I should be. Although I’m not altogether convinced the designation of “coincidence” is accurate, I don’t feel threatened by this woman with wavy black shoulder-length hair in a flowery pantsuit eating slices of green apple beside me. In fact, she is oddly comforting. Plus, the fact that she has some knowledge of my parents matches my original vision of my trip as epic voyage. Every epic hero or heroine is watched over by sympathetic gods who send wise advisors down to earth for aid. Dalva strikes me as one of these special characters. Of course she is disguised in government garb: my father was a successful civil servant, my mother the daughter of a high-ranked diplomat. The tragic tale of my father’s accident and my mother’s subsequent flight to Brazil circulated among government office water coolers in Ottawa, why not Toronto?
The plane conspicuously empty, I lower the back of my chair. “Twenty years.”
“Now I feel old,” she laughs, pressing her lever to follow suit.
Before we land, Dalva asks over a tray of tasteless scrambled eggs, “What are you hoping for with your mother? Forgiveness, reunion, a new start?”
She doesn’t apologize for her bluntness or curiosity. I like this Dalva that I will never see again, who fits nicely into the role I have assigned her in my narrative. She exudes good will. I know I’m projecting, but I suddenly wish I could leave the plane and go off with her rather than the woman from the website who when I phoned from the airport swore retribution to those who wouldn’t let me on that original Toronto-São Paulo flight. Without a visa I would be detained in São Paulo, I told her, to calm her down. Either that or jailed. I was lucky the attendant refused to issue me a boarding pass. But she was inconsolable. Although I was somewhat alarmed by the force of her anger, at least it proved she’s as invested in this reunion as I am.
“No. Not forgiveness. I was raised Catholic, but I’m an atheist. I don’t understand their obsession with forgiveness. I don’t care about forgiveness. I don’t believe in it.”
“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” Dalva laughs, poking her orange juice open with the plastic fork. I’ve heard it before. I’ve even said it before. But I don’t mean it. And now I’m visiting one of the most Catholic countries on the planet, a people who built one of the world’s largest statues of Christ to watch over the country day and night. “What do you care about then?”
“I want to fill in the blanks of the story, you know?”
“Your mother’s not going to like being a character. I can tell you that straight off.”
I’m about to interrupt, but she gives me a friendly wave to stay my protest and piles my breakfast containers inside her own.
“I understand you. You have a book with half the pages ripped out and you think you’re going to find those pages and place them back in the spine, shut the cover, and start another book. You’re a writer, I know. But when you find those pages, you’re going to discover you didn’t have the pages in the right order to begin with and you’re going to spend a lot of time rearranging things and in the meantime the book is going to get written in ways you can’t even imagine.”
As we fold our trays and prepare our seats for landing, the blinding light of sunrise forces me to turn away. Although I can no longer see her, I feel her kind eyes upon me, like a silent blessing.
“Who are you?”
“Dalva. Morning star. I’m the woman who sat beside you on the plane, wishing you good luck.”
Excerpt from Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother by Priscila Uppal. Published by Dundurn Press. Copyright © 2013 by Priscila Uppal. Shared here with permission from the publisher.
Priscila Uppal is an internationally acclaimed Toronto poet, fiction writer and York University professor. Among her publications are eight collections of poetry, including Ontological Necessities (shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize); and the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern. Time Out London dubbed her "Canada’s coolest poet."
Author Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth.