Writing as a Form of Healing in Mailhot’s “Heart Berries”

During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Megan Glover’s Medium.

Author of the bestselling 2018 memoir Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot is a First Nation Canadian writer and professor from the Seabird Island reservation near Chilliwack, British Columbia. Seabird Island is a First Nations band government of the Stó:lō people, located in the Upper Fraser Valley region, just 3 km east of Agassiz, BC. As a community, the Seabird Island Band values communal pride and respect, and works to promote a community that is self-sufficient, self-governing, unified and educated.

Mailhot’s background, and that of her late mother, is Nlaka’pamux, which is part of the Indigenous First Nations people of the Interior Salish language group in southern BC. Mailhot’s mother, Karen Joyce Bobb (or Wahzinak) was a poet, writer and social justice advocate who worked with prisoners. And it was in prison that Bobb met Mailhot’s father, Ken, a talented artist and abusive alcoholic. Over the course of her lifetime, Mailhot’s father was incarcerated for abducting a young girl, molested Mailhot at a young age, and was eventually beaten to death “over a prostitute or a cigarette” in a motel in Hope, BC (83).

Born into the legacy of residential school violence, Mailhot’s trajectory of pain evolves from intergenerational trauma and the silencing of her experience. Enduring a history of foster care, sexual assault, mental illness, poverty and racism, Mailhot’s story is not one we typically read about in books on the best-seller list. In fact, over the years, Mailhot has spoken out about her struggle with the lack of accurate representation—or representation period—that exists in literature of the experiences of Indigenous women that exist today. With Heart Berries, it’s as though Mailhot consciously works to remedy this colonial erasure, reclaiming the Indigenous feminist narrative by naming the long lasting impacts of intergenerational trauma. In her 2018 work, she takes back her story and explores themes of decolonization, Indigenous womanism, the postmodern Other woman and visual sovereignty.

But despite wanting to provide representation, Mailhot has made it clear that she’s not trying to provide any kind of example. In interviews she’s held since the memoir’s publication, Mailhot reveals her fear that Native girls will see the text as a representative experience of all Native women, and follow in her often tumultuous footsteps. Instead, with Heart Berries, she hopes to present a truer example of what it’s like to exist as an Indigenous woman in a settler society, and to help other members of the Indigenous community forgive themselves for the experiences that they have been made to believe are “too wrong and ugly to speak” (1).

Since its publication, Heart Berries has been met with completely open arms and has received praise from some seriously notable names in the celebrity world; she appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, feminist writer Roxane Gay rated her five stars on GoodReads, and actress Emma Watson even named Mailhot’s text her Spring 2019 book club recommendation.

And after reading the memoir, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. Reading Heart Berries is a truly emotional experience and feels akin to reading the diary of someone all too familiar with pain, grief and violence. Mailhot introduces us to the joys and hardships of her childhood, adulthood, daughterhood and motherhood, and presents a completely raw portrayal of her struggles with intergenerational trauma, mental health, poverty and sexual abuse.

She approaches her trauma, her relationship with her body and the “self”, and her path to healing by sharing her story in the form of an internal stream of consciousness, giving it that unique journal-like effect. Her sentences are short and abrupt, scrambled yet somehow sensical, raw and reflective, as if she is giving readers access to her inner thoughts in real time.

In a review of Heart Berries written by Esquire that Mailhot includes before her first chapter, it reads “Sometimes a writer’s voice is so distinctive, so angry and messy yet wise, that her story takes on the kind of urgency that makes you turn pages faster and faster” (i). This is especially true of Mailhot’s work, as the vulnerability and resolve of her writing demands readers pay attention and digest the power of her words. Her writing style also seems to illustrate her mental and emotional state at the time, writing from inside a behavioural health service facility after having checked herself in on account of an eating disorder, PTSD and bipolar II.

