on heart berries

In Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot recounts her coming of age as a Nlaka’pamux woman in Canada, while questioning what it means to ethically narrate the stories of Native lives.

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Terese Marie Mailhot began to write what would become her memoir inside a psychiatric hospital, where she had committed herself following a breakdown, and Heart Berries opens by describing the author’s experience there. In terse and fragmented prose, Mailhot considers the reasons for her collapse; reflects on her relationship with her parents, who neglected her as a child; explores her affair with her ex Casey, her white writing professor; and critiques the hospital for its race-blind care, which fails to account for the effects of genocide on Native consciousness.

The disorienting first few chapters introduce readers to the swift rhythm of Mailhot’s sentences, and prepare them for the painful narrative that follows. Heart Berries consists of eleven epistolary essays that meditate on motherhood and autonomy, mental breakdown and healing, trauma and memory, abuse and addiction, resistance and hope. Mailhot addresses the essays mostly to Casey, who would become her husband and the father of her youngest child, and the author’s checkered relationship with her old professor forms the memoir’s narrative backbone.

In spite of that central arc, the essays are nonchronological and extend beyond the scope of Mailhot’s individual life. Mailhot moves between past and present as she analyzes the events of her life, from the time she spent in foster care to her growth as a writer in a graduate program, and she compares her life with those of her mother, father, and children. The memoir’s nonlinear form draws attention away from the author’s isolated experiences toward her patterns of behavior, as well as the racist and sexist social structures that have shaped everyday life for her family across generations.

Throughout her memoir Mailhot candidly responds to a history of violence, interweaving her life story with astute observations about settler colonialism and Native resistance. Her writings on motherhood and her parents are especially moving, and Heart Berries is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

5 thoughts on “on heart berries

  1. Sounds like an interesting, and even necessary book. I guess that makes for another title to add to my to be read list. I usually don’t read a lot of memoirs, but you definitely struck my fancy ! And I guess Lucia Berlin put me in the mood 🙂
    Plus I have not read anything by Native voices yet, and I feel like I should!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope you enjoy the memoir, if you ever do have the chance to check it out! The author’s story is powerful, and the book’s so inventive and clever. It’s also only a little over a hundred pages, so it can be finished easily in a few sittings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is solidly on my TBR as I’ve been making a project of reading indigenous authors for quite some time now (and, thankfully, they are becoming easier to buy and borrow now as well). If you really enjoyed/appreciated this one, you might find these of interest as well: http://www.buriedinprint.com/winter-child-and-firewater-a-perfect-pairing/ (Hope you don’t mind my sharing the link. I’m not trying to promote my own writing about the books, but the books themselves and they are often published by small presses who have limited promotion budgets.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing! I always appreciate recommendations, and your reviews have me interested in both books. Hopefully, with the success of Heart Berries and There There this year, mainstream presses will start to publish more indigenous voices as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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