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In 'Heart Berries,' An Indigenous Woman's Chaotic Coming-Of-Age

Feb 11, 2018

Terese Marie Mailhot started her new memoir, Heart Berries, while she was in a mental institution, where she had committed herself after a breakdown. The pages bleed with the pain of mental illness, lost love and her family history on an Indian reservation in British Columbia.

It's a collection of essays filled with what she called "heavy material": experiences of poverty, addiction and abuse. But she also says she's finding joy in cultivating art. She spoke with me about her work and her life from Spokane, Wash.


Interview Highlights

On the person to whom much of the book is addressed, her now-husband Casey (a white man)

Sometimes I'll be talking to my husband about something small – about how I opened the door at a coffee shop, and a white woman walked through it. And I thought, is that because I'm indigenous or did she just not see me or am I invisible? And I'm thinking of a lot of different things, and he's not — all he sees is me grimacing at somebody who's relatively polite and well-mannered. So relating where I come from — where my mother talked about going to school and having rocks thrown at her and being called a dirty squaw — having to relate that's where I come from and it's how I exist in the world today, and I'm trying not to be burdened by that, but it's really difficult. It's been a journey for him to see it for himself, you know?

It's really difficult to articulate that the book started as an epistolary thing to him, you know, to try to get him to understand my experiences as an indigenous woman, and that I might appear crazy to him, but I'm not crazy. There's a lot of things that I felt like I had to validate to him, and by the end of it, I realized it's not really about him at all. It was about trying to articulate that to the world — that we might appear to have all these stigmas and stereotypes, and we might be burdened by that, but I wanted to show the humanity of my character and who I am. And not redeem myself, but just show that we are people deserving of that space, you know?

On how mental illness, bipolar disorder, has informed her work

I feel that polarity just in my daily life — like, I feel like I have a swinging heart, you know? And I'm driven by that. And I think artistically, it's done a lot of good. And in my real life, I think it's made my relationships more intense, even with my children. I think I love harder this way. But coping with the ups and downs has been a real challenge. And I feel like only in my 30s have I really begun to understand that I'm not bad because I'm ill — I am OK, you know?

On her duty as an American Indian writer, especially as an Indian woman

I think it's to reach our potentials as artists first and foremost. I think — you know, my work speaks to issues like murdered, missing indigenous women, and it's also giving humanity to experiences that women have where I'm from. You know, I wish I could walk into a library and see a book by someone from my experience, and I think that's important. But I also think we're cultivating art, and I think we owe that to ourselves right now, and we should be thinking what's ours. It's such a joy for me – I know it's so wrought with heavy material and content, but to me there's nothing better than creating art.

Sophia Schmidt and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Terese Marie Mailhot started her new memoir "Heart Berries" while she was in a mental institution, where she committed herself after a breakdown. The pages bleed with the pain of mental illness, substance abuse and her family history on an Indian reservation in British Columbia. She joins us now from Spokane to talk about her work and her life. Welcome to the program.

TERESE MARIE MAILHOT: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is so much in this book. I'd like to start with the history of your family the way that you do. Your grandmother was sent to a residential school that took Indigenous children away from their parents to be brought up by nuns. And you write, (reading) Indians froze trying to run away. And many starved nuns and priests ran out of places to put the bones. So they built us into the walls of new boarding schools.

It's chilling imagery. Can you tell me about that history?

MAILHOT: Yeah. As I was trying to form my own ideas about the residential school experience and how that related to the turmoil I was experiencing and my mental health issues, I considered intergenerational trauma and what my grandmother went through as a native woman being taken away from her family and raised in a residential school. And there were so many horrific stories that it was impossible to narrow it down to just a few or try to specify. So I just tried to relate generally what a horror that must have been for so many.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most of this book is written to what we understand to be a lover at the time who you're now married to. Casey is white.

MAILHOT: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I think this is echoed many times in this book that, somehow, the violence of what you've experienced means that you can never be known or truly understood. Is that what you were trying to get at?

MAILHOT: Yeah. I think it's that, sometimes, I'll be talking to my husband about something small, about how I open the door at a coffee shop and, you know, a white woman walked through it. And I thought, is that because I'm Indigenous, or did she just not see me, or am I invisible? And I'm thinking of a lot of different things. And he's not - all he sees is me kind of grimacing at somebody who's relatively polite and well-mannered. So relating where I come from, where my mother talked about going to school and having rocks thrown at her and being called a dirty squaw, having to relate that's where I come from - and it's how I exist in the world today. And I try not to be burdened by that. But it's really difficult. And it's been a journey for him to kind of see it for himself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about Casey.

MAILHOT: Casey - I'm still so in love with him. I really - it's really difficult to articulate that the book started as an epistolary thing to him, you know, to try to get him to understand my experiences as an Indigenous woman and that I might appear crazy to him. But I'm not crazy. There's a lot of things that I felt like I had to validate to him. And by the end of it, I realize it's not really about him at all. You know, it was about trying to articulate that to the world - that we might appear to have all of these stigmas and stereotypes, and we might be burdened by that. But I wanted to show the humanity of my character and who I am and not redeem myself but just show that we are people deserving of that space, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And obviously, you were going through a very difficult time when you wrote this. And you were institutionalized. And you were grappling with mental illness. How has that informed your work - having to deal with that? I think you were diagnosed as bipolar, among other things.

MAILHOT: Yeah. Well, I feel the polarity just in my daily life. Like, I feel like I have a swinging heart, you know? And I'm driven by that. And I think, artistically, it's done a lot of good. And in my real life, I think it's made my relationships more intense, even with my children. I think I love harder this way. But coping with the ups and downs has been a real challenge. And I feel like only in my 30s have I really begun to understand that I'm not bad because I'm ill. I am OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It seems like at this moment in particular, it's so vital to have Native American women's stories being told in their own words out in the world. And you write in the book about the duty as an Indian writer. What is that duty right now in your view?

MAILHOT: I think it's to reach our potentials as artists first and foremost. I think, you know, my work speaks to issues like murdered, missing indigenous women. And it's also giving humanity to a lot of the experiences women have where I'm from. You know, I wish I could walk into a library and see a book by someone from my experience. And I think that's important. But I also think we're cultivating art. And I think we owe that to ourselves right now. And we should be taking what's ours. It's such a joy for me. Yeah. I know it's so wrought with heavy material and content. But to me, there's nothing better than creating art, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Terese Marie Mailhot's new memoir is "Heart Berries." Thank you so much.

MAILHOT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.