Five Questions with… Priscila Uppal

Priscila Uppal, author of Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions.

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IFOA: Projection is about your complicated relationship with your absentee mother. How did the rest of your family respond to you telling this story?TA20 Projection Jacket Dundern.indd

Priscila Uppal: I debated whether or not to tell my father that I was embarking on the trip to reunite with my mother. In the end, I decided to tell him, since I am an honest person. Nevertheless, I do think he was hurt, as if my desire to see my mother was a criticism of his own challenging parenting as a single-parent quadriplegic father. My father doesn’t read any of my books—for medical reasons, it is difficult for him to concentrate on text in bulk—and I told him if he was going to start, this is not the one I would recommend. He has a copy of the book, but I don’t think he has read it yet. I don’t want him to be hurt by any of the revelations.

I also consulted with my brother before embarking on my journey. I asked him what he might want to know about the trip when I returned. He said, “Nothing. I want to know nothing.” My brother and I are very close, so I’ve tried to respect his wishes as much as possible, but due to the success of the memoir, my brother has certainly heard some strange stories about what transpired. In fact, my brother supports my work and loves a good party, so he came to Toronto for the book launch of Projection, as well as for the gala night for the Hilary Weston Prize. At these events, he was hearing about details of my encounters for the very first time and he was, admittedly, a little freaked out. He has also not read the book, and though he send copies of the book to friends and colleagues, he is repeatedly told for his own sake “not to read this book.”

IFOA: You recently adapted the book into a surreal poetic play, Six Essential Questions. Tell us a bit about that process.

Uppal: Usually, adaptations happen after the publication of an original source text. However, in my case, I was writing the memoir and eventually the play at the same time (for the last three years I was writing both simultaneously). I am someone who is fascinated by genre, form and literary conventions, and so I am always up for the challenge of understanding those conventions and then doing something unconventional with them. For the memoir, I was chained to the facts of the case. I analyzed the reunion in realistic, concrete details. Since the story is stranger than fiction, I think it was important not to take many liberties with the facts. Nevertheless, since my mother lives in a fantasy world, I wanted to acknowledge this part of her character, so I used the analysis and frame of films to speak to this part of her personality and to our understanding of each other (my mother sees between 1 and 8 movies per day in the theatre and it is her way of escaping the pain and trauma of her past).

With the play, I was able to explore the magic of theatre. I love how theatre can be expressive in nature and provide the audience with an alternate reality for a specific period of time, theatre can cast a spell and take people on an emotional journey. So, with the play, I tried to find the equivalent visual, audio, dramatic and poetic vocabulary that would give an audience an understanding of what that trip to Brazil “felt like.” The play is surreal, absurdist and poetic—an emotional carnival.

I think the memoir is a tale of a tragedy with some comedic elements. The play is a dark comedy trying to ward off the tragedy at its core.

© Daniel Ehrenworth

© Daniel Ehrenworth

IFOA: You’ve written poetry, novels and now this memoir. Which form do you find the most challenging to write?

Uppal: I think every book is a challenge, and ideally a different challenge. I love working in different forms because I think it spurs me on creatively. I love writing in all of them. I would welcome the opportunity to work on a screenplay or an opera libretto next.

IFOA: What’s the best thing you’ve read in the past six months?

Uppal: I just finished The Psychology of Creative Writing edited by Scott Barry Kaufman and James C. Kaufman, a book that collects a lot of the research done about and on writers in the last century, and that explores how writing affects our personalities and our experiences and vice versa. As a writer of many genres, and as a teacher of creative writing, I found this book captivating, disturbing and enlightening.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I often wonder…

Uppal: …who will drop into my life next…

Priscila Uppal is an internationally acclaimed poet, fiction writer and playwright. She lives in Toronto, where she teaches English literature and creative writing at York University. Priscila will present her Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated memoir, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, alongside memoirists Plum Johnson and Lynn Thomson on May 28.