Early in Heart Berries: A Memoir, Terese Marie Mailhot writes of a mystic who slept next to her bed while she had tuberculosis as a child. Mailhot spent the night telling the mystic stories. “I learned how story was always meant to be for Indian women: Immediate, necessary and fearless, like all good lies.”
Immediate, necessary, and fearless: Those words neatly summarize Mailhot’s first book, a staggeringly honest collection of essays that Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and many others have called one of the most anticipated books of 2018. Heart Berries finds Mailhot tracing the shape of her painful childhood and early adult life in jarringly blunt, poetic style. The effect is both unnerving and hypnotic. Try to stop reading, and Mailhot jams her foot in the door and calmly continues her incantation.
Purdue University recently selected Mailhot as one of two Tecumseh Scholars—part of a larger initiative to increase the representation of indigenous people on its faculty. As a newly minted colleague of Roxane Gay (one of Mailhot’s biggest champions) and the author of a much-hyped memoir set to hit shelves on February 6, Mailhot seems poised for something like fame.
I phoned Mailhot while she was working from a West Lafayette Starbucks, and she kindly stepped out into the chilly January air so I could hear her better. Her congeniality surprised me after reading the steely voice of her memoir, and I told her so. “It’s art, you know?” she replied.
Heart Berries is indeed art: a crazy quilt of wounds and scars woven into a powerfully redemptive odyssey. I recommend you read it. First, read an edited version of my conversation with Mailhot below.
First, let me come clean. I have kept Native American literature at arm’s length for most of my life. Which is why I took this assignment: to rectify that.
Some people do keep it at arm’s length. I think that’s because it is treated like a cultural artifact, a relic, and something to revere. It is not treated with the same respect that art generally is treated with. It’s not examined for its craft. It’s examined for its significance to the culture in which it existed; as an anthropological thing instead of art itself.
Heart Berries documents, among other things, sexual abuse and the depth of the pain it causes. Do you feel a connection between your book and the #MeToo movement?
I think it definitely ties into the #MeToo movement. It also raises the question of how many women from rural communities who live in abject poverty have a story to tell, but don’t have the safety to tell it. I wish #MeToo was more accessible to women who need to speak their story. In communities like the one where I am from, it’s harder. Speaking out can get you unemployed, get you killed, get you ostracized from your family, can make you homeless. Those are realities that hindered my work, and once I was able to get my graduate degree and start talking about what happened to me, I stopped fictionalizing what was going on in my life. It was empowering. But that empowerment is a luxury that not everyone has.
In the chapter “Indian Sick,” you document your time at a psychiatric institution. How much of the book was written there?
That chapter was almost completely written in the institution. I was editing a journal and applying to two MFA programs at the time, and I told them if I don’t have a body of work to present, I won’t get in. They gave me a composition book, and I filled it up. And when I got home, I started fictionalizing the whole thing for my MFA applications. I never really turned it into an essay until I stripped all the lies away to make it memoir.
That doesn’t seem like the typical way to write a memoir.
I think that’s why I am called an experimental writer: “What if you wrote a short story and took away everything that wasn’t true?” But at the time, I couldn’t speak of everything that happened to me. The protagonist in my stories was bolder, stronger, and more willful. When I stripped it all away, it was very raw text. I revised relentlessly, but it is all so emotionally wrought with pain. But no, that’s not how memoirs should be written at all. I’m not sure how I did it, but I had to.
Were you influenced by other writers in how you approached the language?
Language created reality in my culture, so I knew the power and potency of words. And if I said something, it had to be with the intention and heart and profundity I carry as a human being. Every word mattered. That was my culture. And I was heavily influenced by the romantic poets, and the way they illustrate the beating heart of love. Simultaneously, I was interested in Raymond Carver because he’s so sparse and so exacting. And I was reading Adrienne Rich and Roxane Gay. It’s a mix of different things. I am not sure how to identify the style; I’m just trying to be as potent as I can.
Was it therapeutic to write about your pain with such raw intensity?
The final pages, as I was writing them, lifted me up into the feeling that I have now—which is, I’m going to be okay. In my next book, the essays are more contemplative and less frantic and less about the pain of living. But had I not written those last pages, I wouldn’t have had that moment of transcendence. Once you start writing, you can look at your life in a way you never did before.
What do you hope people come away with after reading your book?
I hope they read it and empathize more with the world around them. I hope they know that every person has a story, and that it’s not cliché to say that. I hope the book will redeem Native women, and when they apply for a job or go to the welfare office, they will bee seen as women first. I hope it makes the world a better place. Which is a tall order.