In the migrations caused by war or persecution, family members are sometimes separated, adding to grief and loss. One finds it hard, then, to imagine that a mother would voluntarily leave her children, but that too has happened. It happened to Priscila Uppal, who spent about a month in Brazil trying to get to know her absentee mother and family, and then wrote about it in her non-fiction book, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother.
Priscila Uppal was the author of ten collections of poetry, two novels and a collection of short stories. In 2009 she published an academic book, We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy, with McGill-Queen’s University press. In 2014, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Sadly, Priscila Uppal died on September 5, 2018, at the age of 43, cutting short a creative and generous life.
Reviewer Demetra Angelis Foustanellas currently lives in Greece, where she is witness to the migrants crossing the Aegean.
Priscila Uppal, Projection: Encounters With My Runaway Mother (Toronto: Dundurn Press 2013), 265 pages.
Reviewed by Demetra Angelis Foustanellas
Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, by Priscila Uppal (Dundurn Press 2013), is a memoir about Uppal’s reunion with a mother who abandoned her when she was only eight.
After Avtar Uppal, Priscila Uppal’s father, becomes a quadriplegic from drinking contaminated water during a sailboat accident in Antigua, life for the Uppal family is permanently transformed. Unable to cope with the demands of caring for her invalid husband while raising their young family, Theresa, Priscila Uppal’s mother, escapes to Brazil, her birthplace. She leaves her two children, Priscila and her brother Jit, in the care of her crippled husband, to face a life of hardship. For Uppal, this loss of maternal affection has a lifelong effect.
Then, twenty years later, Uppal stumbles upon a website belonging to Theresa Catharina de Goes Campos: “I found my mother by accident on the internet on a sunny September afternoon in 2002. I wasn’t looking for her. I was searching for online reviews of my first novel…” (p. 12).
Encouraged by her partner Chris, Uppal works up her courage and sets off for Brazil to meet Theresa. And so an adventure of the unexpected begins. Uppal’s memoir documents this amazing journey, during which she shares explicitly with the world feelings for the woman she will never again call mother.
Uppal clearly finds Theresa annoying. Not only does Theresa appear oblivious to her negligent past, she is possibly delusional. “She informs me she is on a strict diet, but what she is capable of eating, she eats by the pound.” (p. 50) However, Uppal’s frequent use of sarcasm and exaggeration to portray her mother, albeit humorous, may at times nurture the reader’s sympathy for Theresa:
Here she is again, my overweight mother in her loud formless clothes and bright red lipstick, following me incessantly with nonstop chatter from room to room, eyes glued on me as if I’m going to disappear into the ether. (p. 92) … I’m worried I will lose control of my emotions, even in these elegant surroundings, and stick out my foot and trip her, or pull her hair, or punch her smack in the gut. I’d love for this story to turn slapstick. For a pie to land on her face. For a monkey to jump on her back. (p. 193-194)
By contrast, Uppal’s explicit recollection of Theresa’s disposition prior to her departure makes a much stronger statement, winning us back to Uppal’s side. Consider the mother’s treatment of her sick husband: “But my worst memory, which repeats on a quick loop in my mind’s eye as my mother speaks to me over lunch, is my brother and I crouching in the thin doorway of the upper hallway, my father’s bed just in sight through the slit, as my mother screams at him and keeps slapping his face, then horrifically, incomprehensibly, grabs the urine bag from the side of the bed and shoves the tubing down his throat.” (p. 80) By the end of the story, such accounts make Uppal’s rejection of her mother completely warranted.
Much to Uppal’s relief, and the reader’s, most of Theresa’s relatives are tolerable. A bond develops between Uppal and her grandmother, Therezinha. “I gather my mother is baffled by the fact that my grandmother commands much more attention by silence than she does by speech. Her body, though thin, bony, and arthritic, is the stronger of the two, and I am drawn to it like a magnet.” (p. 195). Uppal is embraced by Therezinha, who gives her a brief history of her roots and maybe even some genuine love. That Uppal could, one day, feel the genuine affection she is entitled to, at least by some members of her mother’s family, is a comforting thought.
Uppal immerses us into her complicated world, her strong emotions of resentment and her determined search to overcome her sadness. As a mother myself, I found Theresa’s lack of maternal instinct and profound self-absorption unfathomable. While Uppal makes quite clear her own pain and loss, she does not bring the reader to any understanding of why her mother left, apart from making her a ridiculous figure.
Determination originally drove Uppal to Brazil. Given that she had absolutely no idea what she would encounter there, Uppal’s decision to make this journey took great strength. Writing about it must have taken even more.
Demetra Angelis Foustanellas is the author of Secrets in a Jewellery Box, for which she drew on years of research and her own recollections of the 1970s as a daughter of Greek immigrants. Her other publications include a review of The Good Time Girl by Tess Fragoulis and A Letter from Greece, both in Canadian Writers Abroad, as well as articles for Odyssey Magazine.