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.

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.

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Priscila on May 28! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

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.