Courtesy of Terese Mailhot.

In Terese Mailhot’s debut memoir, Heart Berries, she traces her coming of age story on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation, writing candidly about the love and violence she experienced. When a relationship with a white man ignites a passion that finds her hospitalized and confronting unreconciled childhood trauma, she gets diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder. To survive, she picks up a notebook and begins to write her way out, weaving together both the beautiful and ugly elements of her upbringing.

Her story is surprising and illuminating, pushing away from traditional narratives and expected boundaries. The spare and profound prose imitates the Salish art of Mailhot’s heritage, a gift her father possessed but was unable to actualize. Her own gift is the ability to speak the truth without fear of consequence. She understands the responsibility that comes with that power, and this book documents her life’s dedication to the task.

Mailhot graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Times, Carve Magazine, The Offing, The Toast, Yellow Medicine Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of several fellowships—including the SWAIA Discovery Fellowship, Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Writing by Writers Fellowship, and the Elk Writer’s Workshop Fellowship—she was recently named the Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.

—Kelly Thompson for Guernica

Guernica: In “The Decolonization of My Story,” an essay you penned for Indian Country, you wrote, “I have stopped existing in the binary my parents created for me. White people are bad or good, colonization happened and then what came was reactionary, reclamation—all we could do, and have been doing, is recovery.” What empowered you to transcend that binary?

Terese Mailhot: When we’re given narratives that are too simplistic and paint people as good or bad, we’re doing a disservice to our own stories.  Once we have overcome significant obstacles we realize we’re not necessarily deserving of what happened to us, but we don’t need to be purely good to transcend those experiences and become better people.

I resist the idea that we were pure before colonization. We were human, and we’re still trying to capture that humanity and create ourselves as human in narrative and story. It’s really important to speak those stories because we are not a holy people, we are not shamans, we are not savages either. Just acknowledging that was transcendent in itself, and I started really feeling liberated by that idea.

Guernica: The first line in Heart Berries is “My story was maltreated,” and it’s a constant refrain throughout the book.

Terese Mailhot: The first time I told people what was really going on in my house, I didn’t state the explicit truth. I alluded to a social worker, “Well, my mom’s not home a lot, but she works.” I mitigated everything. She viewed it in a binary way, and put up these dichotomies. She didn’t explicitly say, “Your mother’s not a good mother,” but it was kind of immediate that I be removed from the home and maybe that would make my mother better. The social worker put me in another home which arguably was worse than the house I was growing up in.

I realized I couldn’t trust everyone with my story. Then I entered the realm of womanhood, where I might have been on a date, and told a man my experiences, and he either pitied me or saw the vulnerability as a weakness and exploited or subjugated it.

I lived the kind of existence where I knew, “Okay, if you’re going to pity me, I’ll take your pity, I’ll do something with it. I’ll go to school with it. I’ll take your money.” It wasn’t a good and passionate and equitable love.

Guernica: In the chapter Indian Sick, you said “The only thing, the right thing, the thing that brought about our unity was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back…the awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.” At a low point, when you were hospitalized for depression, you wrote “I don’t feel the eyes of my grandmother anymore.” Can you speak to this trajectory?

Terese Mailhot: When I was in the hospital and my paperwork was being processed and my whole being was being processed, I remember distinctly feeling I was existing in this white space of healing. I didn’t feel the things I needed to feel to be healed, which meant I didn’t feel my mother or her mother, her mother’s mother. I didn’t feel my lineage and the strength of my people in that white building. I felt the absence of it.

I felt so lost. Then I started to write. I think people have to hit rock bottom to really know their faculties because they have to use those faculties to get out of that rock bottom. I really had to feel profoundly lonely to get myself out of the feeling of being profoundly lonely. But it was always there, that feeling of loneliness and existing with the absence of something that had been stripped from me.

It was a reckoning. It made me angry. I closed that chapter in a place of real horror. Then the story transitioned into realization and transcendence. As I was writing it, I was feeling it, which I think is meaningful. Sometimes you can write your way into healing, which I would’ve never said before.

Guernica: The women in this story are complex and very human in both their flaws and strengths.

