For the spring edition of Spalding University’s Festival of Contemporary Writing, one highlight will be the talk from Distinguished Visiting Writer Terese Marie Mailhot. Her memoir “Heart Berries” is a bestselling and bold journey as she recalls traumas, grieving and healing through and beyond her childhood on an isolated Indian reservation. Trials to maintain her mental health are documented, as are difficulties with all sorts of relationships —specially parenthood, which the author writes about, with searing honesty, from the standpoint of both child and parent. The individual essays that make up this slim volume are like ripsaws of truth — with jagged edges of confession catching hold in ways that often shift away from expectations. The reader could be hit as hard as those who are undergoing the dangers, dilemmas and damage. The author certainly holds the mirror up to herself as well as anyone else in what she places on the page with statements such as, “It is my politic to write the humanity in my characters, and subvert the stereotypes. Isn’t that my duty as an Indian writer?”
Mailhot recently spoke with LEO by phone, and the questions started with addressing some intentional writerly quirks in her essay collection, such as her handling of point of view.
LEO: ‘Heart Berries’ often addresses a ‘you’ — which is your lover. But as you get to the end, there’s a different ‘you’ — and it’s your mother.
Terese Marie Mailhot: I think in the latter pages it’s important to pay homage to my mother. Since it’s non-fiction, it felt more authentic to address it to her in the afterlife. And directly. It seemed to honor her in a deeper way. There’s something about epistolary form that creates a sense of intimacy for the reader that I really appreciate. I didn’t have to do any expository work in setting up why I was telling my mother that language failed her, because by the time the book came around [to that end chapter] you could see she was a poet at heart.
Do you see changing structure to memoir these days? Secrets, confessions or thoughts are now shared through tweeting and texting as often as by filling up journal pages.
Memoir is an art form that I wanted to adhere to. A lot of the content from the book was pulled from journals — but ultimately, I wanted the content to inform the form. So I was dealing with fragmentation and modularity in order to construct something that was experimental, but also my brother could read it and follow along, which was really important to me.
Your background — family history, cultural heritage — was it given proper consideration during your mental health treatment? Therapists, group, hospitalization… were there any common mistakes or misinterpretations, as you look into the past?
People really did try their best to understand the cultural distinctions. In an indigenous community, we do utilize ceremony and things like that in order to process. There was a big difference between how the community might’ve treated me back home and how a hospital might’ve treated me for the same symptoms. What I notice is people were genuinely helpful — but when it came to questioning the approach, it was really something I couldn’t do in the middle of treatment in a white institution. Probably because they hold fast to their teachings, just like a native healer might hold fast to their beliefs. But there’s something more open in our original approach that was missing in those static environments.