#617 Escape from Seabird Island
Heart Berries: A Memoir
by Terese Marie Mailhot
Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2018
$25.00 / 9780385691147
Reviewed by Angie Tucker
Heart Berries: A Memoir, the first book by Nlaka’pamux writer Terese Marie Mailhot, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, long-listed for the CBC’s Canada Reads (2019), and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. It also won three awards including the Montreal-based Blue Metropolis First Peoples Literary Prize and the inaugural Spalding Prize for the Promotion of Peace and Justice in Literature.
Born in 1983, Mailhot grew up on the Seabird Island First Nation between Hope and Agassiz at the eastern edge of the Fraser Valley. She now teaches creative writing at Purdue University in Indiana – Ed.
Terese Marie Mailhot writes poetically about love, acceptance, wanting, and belonging. Her words flow as if to lyrics to a song — a beautiful, sorrowful tune that is unapologetically raw, vulnerable, and guttural. For example:
Coffee cups run cold when I remember my father. Sometimes my hands shake…. My father died at the Thunderbird Motel on Flood Hope Road. According to documents, he was beaten over a prostitute or a cigarette. I prefer to tell people it was over a cigarette. I considered an Indian death myself, while walking along the country roads of my reservation, before I really considered life.
The reader will fall in love with her prose. Mailhot relates to her reader by telling her personal stories and by sharing letters she wrote during a period of hospitalization. These letters were written to the most significant people in her life — her children, her lover, and her parents. Her letters act as odes to the contributions – and the detriments — that their recipients lent to her sense of self. The letters help Mailhot to better organize her past and understand how and why she feels as she does in the present. Writing to the people in her life became her medicine.
Mailhot’s work does not fit into any neat or comfortable little box of the memoir genre. Rather, the words contained in Heart Berries expose the complexities that many of us have had in navigating our own relationships and traumas. At some point in our lives we become aware of our pasts, we question our involvement in situations, we assess our own sanity, we contemplate our mortality, we strive to understand our position in society, and we consider our childhoods, our relationships, our commitments, and our futures.
But as Indigenous women, another layer is added. We must also contend with stereotype, rejection, and refusals within a landscape that is often unmindful of our experiences. It should be obvious that Indigenous peoples have multiple experiences that largely contradict what is often believed and perpetuated in non-Indigenous society. Mailhot is cognizant that her experiences contribute to some of the stereotypes believed about Indigenous peoples. “As an Indian woman, I resist the urge to bleed out on a page … it is my politic to write the humanity in my characters, and subvert the stereotypes” (p. 84).
Despite this, the background for Mailhot’s story includes the reality of poverty, addiction, and physical and sexual abuse. She must outline this history because these experiences contribute to how she sees the world. In doing so, she contributes to the work of other Indigenous authors who are also realizing and working through the effects of intergenerational trauma.
“Nobody wants to know why Indian women leave or where they go… The truth of our leaving or coming into the world is never told,” writes Mailhot (p. 104). Heart Berries offers a counter-narrative to this claim. In writing this memoir, Mailhot rejects the invisibility of Indigenous women. She explains her truths about leaving and coming into the world. She pulls the reader into her life story. At this moment, she has the power to sing melodically her personal account of an Indigenous woman’s life. She outlines where she came from and where she is going. Her chorus is about resurgence.
Heart Berries is about where Indigenous women go — and where many of us find ourselves today. We lead lives. We wear different hats. We navigate our positions in society. We raise families. We love. We sing.
Angie Tucker is Red River Métis from the Poplar Point/St. Anne’s area in Manitoba. An Indigenous feminist and cultural anthropologist, she is currently enrolled as a PhD student in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Alberta under the supervision of Dr. Adam Gaudry. Her Masters thesis, “awana niyanaan/Who Are We?” centred on the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta. In it, she sought to understand how attachments to traditional culture promote both self and group identity and to challenge the more often stringent definitions of what constitutes “being” Métis in legal, academic, and social understandings. Her doctoral work centres on Métis relationships to land and the revitalization of the Cree/Michif teaching of wahkohtowin as a basis to create a model for Métis inclusion. She promotes the use of equitable and inclusive land consultation agreements and processes that privilege Métis knowledge systems.
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