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How Terese Marie Mailhot came to terms with her father's life and death

Our January pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club "Now Read This" is Terese Marie Mailhot's memoir "Heart Berries." Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

When Terese Marie Mailhot first started taking creative writing classes, she tried turning her relationship with her father into fiction.

"The stories I wrote about him always had murky endings, where you could tell the protagonist had unfinished business with him, and that she had been hurt," she said.

A well-known artist, his life on the Schkam Native Reserve had been chronicled in a documentary back in 2008. Three years later, he was found dead in a British Columbia motel after an apparent assault.

"My father died at the Thunderbird Hotel on Flood Hope Road. According to documents, he was beaten over a sex worker or a cigarette. I prefer to tell people it was over a cigarette," she wrote.

After four years, Mailhot said she "decided to write the truth" about their complicated relationship, and the way his life ended.

In writing her memoir, Mailhot said she uncovered information about her father that was hard to process, including a news story that said he had abducted a child in 1974. But this work, she writes, was meant to "show that a woman can own her life, reach for recovery, and she can move away from justifying her wrongdoing, and she can hold the culprits in her life accountable in a dynamic and real way."

Below, Mailhot annotates a passage about her father, with her insights highlighted in yellow.

Excerpt from "Heart Berries"

I Know I'll Go

My father died at the Thunderbird Hotel on Flood Hope Road. According to documents, he was beaten over a sex worker or a cigarette. I prefer to tell people it was over a cigarette. I considered an Indian death myself, while walking along the country roads of my reservation, before I really considered life. His death intruded, as I could not fathom being a good person when I came from such misery.

I found newspaper clips about my father. Ken and four men abducted a girl. There aren't any details. There are documents about his murder and the transitional housing program he was in when he died. He was without a home, and social welfare gave him a hotel room, next to sex workers and younger, more violent men. There was nothing easy about his memory or what he left behind.

He was an anomaly, a drunk savant. He took his colors, brushes, and stool when he left my mother. It was harvest, and the corn stalks were gold and waving. I was constantly waiting outside on the porch. I ate blueberries and spit out anything too ripe–a purple liquid. I remember staring at my spit on the porch.

His hair was black and coarse. He was wearing a baseball tee shirt and jeans covered in rust acrylic.

As an Indian woman, I resist the urge to bleed out on a page, to impart the story of my drunken father. It was dangerous to be alone with him, as it was dangerous to forgive, as it was dangerous to say he was a monster. If he were a monster, that would make me part-monster, part Indian. It is my politic to write the humanity in my characters, and subvert the stereotypes. Isn't that my duty as an Indian writer? But what part of him was subversion?

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