Three memoirists discuss family, parenting and writing

By Sarah Skrydstrup

While waiting for the panel The Art of Life to begin last Wednesday, the crowd in the Brigantine Room buzzed with anticipation. The audience’s excited chatter was quickly hushed, however, when host and moderator Stuart Woods, editor of Quill & Quire, stepped onstage to do the introductions. Plum Johnson, Lynn Thomson and Priscila Uppal each read from their memoir, then sat down to participate in a fascinating round table about family, parenting and writing. All three of these authors’ memoirs deals with parent-child relationships. The readings and the discussion that followed brought a lot of laughter from both the audience and the participants on stage.

Plum Johnson, founder of KidsCanada Publishing Corp., began by reading a passage from They Left Us Everything, which chronicled a conversation she had with her brothers about their realization that the birth date on their deceased mother’s headstone was wrong. One of Plum’s brothers quietly admitted that the birth date on their father’s headstone was wrong, too!

Lynn Thomson, a bookseller, mother and now author, read an excerpt from her memoir, Birding with Yeats, about a bird-watching excursion to Pelee Island with her teenage son, Yeats. Lynn attempted to properly prepare for the cooler weather by wearing rather embarrassing nylon pants. This aggravated Yeats, causing him to proclaim, exasperated, “Mom! Your pants are too loud!”

Finally, it was Priscila Uppal’s turn. She read from her memoir, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. An audience member gasped in shock at the circumstances under which Priscila’s mother left her family: she escaped to Brazil when Priscila’s father was made a quadriplegic after a dangerous accident. The gasp, however, was quickly followed by chuckles when Priscila described how she accidentally stumbled upon her runaway mother’s website and “did what any academic would do, applied for funding” so that she could head to Brazil and seek her out.

When the panel discussion began, the audience was captivated by the three women on stage. They learned much about each woman’s experience. Plum, Lynn and Priscila gave such great insight into life and writing.

Plum shared that “all of us, at some point, will have to sift through what is left, all the things we inherit.” She said that during the writing of her book, she read many memoirs, which she affectionately called “the literary equivalent of reality TV.”

Lynn chimed in, saying, “I couldn’t have written the book without my journals.” When asked about motherhood and what she’d learned about parenting, she highlighted the importance of supporting a child and participating in their interests: “It was the kind of mother I chose to be.”

Priscila was a great participator in the discussion: “I wanted to make sure I was writing the book for the right reasons.” She then reflected on the title of her book and how “people in your life have an idea or projection of who you should be…. People don’t always see us for who we are.”

Spending time with these three accomplished and self-assured women, delving into their lives, was both an enlightening and truly entertaining experience.

Sarah Skrydstrup is currently the Communications Intern at IFOA and is completing her MA in Literatures of Modernity at Ryerson University. She enjoys reading short stories and her favourite novel is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

The Art of Life

By Sarah Skrydstrup

Tonight, three exciting Toronto-based authors will be taking part in a round table discussion about their recent memoirs. Plum Johnson will present They Left Us Everything, Lynn Thomson will introduce Birding with Yeats and Priscila Uppal will bring us Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother. A common theme in each of these memoirs is family. Plum, Lynn and Priscila all explore the good, the bad, the uncomfortable, the happy and the sad of family life and relationships.

Johnson, They Left Us EverythingIn They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s childhood home plays as important a role as any of the actual characters included in her story. It is stuck in the past and brimming with memories. Each outdated newspaper and flyer, all the kitsch and old wallpaper become essential to her understanding of her parents. The book also explores the complicated emotions that come with caring for elderly parents. Plum highlights the importance of reconciling past relationships, and suggests that this can be done through a preservation of one’s family history. You can visit her website for  tips and tricks on preserving your own family history with a memory book.

In Birding with Yeats, Lynn Thomson learns to let go. Throughout her memoir, Lynn reflects on birdingmotherhood, her relationship with her son and finally, her relationship with herself. Lynn’s bird-watching excursions with her son Yeats demonstrate the positive effect that the outdoor world has on their lives. While a lot of her memoir focuses on the mother-son relationship, the other aspect that is significant is Lynn’s job as a bookseller. The month that her husband opened his bookshop, Ben McNally Books, is the same month that Yeats begins high school. These events prove to be life changing for both Lynn and Yeats. As Yeats gets older, he prefers to do things on his own, and this is something that Lynn comes to accept in her book. Letting go of your child can be difficult, but Lynn illustrates that is can also be beautiful.

TA20 Projection Jacket Dundern.inddPriscila Uppal, like Plum, is also a caretaker. Priscila’s mother abandoned her family after her father became a quadriplegic, leaving her to be his sole care provider. Projection focuses on her relationship with her mother and their meeting in Brazil. Priscila candidly shares their unusual relationship, analyzing each of her mother’s words and actions. Priscila’s book also includes several photographs from her meeting with her mother. Each photo is captioned with a very brief description, but as the reader knows, the image is loaded with much more meaning. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Plum, Lynn and Priscila’s experiences and relationships with their families help to shape them into the women they are today. Tonight’s discussion is something that truly shouldn’t be missed. You might come to see your own life (and familial relationships) in a new light.

Sarah Skrydstrup is currently the Communications Intern at IFOA and is completing her MA in Literatures of Modernity at Ryerson University. She enjoys reading short stories and her favourite novel is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.