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In ‘Heart Berries,’ a powerful new indigenous voice breaks old silences

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: March 25
  • Published March 24

Heart Berries

By Terese Marie Mailhot. Counterpoint, 2018. $23. 160 pages. Afterword by Joan Naviyuk Kane

“Heart Berries,” by Terese Marie Mailhot.

In an introduction to "Heart Berries," writer Sherman Alexie lauds the short memoir and its author; Mailhot, he says, is "the metaphorical love child of Emily Dickinson and Crazy Horse." The New York Times has called the book a "sledgehammer." Both are appropriate descriptors.

Mailhot, a First Nations woman, grew up on the Seabird Island reservation in British Columbia and recently received an M.F.A. degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her tough-talking memoir, told in a non-linear and impressionistic manner, depicts generational abuse within her family and culture and her responses to it. It brings both brutal honesty and reconciliation to a legacy of disrespect, dishonor and willful blindness, particularly in the treatment of indigenous women.

"Nobody wants to know why Indian women leave or where they go. Our bodies walk across the highway from the dances of our youth into missing narratives without strobe lights or sweet drinks in our small purses, or the talk of leaving. The truth of our leaving or coming into the world is never told."

Chapter one, "Indian Condition," lays out some of the reasons for the book. "My story was maltreated," the author begins. "Women asked me for my story." In a series of short sentences and paragraphs, she presents a bare-bones outline of a traumatic life. There was a grandmother, a mother, nightmares, tuberculosis. She married young because she "wanted a safe home." She lost her first child in a custody battle while giving birth to her second. She left the reservation. She took writing classes. "It's an Indian condition to be proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience."

Chapter two directly addresses, in an epistolary fashion, "you," "my teacher," "Casey," a white man she partially blames for her situation. There was an affair, pain, heartbreak, questions about the speaker's "autonomy" and "agency." The image of heart berries is introduced. Heart Berry Boy, in an ancient story from the speaker's culture, was led by spirits to Bear, who showed him ripe strawberries and taught him to be a healer.

Gradually, we learn that the author is writing from a "behavioral health" center, where she's checked herself in because of depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. She's not so sure she wants to be there, taking meds and going to group therapy. "In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don't even know that white people see transcendence the way we do."

The narrative, in a fragmented way, shifts to her mother's life and Mailhot's relationship with her. Her mother, a social worker, seemed incapable of caring for her own family. Mailhot and her siblings were neglected and put into foster care. Her father, we learn, was a talented artist as well as a drunk, and long absent.

Mailhot receives a diagnosis. She has post-traumatic-stress disorder, an eating disorder and bipolar II.

When she leaves the center, she returns to the man, the source of so much of her anguish. The relationship is complex and tumultuous. Eventually there's a new baby and marriage.

Mailhot is a truth-teller about her own behavior. She was not always a good or responsible parent to the son she raised. She drank and went with men she didn't care about. She hit the man she did care about in the face while he was driving and gave him a black eye. She interrogates herself over and over about her past, her pain, her "heart." She is, in her own words, "Little Mountain Woman," a squaw, a ghost, a geyser; she came from thunder.

Late in the story a memory of her father emerges. The details are unclear, as are the roles of the father and another man, a boyfriend of her mother's. What is clear enough is that there was abuse and trauma. "I was the third generation of the things we didn't talk about. . . . At thirty-two I was a child, a victim of something."

Much of the story overall is oblique, even muddled, with details and connections left to be inferred by the reader. This style replicates the workings of a mind under duress but also seems to fall within cultural parameters, as "sparse and interested in blank space" as Salish art.

In an afterword, Anchorage poet Joan Naviyuk Kane (like Sherman Alexie, a professor in the IAIA program from which Mailhot graduated) conducts a Q&A with the author. This conversation delves deeply into issues of Native memoir, the risks of self-disclosure, the sentimentality of writing about trauma, and "the space that a Native woman is permitted to inhabit in dominant culture." Kane asks Mailhot what questions she was trying to answer in the work, and Mailhot discusses how her efforts to recover memories and get at truths resulted in the story's roving structure.

The sweetness of this book's title along with the heart-shaped illustration of berries and vines on the cover do not suggest the nature of what's found within its pages. Heart Berries is a disturbing but ultimately transformative account of the life of a woman who has brought tremendous honesty and understanding to historical and personal circumstances.

In Kane's conclusion to the afterword, she makes a case for Mailhot's memoir breaking new ground, leading a new form of indigenous literature unconstrained by old expectations about Native lives and what constitutes "story." "Where are we?" Kane asks. "Where we have always been. Where are you?"

Editor's note: A passage from this review contains an offensive term. The sentence has altered to make it clear that it is quoted as a term Terese Marie Mailhot uses to describe herself in her book "Heart Berries." 

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