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