Mar 23, 2009
Poet, author, Priscila Uppal, an English professor too at York University, challenges traditional psychological and anthropological models of mourning in her new book We Are What We Mourning: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy, suggesting that Canadians mourn differently.
Traditional models define successful mourning in terms of detachment from the loved one who has died; the ability to cut the strings of grief, and to step into the roles of mothers and fathers vacated by the dead. To become unnecessarily identified with grief and death is, according to traditional views, to fail at mourning. To succeed - to maintain health- one must ‘move on;’ accept that the dead are gone; celebrate the fact that they are in heaven. All of this Uppal debunks.
After reading thousands of Canadian elegies she concludes that mourning, at least in late 20th century Canada, is not about forgetting, but about claiming identity. You are, she says, what you mourn. And we, apparently, mourn our parents in elegies to a much greater extent than do others in the U.S. and U.K., for example, who tend to mark the death of youth more frequently with this poetic form.
Many immigrants to Canada didn’t know their parents very well; didn’t know their countries of origin, didn’t learn much about their traditions. In order to take over the roles their parents played - to learn about themselves - many have used mourning as a way to create and recreate the past; as a means to carry on into the future. Art - the elegy - is used as a way to attached to the past, and to connect and incorporate it into the present. What you mourn - what it is you are upset about losing - will determine, according to Uppal, how you see history.
We talk about all of these topics, why and how the work of mourning has so drastically changed in Canada during the latter half of the twentieth century, why the contemporary English-Canadian elegy emphasizes connection rather than separation between the living and the dead.