The Emotion of the Moment: Talking with Terese Marie Mailhot
In her debut memoir, Heart Berries, New York Times bestselling author Terese Marie Mailhot spares no one, and most especially herself, from her unflinching gaze. After admitting herself to a mental hospital, she’s diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder and given a journal. The words she writes there reflect a woman on the very edge of what she can endure. But Heart Berries is more than just one woman’s account of her breakdown and how she got to the other side. It is unquestionably akin to a piece of Salish art, which she describes as “sparse and interested in blank space. The work must be striking.”
A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, Mailhot is an English post-doctoral fellow at Purdue University. She grew up on the Sea Bird Island First Nation reservation in British Columbia, surviving a dysfunctional childhood that swung between neglect and tradition, learning and abuse. The legacy left by her parents lingers long after their deaths, and an even more enduring legacy looms: one of history and womanhood.
I spoke with Mailhot over the phone, and we explored writing as therapy, how she crafts trauma on the page, and how her views on motherhood changed after writing her memoir.
The Rumpus: So I cheated and read other interviews; the question that kept coming up was around your being a voice for indigenous people and especially for native women. And I understood that, but I also felt like you were able to channel a common experience of women of all races and ethnicities. Where do you see Heart Berries fitting into the wider conversation we’re having about feminism right now?
Terese Marie Mailhot: I think it’s a feminist text, you know? It’s avoiding the language of feminist theory—it’s avoiding it because I really want my story to feel singular, but I think it’s exploring some of the issues that were important to me, like my own sexuality and my own motherhood and my own experiences trying to validate myself through relationships. And realizing that it wasn’t important to validate myself through someone else’s eyes. It was important to visualize myself.
Those are feminist ideologies and I’m dealing with them as ideologies and I’m dealing with Western construct. I’m dealing with challenging those misconceptions about women, right? That we are supposed to be nice or silent, or we’re supposed to endure to show that we’re good women.
Rumpus: How do feel about white women relating to this story, but maybe not doing the work of understanding it’s not actually reflecting them, as it might reflect me—a black American woman—or other women of color?
Mailhot: I’ve seen white women relate to subjugation and being exploited and family trauma, and those are things that are accessible to them, and I’m glad those things brought them into the text, because there’s so much else to explore. I’m glad they can relate to it. I think the text itself resists being digested in a simple way. So once they’re in, they should be dealing with the text as it is and not what they want it to be.
For the most part, I haven’t had a chance to really talk to white women readers about what they’re getting from the text, right? I have seen them say things that sometimes trouble me, like “Oh, this shows me the experience of indigenous women,” and then I have to talk about that in interviews. But this is not a representative text. It’s a singular experience that reflects some of the issues indigenous women face, but we all experience it in different ways and react in different ways. For me, especially when I’m talking about PTSD, I’m aggressive, and other symptoms include being irritable and angry. But a lot of women don’t experience those symptoms. They experience something else. And I think once it becomes representative it becomes dangerous. The only way to combat that is through conversations we haven’t had yet.
Rumpus: There’s this old debate about whether or not writing can be healing or therapeutic. Joan Didion said in an interview with the Washington Post about Blue Nights: “If something is looking me in the face, I have to look back at it.” She’s talking about pain and grief. But she doesn’t consider writing to be healing. I’m curious what you think.
Mailhot: It’s not therapeutic like a stone massage. You have to play with all the tools you have as a writer. You have to remove yourself to write about trauma. Which means you have to be able to see, This is better as an end-scene. You’re writing about your abuse, which is so surreal to even interact with your life that way that it makes you think objectively about the ways in which you dealt with that trauma. You get to relate things and connect the thread in a lyricism which makes you look at trauma in a certain way. It’s kind of like painting or horseback riding as therapy. You’re interacting with your life in this other way instead of just sitting across the room from a therapist and they ask you, “How do you feel about that?” It’s like, instead you’re dealing with the page and it’s telling you to show it. Show me what that looks like and do it so well that other people have to regard it as art. It gives a new agency to your life because you’ve made art of something hurtful, and you have to be proud.
Rumpus: Can we talk about the craft of this book? We’re seeing this very intimate view, but there’s also very clear intention.
Mailhot: What guided my work was the emotion of the moment. So there are some points where I feel like I’m reading a rant, especially when I’m talking about the women in Casey’s life as I was in his life and how I’m angry about that. So I had to figure out how to make that text loose, so it appeared I was unraveling. But also, there are points when the text is tight and lyrical and engaged in this way where I’m being really astute about myself and other people. I wanted people to know I could wield narrative power and be sharp, but I could also be very loose and misguided. People had to see me making mistakes. They had to witness me make mistakes on a craft level—writing redundancies, because mentally I was unwell. So I wasn’t always saying sharp things; I was saying sentimental things that were very vulnerable to speak, but I had to trust the reader to know I was smart enough to write it better; I just didn’t want to right then. And you want the reader to have an experience so you [the writer] have to know if you’re going to do a lot of exposition or no exposition—then you have to make up for it in some other way, so it has to be beautiful enough or it has to have striking images or it has to have some good moments of dialogue that give you insight into the story itself.
So all of those things were in my mind and at a point when I got an education, which I’m glad I received, you know you can play the music without thinking about it too much. You’ve learned all the rules.
