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How Terese Marie Mailhot stopped writing what other people wanted

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.

“I feel stuck in something feminine and ancestral in its misery.”

Those are some of the first words that Terese Marie Mailhot jotted down in her journal while undergoing treatment in a mental hospital a few years ago. While she didn’t know it at the time, this writing would eventually grow into “Heart Berries,” Mailhot’s collection of essays about growing up on British Columbia’s Seabird Island Reservation, grappling with her own mental health struggles, her heritage and her relationship with her parents.

Growing up, Mailhot drew inspiration from “any poetry [she] could comprehend,” including Emily Dickinson’s “I am nobody who are you?” She memorized and recited the poem, which reads “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you–Nobody–Too?” and laments over the dreariness of being “somebody.”

Mailhot is hardly a nobody today, but she sought to carve a name for herself in the literary world on her own terms. Frustrated by reviews that valued indigenous literature by “what it tells readers about being Indian” rather than the “craft” of the works, the writer said she eschewed that “noise and expectations” while writing “Heart Berries.”

That meant telling her story as an act of recovery, but “where forgiveness was not a route to healing.”

The result is a raw, honest portrait of Mailhot’s life as she works to understand how her own upbringing contributed to the struggles she sought to overcome.

What is your daily writing routine?

I didn’t have a writing routine with most of “Heart Berries.” I’m more organized with my time now, I promise. Each part of the book was cultivated differently.

I wrote one chapter, “Indian Sick,” mostly in a hospital. The workers gave me a composition book and a flexible, non-lethal ballpoint pen. The first thing I jotted down was, “I feel stuck in something feminine and ancestral in its misery.” I worked my way into something epistolary from there, and when I got out of the hospital, I wrote the last few lines about descending into the earliest memories of my father, which shook me into unraveling deeper into that history. That was a terrifying experience.

Some parts of the book were written during the hardest parts of my life. Other parts were crafted sitting in a Barnes & Noble, where I worked every weekday for a year, a couple of hours a day. I would eat an apple tart and get an Americano, and the place was so unpretentious, there were always community college students and happy people playing fantasy games and other young women, probably mothers like me, doing work in there. It felt supportive and collective. Those bookstores are kind of sacred to me now.

What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?

I don’t remember which Emily Dickinson anthology I was reading when I was a child, but the only poem I understood was “I’m Nobody Who Are You?” and I memorized it and recited it in school for show-and-tell once. I read any poetry I could comprehend.

What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?

I would like people to hear about the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada and the United States. There are statistics, like that Indigenous women and girls make up about 4 percent of Canada’s women, but we’re 16 percent of the females killed. And according to the National Institute of Justice, 84 percent of Native American women have experienced physical, sexual, or psychological violence in their lifetime. I saw a lot of bad things happen to Indigenous women in my life, and we’re not doing this to ourselves.

What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?

I took a creative writing class with Evan Lavender Smith, and I think he said to take out any contrivances, any set-up that felt perfunctory. He didn’t like how sitcoms had dialogue that set up scenes for viewers just tuning in, and it made me think about how little we sometimes trust our reader. So I learned through that how to trust a reader and give them credit.

Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?

During my graduate studies I was told what kind of book white people wanted from us. I was told they liked identity crises and they wanted to be taught about our culture, and they didn’t see our stories as singular but as representative. If you look at reviews about contemporary Indigenous writing, you’ll see the work is typically valued based on what it tells readers about being Indian. It’s rare to see one of our books reviewed for its craft.

With all that in my mind, I found myself writing the book professors wanted me to write and I wrote non-fiction on the side, away from my studies. Eventually, I had a crisis where I hated my book and knew none of it was me. I decided to strip my fiction for the truth. I decided to be honest and trust the reader to walk with me, and I knew it would be disruptive, and kind of hard to read because of the content, and my experiences border on a stereotype, but I wanted my singular story to be constructed away from all the noises or expectations. I wanted to present myself in a faulty way, and I didn’t want to make excuses, and I wanted to recover, and showing all that has helped other people who have histories we wish we could forget. But you have to deal with it or it will consume you. I also wanted to tell a story where forgiveness was not a route to healing, because that’s what was being put upon me and I disliked it.

I knew I was done when I had every page taped to the wall, and I read it out loud a few times with a pen in my hand for edits. I sent the finished thing to [my partner] Casey and we read it out loud together, and he was like, “Holy *expletive*, Mountain Woman!” I think Roxane Gay said once, “finished is a feeling,” and it was like that.

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