'We don't see a person': Terese Marie Mailhot confronts Indigenous stereotypes in memoir

Writer Terese Marie Mailhot lived a traumatic childhood. But when she ran away from home she realized as an Indigenous woman she couldn't escape the labels placed upon her.

Writer says it was necessary for her to write the truth of her life

Indigenous writer Terese Marie Mailhot said writing her memoir Heart Berries was traumatizing but necessary for her to confront, otherwise she says, 'I would never be able to know it.' (Penguin Random House Canada/Isiah Mailhot)
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Growing up on the Seabird Island Band in B.C., Indigenous writer Terese Marie Mailhot saw a future for herself beyond the dysfunctional family, parental addictions and neglect she experienced.

But it wasn't an easy journey. She wrote about her escape from the labels and stereotypes placed on her as a teenager in her book Heart Berries: A Memoir.

"I didn't feel I was ever going to make something of myself unless I ran away. I didn't think that I was ever going to break free from who my family was or what people knew of us," Mailhot told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Mailhot is a Tecumseh post doctoral fellow at Purdue University where she writes, researches, and mentors other Indigenous scholars. She says the way circumstances dictate how people are treated is unjustified.

"We look at somebody who doesn't have a home, or a teenager who's at risk ... and we don't see a person."

Mailhot writes about her complex life growing up as an Indigenous woman as often difficult but also successful. She described it as a journey, which included such challenges as checking herself into a psychiatric institution to deal with her mental illness.

The poetic memoir was born of personal essays and a series of letters she wrote during her treatment. Much of it was written with her now-husband Casey,  a non-Indigenous white man, in mind — sometimes directly referring to him as "you" throughout the text.

She struggled with how he viewed her in light of her Indigenous background. He "labelled me too much," she said.

"What right does a man have to look at me like that? I think it's justifiable to hurt someone when they look at me like that." 1:39
 

"I had to articulate the truth of my life in a way that rendered art so that he would know that there is no such thing as too much," she said.

"There's nobody too broken to be loved or to be accepted."

Her relationship with Casey, someone who comes from a different culture and family, is often a learning experience — "especially for him, to kind of realize that there is that disparity," she told Tremonti.

"There's that gap in not only services but the way I'm looked at, and that sometimes it's in my head, but even that hypervigilance and anxiety is coming from my past."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.