Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Priscila Uppal

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Priscila Uppal

It's less than a week until one Canadian writer will not only have $60,000 in his or her pocket, but will also have the prestige of being the third winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

We're celebrating the prize with a series of interviews with the shortlisted authors, and today we're speaking with Priscila Uppal. Priscila's Projection: Encounters With My Runaway Mother (Thomas Allen) tells the story of Priscila travelling to Brazil to meet the mother who walked out on her twenty years earlier.

Today Priscila speaks to us about watching Blade Runner with her long-lost mother and how non-fiction appeals to the Aristotle in all of us. Priscila — who is a multi-genre writer acclaimed for her poetry and prose — also shares about the experience of turning the memoir into a play.

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction honours the finest works of non-fiction published in Canada each year. The winner will receive $60,000. The Writers' Trust of Canada also creates teaching resources for senior high school educators based on the shortlisted titles.

Check out all of Open Book's interviews with finalists through our continuing Weston Words series!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Priscila Uppal:

Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother is a memoir recounting the twelve days I spent in Brazil reuniting with the mother who abandoned me, my brother, and our quadriplegic father (my father swallowed contaminated water in Antigua while working for CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, and the water attacked his immune system rendering him a quadriplegic in 48 hours). After twenty years of silence, I found my mother by accident on the Internet, gathered the courage to call her and ask if I could visit her. I decided to embark on this journey to explore what happens when you encounter someone you have imagined for years, transforming them according to your own needs over time, in the flesh and blood. I discovered a woman who has used art, particularly movies, to escape the guilt of her life, just as I have used art to try to understand the world around me. As we try to break through the screen to expose our fantasy worlds, we make many unexpected discoveries about ourselves, our family line, and our futures. I also discover a whole host of eccentric Brazilian relatives who all want to tell me something they know about who I am.

Each day of the trip has its own chapter, titled and framed by a movie my mother has seen over 100 times in the theatre, a movie about mothers and daughters, or a movie about Brazil. Thank goodness my mother’s favourite movie is Blade Runner, so we begin there, with the famous interview with a replicant who is asked what good things he remembers about his mother. Knowing he is about to be exposed as inhuman, since he has no mother, he shoots the interviewer. My journey begins as much there as it does at the airport since I try to outline what I’ve learned about what it means to be a motherless daughter, and what consolations are there for those of us who might never find comfort or forgiveness or reconciliation with our estranged family members.

OB:

Where were you when you received news of your nomination?

PU:

I was between Creative Writing classes at York University. My partner, Christopher Doda, and I were afraid to celebrate the nomination before it was publically announced on Sept 18th because we were worried someone might overhear us, so we winked at each other a lot. Sept 18th was the day of Projection’s book launch in Toronto, so it was absolutely perfect timing for the news to be released that morning! I attended the press conference at the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws store (I am a huge fan of both the Maple Leafs and groceries), and then proceeded to do my cheese and veggie platter shopping for the book launch at the same place where my book had just been unveiled as a finalist. Seeing so many friendly faces at the book launch, and being interviewed on stage by my dear friend and amazing author Camilla Gibb, was the perfect icing on the cake.

OB:

What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?

PU:

I love all forms of art — and I write many forms of literature (poetry, novels, short stories, plays, essays, creative non-fiction, academic writing) — and I’m fascinated by how each form provides its own unique experiences for readers. I think non-fiction appeals to the Aristotle in many of us, the desire to define and categorize the world, outer and inner, with clear insights and compelling revelations. Readers love an amazing yarn, but they do a double head-shake when they realize a story might seem larger than life, but is in fact the truth. Therefore, the stories you tell in non-fiction have very real stakes for readers and most want to be able to come away from the book with new knowledge they can take into their own lives. I think much non-fiction is about the desire to analyze, understand, and then change the world through careful, thoughtful, ethical research; even memoir, where the subject of research is frequently one’s own life.

OB:

Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.

PU:

I found a copy of Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery by Richard Selzer in a used bookstore and bought it because of its title. Perhaps because of growing up with so much illness around me, I’m fascinated by concepts of health and the human project to outsmart the body as it begins to destroy itself. This book is a poetic and lyrical, but also earthy, visceral, and brutally honest account of a man who has dedicated his life to trying to save the lives of others, cutting up the human body in an effort to heal it. His observations on his practice and his meditations on the relationship between the body and the soul make for a very compelling — if sometimes stomach-turning — reading of linked essays.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

PU:

My next project is the play 6 Essential Questions, which is a poetic, surreal, sometimes absurdist play based on the experiences of the memoir. Whereas I was chained to realistic facts in the memoir, with the play I gave my imagination permission to experiment with how the emotional truths of the story might be explored through the magical power of the theatre. As I’ve instructed the actors, “the memoir is what happened, the play how it felt.” It’s already been an incredible experience to work with my amazing dramaturge, Iris Turcott, and to collaborate with directors and managers and actors. Elizabeth Saunders, who plays my mother, is utterly heartbreaking, and almost makes me wish things had turned out differently. I love the immediacy of experience of theatre. It will be strange and incredible to witness my trip transformed onto the stage. The play will have its world premiere at the Factory Theatre in Toronto in March 2014.


Priscila Uppal is a poet, fiction writer, academic and professor of Humanities and English at York University. She is the author of eight books of poetry, including: Winter Sport: Poems (Mansfield Press, 2010), Successful Tragedies: Selected Poems 1998-2010 (Bloodaxe Books, U.K. 2010) and Traumatology (Exile Editions, 2010). Her works have been published internationally and translated into numerous languages. Additionally, she is the editor of several anthologies and essay collections. Priscila Uppal’s works have been taught in several countries. She is a frequent guest on radio, television and in print media, and has designed and led writing workshops for over a decade. She lives in Toronto.

For more information about Projection please visit the Thomas Allen website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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