Why, behind the pain, Terese Marie Mailhot's Heart Berries champions hope

The B.C. writer reflects on the lessons her struggles have taught her.
Terese Marie Mailhot is a writer from Seabird Island, B.C. (Penguin Random House Canada/Isiah Mailhot)
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Terese Marie Mailhot's memoir packs a punch. Buzzfeed, Esquire and many other publications have listed Heart Berries as one of their most anticipated books of 2018. The memoir marks Mailhot's debut and traces her story from growing up on the Seabird Island reserve in B.C. to her acceptance into the Masters of Fine Art program at Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. The drama and trauma of her life experiences, and the way she writes about them, are what makes Heart Berries's 140 pages hold power as she captures deep meaning with a handful of words.

Striving for anonymity 

"When I was growing up, there was a time of self-determination. We were trying to heal from residential schools in the 1980s. But I felt like I was never going to break from the binding of living in a rural area where everybody knows your history. I could never break free from that. I couldn't assert myself as an author or as an educated woman when everyone there knew I dropped out at 13, went to foster care and got married young. It seemed like everyone witnessed my dysfunction — the only way I could break free from that dysfunction was a new start." 

Handling a personal story

"I had to make an assertion in the beginning of the book declaring how I wanted it to be read. It was really important to tell people that every time I had tried to impart the truth of my life, people either used it against me or judged me for my circumstance. It was important to make the declaration that my story had been maltreated and the words were too ugly to speak, but I've learned to speak them. Dealing with reality is better than pushing it down. I enjoy illustrating my pain because the more I'm able to articulate the damage that's been done, I can heal — I can look at something and think about it objectively and engage with it in a meaningful way. Understanding that as much as I can makes me a better mother."

A tribute to family

"I think it's important for broken families to know that things can get better. You don't need to excuse your behaviour and say that it was causal. I don't benefit from saying that; I benefit from accountability. I have to actively push against the things I learned when I was a child. I learned that children can't talk back, test boundaries or question authority. My mom taught me to question authority, but never her — that creates an atmosphere of fear and I don't want that with my kids. In my childhood, I only had my mother to blame because my father was absent. It was really easy to take out my heart on my mother.  

"Writing Heart Berries, I learned that her language was poetry and mine was explicit. In order to reach into her, I had to choose the most artistic way to memorialize her. I wanted to show her that, ultimately, I'm thankful for her life and the life she gave me."

Terese Marie Mailhot's comments have been edited and condensed.