Terese Mailhot: My grandmother was profoundly good to me. She was the one who put the money up front to have a relative kill my father, which I’m thankful for because if she hadn’t done that, he never would’ve left. He was not murdered, but he got beat up really bad. If she hadn’t done that, I might not be here today.

My mother might not have lived either because he threatened to kill her if she ever tried to leave.  But when I look at my mother we have that dynamic where she both hurt me deeply but she was also a savior and the person who taught me my first lessons of womanhood. She was the first person to nurture and take care of me when I was sick. She was always there, even when she was not doing it the right way. I think showing that is really important. Women are good for the world and good for your childhood and bad for your childhood and dynamic and human and faulty and good.

Guernica: You wrote about your need to leave the village in order to speak with power and authority.

Terese Mailhot: In the village, we are bound by our obligation to our family, and we’re expected to speak positively about how good they are to us and to say our communities are flourishing. They want women to say that everything’s okay. But if they really wanted everything to be okay, they would treat us better, so that we wouldn’t need to speak out against them.

There are so many women in my community who are my teachers, who taught me how to sew, who took me in, who let me cook at their house when we didn’t have electricity. But I could not exist within that system and speak out against it. I could not exist within the bureaucracy of the tribal government and tell my story and publish a book.

So many people have to leave home, whether it’s to get an education or to feel something, like love, with abandon. To exist and be accepted in the world means that sometimes we have to leave the world we know. Even if you haven’t existed on native land and in an indigenous community, you understand the dynamics of existing in a town where people want to bind you in what they know about you, or they want you to be silent because it shames them if you speak out. My power is my ability to break silence.  It’s liberating to speak, no matter the consequences. I know that I would give my life for that. By the end of the book, that became my salvation because those later passages are about discovery. I know the women around me will be empowered by that story, and they’ll speak their own.

Guernica: You had a child as a teenager and lost custody just as you gave birth to another one. You were living in poverty and didn’t have a GED. You then came to America and said you were “done with ghosts. It was all too ugly to say” until you “received an education and walked across the stage.” This line gave me chills: “I was given a sovereign land to write every transgression.”  How did that education empower you?

Terese Mailhot: I received my diploma from the Institute of American Indian Arts, which was my salvation. Lidia Yuknavitch came to speak and I sat in front of her while she read “Woven,” which was published in Guernica, and I remember looking it up immediately after she read it because I was floored.

My education there made me realize I was going to have to make my own place at the table, and I had to believe I could do it. They gave me all the tools. No other space had ever done that, they always wanted me to write white.

Guernica: This sentence encapsulates the most important thing anyone can say about teen pregnancy: “Despair isn’t a conduit for love.”

Terese Mailhot: My ex-husband was trying to escape a Republican family who was trying to burden him with their ideologies and way of being, which he felt was so fake. I was trying to escape abject poverty. When we found each other, it worked out. But we were in such despair. What we needed was the time and space to exist as adults and develop our own ideas. Had we not found each other, I don’t know that we would be okay, so it’s good that it worked out the way it did, even though it broke my heart. I feel like part of getting older just means you realize it’s okay that it’s not okay.

Guernica: Is that what it took for you guys to get to where you are?

Terese Mailhot: Yes. We’re both thankful for the children we have. They are our life. It really did work out in the strangest way. The Hague Convention and losing Isadore compelled me to write a book about how damaging the system is for indigenous women, how damaging it can be to our psyches and the way we view ourselves and the way we love and the way we interact with people and the way we trust them. I had to write all of those things. Had I not written the book, I don’t know that a lot of women who went through the same experiences would have a book in the library that relates to them.

Guernica: This really is a love story on so many levels, including your experience of being with a white man, your second husband, Casey. Of that relationship, you ask, “How could someone like you ever be on the other side of the door, on the other side of this?”

