September 29, 2013
Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother by Priscila Uppal
A few years ago, I developed a cautious admiration for the literary bolter, those mothers in fiction who had dared to turn convention on its head and flee the children–the narrator’s mother in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love was known as “the Bolter”, and my thoughts had been inspired by the mother in What Maisie Knew. In conversation we also came up with Mrs. Brown in The Hours, plus the mother in Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. In the latter two books, the psychology of these bolting mothers and our eventual sympathy for them becomes the point on which the novels turn.
How does “the bolter” complicate our ideas about motherhood, I wondered? What if “the bolter” was a maternal archetype, instead of her actions being construed as unnatural? What does it tell us about motherhood and ourselves that we do such construing? And what does understanding the bolter’s psychology help us to better understand about mothers in general?
In Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother, Priscila Uppal is pondering the psychology of the bolter in order to understand nothing in general, but instead to better understand her own life. And here is the thing about non-fiction, of course, that it takes out the nuance and raises the stakes (and I still can’t stop thinking about that line from Americanah: “Like life is always fucking subtle.”). You see, my literary bolters of the fictional persuasion were always a but romantic, bobbed hair, cloche hats and long cigarette holders, far too fabulous for the home-front, or else they were running from something, selfless martyrs who flee for their children’s survival. But real life, of course, is rarely so photogenic, or tidy, as Priscila Uppal discovers for herself when she goes to Brazil to find her mother who’d bolted years before.
Projection has recently been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award for Nonfiction, and rightly so, as it is one of the most extraordinary memoirs I’ve ever encountered. It begins with Uppal–an accomplished poet, novelist and professor, with two experiences as Canadian Poet-in-Residence at the Olympics amongst her remarkable achievements–encountering her mother for the first time in twenty years on the internet. Though Uppal has not been pursuing her mother–it is while googling herself in search of reviews of her novel that she discovers her name listed on her mother’s website, along with a childhood photograph. After years of the past being put far away, Uppal must contend with evidence that her mother’s life continued after her bolting, and moreover that Uppal herself exists as a secondary character in her mother’s life.
She goes to Brazil in search of a story, curious and cautious about what she will find there. Brazil, where her mother had come from and the place to which she returned when her daughter is eight years old. And even Priscila can understand what drove her mother to go: an accident had rendered her father a quadriplegic, altering the trajectory of their family life and making her mother his full-time care-giver. Other details are harder to stomach though–how she cleared out her children’s piggy banks, for example, or that her children were left to care for their father in her absence, contending with a serious lack of essential financial and emotional support.
Uppal’s mother is a film reviewer, and a prolific movie watcher, movies becoming the method by which Uppal frames her narrative. Each chapter is title after a different movie, preceded by a line of dialogue, and the narrative of the film itself becomes integral to how Uppal understands her own narrative. Some of the movie picks are straightforward in their mother-daughter associations–Mommie Dearest, Stella Dallas, Freaky Friday–while others seem more of a stretch, but then Uppal makes the connections seem so natural. So too the lists that pepper her text, top 10 lists of things her mother and she share, or of places she has visited in Brazil on her trip. Her chapters also contain special cuts, montages, and flashbacks in keeping with the film motif. It is a curious construction, but one that works, in particular because these breaks provide moments of relief in a narrative which is full of unbearable tension.
It has become standard to refer to memoirists as “brave”, but I can’t help doing the same for Uppal, with the caveat that “brave” means something totally different here, something substantial. First, Uppal’s bravery in staring down this woman, her mother, who is clearly unhinged and exists in the alternate reality her love of movies provides. Uppal dares to confront her, but also dares to understand her, however unforgivingly. She is also brave to not forgive, or to have her story not adhere to standard narratives, to have a happy ending. She refuses to compromise, but also manages to see her story from all points of view. She is brave to take a story with so much pain and turn it into art that’s so extraordinary.
She writes, “I’m willing to endure [my mother] for a book for all the other children of disastrous, neglectful, and narcissistic parents, who beat themselves up for not being able to alter their gazes, not being able to create the love that would salvage the past, turn into into the turbulent backstory of a triumphant comedy.”
Projection is fascinating, compelling, as beautifully written as it is honest. Honest too that there is artifice at work here, that this book is so consciously art instead of a factual record. And yet there is documentation, note and photographs. A fantastic blurring of art and reality, which is the book’s very point, how we all do this to suit our own purposes, Uppal’s mother escaping to movies in order to justify her own choices.
The literary bolter in Projection must be read to be believed. She is so impossibly divorced from reality (as well as the common rules of social decorum) that if she showed up in fiction, you wouldn’t believe she was true. She exists to underline that mothers are fallible, and more: that some mothers are horrible. That real life is more complicated than a story could ever suppose, but then without story, how would we ever convey that?