Paired with a sense of humour and realness, the tangled urgency of Mailhot’s writing promptly introduces us to the impact her experience as an Indigenous woman has had on her sense of self, and to the ability for trauma and healing to coexist.

In the first chapter, Mailhot writes, “My story was maltreated…I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle.” (1), a sentiment that is frequently revisited throughout the text as she ruminates on the presence of white expectations of Indigenous writing. It is here in this first sentence that Mailhot describes the tendency for Indigenous women’s stories to be distorted, left unheard or discounted, and introduces us to the need for the Indigenous feminist narrative — one that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of trauma but names it in order to grow stronger from it.

“Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see” (21)

She starts by recounting the archetypal “Indian Condition”, one in which Indigenous women are “silenced by charity”, taught “to be mindless” and “forgotten so well [that] they forget themselves” (1–2). She unpacks this tendency for Indigenous women to be forgotten and have their stories silenced, and the effects this maltreatment has on the women themselves. She notes her desire to “hear the world, but the glass was too thick”, speaking to the tendency for society to exclude Indigenous women, overlook their experiences and disallow them from being considered anything but the postmodern Other woman (23).

Mailhot reveals how she views her “self” in these moments of pain, as a “crazy Indian woman” who is “ashamed and wild”, “sick or possessed”, “a feral thing with greasy hair and nimble fingers” (14–16, 90). Reading these sentences is heart-breaking. Her self-deprecating language seems to reveal the colonialism she has internalized, and shows how the trauma of settler-colonial violence has caused her to view herself as lesser. We see this again later on in the text when Mailhot reveals she feels like a “squaw”, affected by the white stereotypes of Indigeneity as being othered from modern society (90).

Despite this initial insight we get into how she sees herself, over the course of just 11 short chapters we see Mailhot start to take control over her own narrative, as she cuts to the core of the pains of Indigenous womanhood and the power of testimony. She doesn’t avoid recounting the ugliness of her experience or try to leave out pieces of herself to seem more likeable to readers.

We learn about the day she gave her husband Casey a black eye, the night she put her hand over her son’s mouth as he cried, the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, and the moments she considered suicide and abortion.

Instead of burying her trauma, she names her feelings of subjugation and exploitation to help understand how they may have affected her, and holds herself accountable to her own ugliness in order to grow stronger from it. But what Mailhot makes clear is that she is not ashamed of her trauma.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mailhot explains, “I knew that if I wanted to write a book about my life I couldn’t position myself as a person who had always done the right thing. Part of healing is being accountable for what you have done.”

In chapter 10, Mailhot returns to the analysis of the “Indian Condition”, seemingly coming full circle to the start of the text. But in this version of the “Indian Condition”, she speaks about herself not as someone who questions, “‘How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?”, but as someone ready to be accountable for the ugly parts of their past and their present existence. Mailhot speaks of her graduation, and of becoming an editor and then a fellow. She reflects on the person she has become and the journey she has taken through writing and naming her pain in order to heal.

“From squaw, to mother with a face, and pores, and a body, and my own good history—I want my large heart, but older and safer, and clean.” (102)

With Heart Berries, Mailhot resists being the “third generation of things we don’t talk about”, writing what it means to be a Native woman in a colonized society and refusing old tropes of the postmodern Other woman (113). By interrogating the unhealthy spaces of her existence—sexual assault, mental illness, intergenerational trauma and violence—Mailhot writes herself a path towards healing, and one that she hopes will teach others to forgive themselves as well. She writes, ever so succinctly, “Pain expanded my heart.” (122). With her carefully chaotic words, she challenges the silencing and maltreatment of Indigenous women’s stories and brings forth an Indigenous feminist narrative that is honest, updated and necessary.

“Today, in front of a slew of white authors, during a fellowship, with a drink in my hand, I said that I was untouchable. There was a gasp, and maybe it was a hundred years of work for my name to arrive here, where I can name my pain so well that people are afraid of the consequences and power.” (123)

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