Rumpus: I wondered how much of the things that felt like craft moves were instinct, because if you read enough and you write enough, some things that you do you don’t even know that you’re doing, and then there’s other times you go back and you spend an hour with paragraph. I couldn’t discern between craft moves and your instincts as a writer.
Mailhot: You shouldn’t see the writer’s hand.
Rumpus: Does how you feel about motherhood now changed from when you were writing about it in the beginning of Heart Berries?
Mailhot: I had to write about the shame of motherhood, and the fact [that] I’ve never read a book about a woman who was dealing with postpartum depression and could remember the worst thing she did, and then as part of her legacy she wants to give that thing to her child. I want you to see that I’ve done something I can’t exactly forgive myself for.
For me, writing that made me a better mother because all of a sudden I was accountable to an audience. Because I never talked about that to [my sons] Isiah or Isadore. I never talked about anything until kind of recently when I had to write it. Writing about shame allowed me to own that for other mothers who might be reading. And I felt like it was an experience I wanted to write about in a literary kind of way. I didn’t know that writing it down shaped the way I viewed myself as a mother because I realized it was something I could ultimately forgive myself for. Because now I’ve learned about my mental health and how to be accountable and how to know that something that I failed at as a mother was directly related to my lack of tools and lack of access to adequate healthcare or intervention.
I view motherhood in this communal way. In order to be a good mother you need rent, you need daycare, you need food in your fridge. You can’t really judge mothers who don’t have access to those things. Of course you can, but without taking all of those things into account, you can’t adequately judge them. When you live in a house that has no food and you’re supposed to be a good mother, but then there are all these systemic issues that make it impossible to make ends meet on a reserve like mine. I view [motherhood] differently now that it’s literature. I view my relationship with my children differently because I feel like I’m more connected to my story and that I own my story now. And I think my kids are better for it. It’s been a long journey of healing to just write this thing down.
Rumpus: What you said about judging mothers reminds me of that line from Heart Berries: “Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.” It’s one of my favorite lines in the book, because it reminds of saying about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Well, that’s all well and good, but what if you don’t have boots? Then where do you begin?
Mailhot: Yeah, there’s such a demand that we get over things, all the time, and I even feel the compulsion every day to get over something and I think that’s been ingrained in our psyche. It seems like an American culture thing that you have to be self-made and self-reliant you have to overcome because that’s the story everyone likes. And I think the book asks the question, “Okay, I have a job now, I’m a person now. I’m removed from my circumstances but my circumstances keep following me. Now what?” And I think that’s important to notice. You can’t pull yourself up by things that aren’t serving you. Maybe the boot is the problem.
Rumpus: I found myself having a visceral reaction to the word, “squaw”? And I wondered if it was because I felt your struggle with it. Do you believe squaw is on the same level as the n-word?
Mailhot: Well, in the essay, “Little Mountain Woman,” I had to deal with the squaw stereotype, because it almost felt dirty to me. If she went to town my mother was called a “dirty Indian” most of her life, so that transferred to me. She was always cleaning and my grandmother was always cleaning and we felt that stigma—that we were dirty because we were poor. And we also felt that squaw stereotype because we were often sexualized because we were Indian women. We were treated as disposable, even by our own. So I had to use the word and I didn’t put it in quotes. For me, it had naturally been in my psyche so it wasn’t a word I’d put in quotes when I speak it. It’s something that feels ugly to say, but I had to say it to really understand I was dealing with that stereotype every time I felt dirty. Every time I felt people were looking at me like I was wild or sexual or like a conquest.
Rumpus: After reading the book I did a mental scroll of every time I could remember reading that word and it was always in a negative or offhand way, as in That’s a native woman, that’s what we call them.
Mailhot: It’s so absurd. And it’s always through the lens of a white man or white writer who wants to romanticise us.
Rumpus: Once you notice it, it’s everywhere, like the male gaze.
Mailhot: I was watching “Drunk History,” I think the Sacagawea episode. These two white girls were really drunk and they refer offhand to a native woman as a squaw. And it was like, “How is that word natural to you? It’s so old. And archaic. How are you even using that as a word?” You can’t escape it once you notice.
Rumpus: Did you feel like you were reclaiming the word?
Mailhot: I was facing it. Reclamation to me—I don’t reclaim things I don’t want. I deal with the stereotype. Like the stereotype of being a welfare mom. I talk about what it looks like to have a kid who has lice and understanding what that looks like in an airport or what that looks like to the public, and I own it in this way, saying, Yeah, I understand that’s how you’re looking at me, but I’m really disinterested in how you’re looking at me. And I resent it and I challenge it. And that’s what I’m doing. If someone says something brutal to me, my reaction is, “Well, then, let me be that then. Let me be your squaw. Let me feel ornamental like a Precious Moments figurine and let me exist in that moment and then let me fuck it up.”
Rumpus: Okay, so people read Heart Berries and they want more. Who else would you recommend?
Mailhot: The interesting thing is there’s so much variety in Native women writers. I hadn’t read anything like what I wrote, which I was happy about, because it meant there was a space for my work. I think writers are always pleased when they don’t see what they’re doing because then you don’t have anyone to be compared to. So one person who definitely influenced me was Elissa Washuta. Her food memoir, Starvation Mode, and her memoir, My Body Is a Book of Rules, impacted me when I was doing my MFA and informed me that you could have an aesthetic. Hers is more cerebral, not roving—how mine is emotionally—but it showed me you could have a very unique and distinct aesthetic.