Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday Feature: First-person - Priscila Uppal on 6 Essential Questions

Fear of Brazilians, Mothers, and other Essential Things
by Priscila Uppal

Priscila Uppal is an internationally-acclaimed Toronto poet, fiction writer, essayist, memoirist, playwright, and York University professor. Among her publications are eight collections of poetry, including Ontological Necessities (shortlisted for the $50,000 Griffin Poetry Prize); and the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation (2002) and To Whom It May Concern (2009). Time Out London dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.” The World Premiere of 6 Essential Questions is based loosely on the memoir.

Since I am a poet, I will begin with a poem.

I’m Afraid of Brazilians or Visiting the Ancestral Homeland is Not the Great Ethnic Experience Promised by Other Memoirs

Against all political correctness, 
I must say it,
I must admit:
I’m afraid of Brazilians.

I don’t like them.
I don’t like this country.
I don’t like this language.
I don’t even like this currency. 

And not in the mystical sense.
Or the abstract.
Or the perfectly hypothetical.

I can’t blame this fear
on movies, or television programming,
or the front covers
of Time magazine.

I’m afraid of Brazilians.
I am visiting Brazil
(my mother’s country)
and I’m afraid, truly afraid
of every Brazilian I meet.

This is not something you can say
in a poem, you tell me.
Please don’t compose this poem
here: in broad daylight
where any self-respecting Brazilian
could feel perfectly justified
peeking over your shoulder
to see what you’ve written.

Please, not so loud, you say.
You haven’t given them a chance.

You’re right, I admit.
(I can certainly admit it.)
I’ve given them no chance
to please me. Don’t you 

understand, this is the nature
of being afraid, and this is
the nature of the poem
I am writing, which must
get written, no matter
what the climate

or the reception
(here, in my mother’s country
or abroad
or in my own ears).

What does it mean to be a mother when you haven’t seen your daughter in 20 years?

There are so many things we are not supposed to talk about. So many things we don’t want to talk about. So many things no one wants to hear.

And then there are essential things that must be said. Essential things that must be acknowledged. Essential things you dream one day you will hear.

I wrote this poem after meeting my mother for the first time in 20 years. She abandoned my brother, me, and our quadriplegic father in Ottawa, leaving us to basically raise ourselves. I didn’t hear from her or know where she was until one day I accidentally stumbled upon her personal website. Even though I was in shock, I contacted her and planned a trip to Brazil, the land of her birth, and the place she ran to after running away from us.

What does it mean to be a mother when you haven’t seen your daughter in 20 years? What does it mean to be a daughter when you know almost nothing about your mother? What does it mean to be Brazilian when you know almost nothing about Brazil? What does it mean to have DNA or memories?

Most people dream of family reunions as blissful affairs of reconnection and reconciliation. For most people this dream remains a fantasy—a lovely one, but a fantasy nonetheless. Real reunions with estranged family members are fraught with mixed emotions, misunderstandings, misgivings, and missed opportunities.

I wrote this poem before I wrote this play. Iris Turcott, the dramaturge at Factory Theatre, read the poem and said, “This is a perfect monologue. Go and write me a play about this trip.” I was already writing a memoir about the trip, published last fall, called Projection: Encounters with My Runway Mother. I write lots of different literary forms: poems, short stories, novels, essays, creative non-fiction. I love seeing how material takes different shape in different artistic forms, and so I was grateful for the opportunity to shape this essential experience into a play.

The memoir tells the tale of what actually happened when my mother and I met for the first time in 20 years. The play showcases dramatically and dreamily what that actually felt like.

March 1 - 30

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