By: Sarah Komanapalli | Editor-in-chief
Last Thursday, Terese Marie Mailhot read from her new book Heart Berries at Krannert Auditorium. Mailhot grew up at the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia. She received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and is now a Tecumseh Post-Doctoral Fellow here at Purdue. The fellowship allows indigenous scholars to receive mentorship from Purdue faculty.
Heart Berries is Mailhot’s first memoir and details the trauma she experienced during her childhood, the effects of that trauma, and her own reflections on it. The book relates her first marriage as a teenager, her often abusive mother, molestation at the hands of her father, and the struggles of being diagnosed with PTSD and type two bipolar disorder. The title actually comes from a story Mailhot was given by a close friend. “I picked ‘Heart Berries’ because there’s a story about the ‘Heart Berry Boy,’” said Mailhot. “It’s about the first healer, he comes from a sick village and he leaves and follows a bear. He examines what the bear eats when the bear is sick and then he takes that knowledge and brings it home and starts healing people with this knowledge. To me, that’s indicative of what storytelling is.”
Hearing Mailhot read passages from her memoir aloud, the audience in Krannert got a taste of the reflective sentences that so potently asks to be listened to. Her writing is clear and never shirks from its message. Mailhot expresses her life in language that impresses the importance of her story, showing the unique lens through which she has experienced life. It’s a lens that has been carefully crafted to provide the reader with a brutally stark depiction of experience.
After the reading audience members were given the chance to ask questions. Responding to a student who asked when she knew she wanted to write, Mailhot said, “in first grade I bound my first book and it was about a unicorn. Which is probably really telling.” She laughed and continued saying, “you know my mom was so radical that when I brought this bound book and my first grade teacher was so impressed because it was the first day of school, she told me, ‘well school’s just a choice, Terese. You know that right?’ She was very resistant to even appreciate my white teacher’s compliments. To which I said, ‘no listen to him, I’m smart mom!’”
Mailhot explained to the audience that Heart Berries had actually started out as a work of fiction, not a memoir. “I had a big, chunky book of fiction that I was going to make a full novel out of,” she said. “But then I started being experimental and experimented by cutting out everything that was not true. After I looked at it, I had a memoir.” When asked about what she had cut out, Mailhot replied, “I had wanted to write a protagonist who was sexually explicit and gluttonous and was also having an affair. I wanted to write somebody who wasn’t likable. That was really important for the novel.” She continued saying, “But then when I was transferring all those real moments, all of that bravado, all of that posturing had to go away. And what I was left with was a profoundly vulnerable person.”
Writing a memoir is an intensely personal experience, one that Mailhot found significant. “I found writing the book transforming,” she said. “I told my mother when I was around 16 that I believed my father had molested me. I remember so clearly her words were, ‘That’s not possible because I put you in double diapers. There’s no way he could hurt you.’ I remember how shocking that was,” stated Mailhot. She continued, “I never talked about it again until I was in a Starbucks and I was holding the cup. I was 32 and I remember thinking, no this really happened, I really need to write it and speak it. I need to tell people because I don’t care anymore, this is what happened. It transformed me to write that. I felt like I was having a renaissance, a moment of discovery in my life.”
Along with liberating transforming, Mailhot explores her identity as a Native American and the implications of that. However, she doesn’t see that as her defining her writing. “No matter what I write I’m always going to be compartmentalized as a native writer,” she explained. “But I don’t care to much. If they want to compartmentalize me that’s fine. What I’m doing is exceptional and they can do what they want with that,” she finished, smiling.
Mailhot’s book has already had a profound impact on many of her readers. She hopes they realize how powerful a story can be. “Every detail of your life, every part of that is art,” she said. “Telling your story is beautiful, and I don’t feel that’s cliché to say. I really believe that everyone has to be able to impart the truth of their life whether it be to their children or to their class. I believe in the power of telling a story and telling it well.”