Terese Mailhot: From the moment I reached in and saw who Casey was and that he saw me back, I’ve been profoundly in love with him. I’m always finding something to criticize about it because it is complicated since he is a white man and he doesn’t understand what I’ve been through to get here. The fact that we are from different spaces and can relate to each other so well is such a problem. It complicates our life so much, and we are so into it. I feel good when I think about him, but when we’re in the day-to-day nature of ourselves, and the children we are deep down inside, it’s a different kind of problem. Every day is a new challenge.

I wanted to be validated by men, and I sought out love because I thought if I could find a man to love me purely and save me from my circumstances and treat me well for once in my life, a man who did not subjugate or exploit me, that would prove that humanity was good.

Ultimately, I realized I needed to reconcile with the fact that my father hurt me. Once I got over that, or not even over it, once I recognized how my father hurt me, I could grapple with living every day after that. For me, love really is an adhesive. Being in love with Casey has connected me to the world and made me deal with what my father did to me, especially if I ever wanted to live with a man. Which, arguably, at the time, I thought, maybe I don’t. But then I realized I really want to try this. I’ve heard good things about marriage.

Guernica: I see a connection between your voice and the Salish art that your father made.

Terese Mailhot: Salish art is sparse. It’s red and black, very stark and vivid, and plays with balance and form in a way where the slightest mistake is visible. I see that in my work. I want to be exact and sparse. I don’t need to give details that aren’t going to service what I’m trying to say. I see the irony of that connection, but then I also think it’s true to life. Truth is my aesthetic.

I’m creating realist non-fiction. Although Salish art is spare and my writing reflects that aesthetic, I’m going to provide details that service both the profane and the sacred aspects of the story.  I’ll give you a detail about my father’s paunch, or I’ll give you a detail about the way I couldn’t breathe and covered my nose when I was five or six years old, about my childhood dog and pulling him away from the dog he was in love with.  Salish art is connected to our iconography and the sacred nature of our living. What I wanted to show was both the real aspects of our living and the sacred nature of that.

Guernica: I was intrigued by your critique that “Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people. Indians are proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience.”

Terese Mailhot: I would not use the word resilience to describe what we do when we’ve been traumatized by the people we were supposed to trust, and we can’t rely on our own government to provide a safety net. We can’t rely on anyone. I would describe that as a tragedy that women have to exist in a space where we’re constantly callused and broken by it. Some of us don’t survive, and those women are not any less resourceful or resilient. They just simply died because they were hurt irreparably. I’m just lucky that I wasn’t murdered. I’m just lucky that my brother was there. I would call it tragedy.

People want us to not say it was a tragedy. They want us to find something great out of the tragedy, that I’m glad this happened, or it was meant to happen. I just can’t do that because there are too many people existing in that space right now, and they need us to pull them out immediately. They need us to pool resources. It’s not resilience that’s going to carry us through. It’s helping other people.

Guernica: Underlying your strength and authority are these bones and relics that you don’t want to end up as, a version of yourself that you didn’t see as true to life.

Terese Mailhot: My authority is a reclamation of our bones because they’re locked away in boxes, unnamed and unidentified. Our bodies are literally put up in museums as artifacts. I just wanted to claim myself as a human being. It was really important to do that by calling to what I have in my body that was given to me by my mother and my grandmother and my grandmother’s mother, my red earth and cedar pine. All of those things that I carry from my ancestors are living and breathing within me. It doesn’t matter where their bones rest.

I don’t want to be a cultural artifact. I don’t want people to read my book and think, “This gives me insight into the Native experience,” because the Native experience is just like the white experience, which is individual and singular. It’s connected to their community members and the people who raised them. Those people had parents as well, and that lineage has to be honored and discussed as a real thing and not an abstract thing.

Guernica: A living thing.

Terese Mailhot: Yeah, it’s not elusive. It is here, living and breathing inside of us.

Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson’s work has been published in BOMB, LARB, VIDA Review, Guernica, Brevity, Yoga Journal, Electric Literature, Entropy, Oh Comely, Proximity, Manifest-Station, and other literary journals, and has been nominated for two Pushcarts, most recently for "Monsters I Have Known and Loved" published in Fatal Flaw in 2020. She edits the "Voices on Addiction" column at The Rumpus. She lives in the sunlight of the spirit in Denver, Colorado.

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