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.
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.