Books·How I Wrote It

Terese Marie Mailhot honours her mother's story in her memoir Heart Berries

Terese Marie Mailhot discusses how she wrote her powerful memoir Heart Berries, which is on the Canada Reads 2019 longlist.
Terese Marie Mailhot is a writer from Seabird Island, B.C. (Isaiah Mailhot, Penguin Random House Canada)

Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot's first book, was one of the most talked about titles of 2018. Shortlisted for two of Canada's top nonfiction prizes, the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award, the slim, poetic memoir is now on the Canada Reads 2019 longlist.

Written as a series of letters to her husband Casey and her deceased mother, Mailhot goes over some of the most difficult moments of her life — from losing her son in a custody battle to committing herself to a hospital and discovering long-buried childhood traumas. Her journey to wellness is not a straight-forward trajectory, but there are triumphs nonetheless, including acceptance into the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts.

Below, Mailhot shares how and why she wrote this quiet and powerful book.

A letter to loved ones

"When I was in the hospital, I started writing Indian Sick and it was a letter to [my husband] Casey. I understood that it was important to convey something to him, but I hadn't figured out what yet. And, I think the absence of my mother later in my life transformed my relationships with other people. The only way I could really reconnect and trust people is if I conjured her into my life because she was a source of strength. Just writing to her and also writing about her — I think it brought me closer to Casey or closer to understanding my father. 

If I'm writing to my mother, is it in complete earnest?- Terese Marie Mailhot

"I do think, 'Am I writing a spectacle? If I'm writing to my mother, is it in complete earnest? Is it genuine and would she understand it? Or am I dealing with contrivance where I'm writing to her, understanding the audience is there? How genuine can that be?' Sometimes I'm actively trying to shut out an ideal reader or a Native woman reader and I'm just trying to speak intimately. The most interesting thing about epistolary work is that it cuts out of the contrivance. If you're familiar with somebody and writing to them, the reader themselves takes that journey and feels familiar as well. There's no set up. There's no, 'My mother grew up poor. She ran away from boarding school.' I'm just writing to her and through context you understand that her story is very complicated and she is very tough."

Honouring her mother

"I feel artistically like I achieved what was necessary to create a book that would honour my mother. It plays with her voice and it intermingled with my own. When your mother passes away and you were very close to her, you can hear her voice in your head. She was so well-spoken and beautiful and everything she said was very potent. That kind of potency isn't necessarily how I am in real time and it's not necessarily who I am. But when I was writing about my mother, I had to conjure her in some way on the page. It had to be pleasing for her to read and sound it for her to read, even in the spirit world right. Craft-wise I wanted to be successful in her eyes.

Making your mom proud is intimidating.- Terese Marie Mailhot

"Making your mom proud is intimidating. I don't know if that's wholly possible if your mother really loves you because she'll be like, 'Oh, you know, that was very nice. You could have done this, but you didn't.' I don't know that I did the exact thing that she would have me do. But I think I've made some sense in my life to her and to honour that experience with her when I was critically engaged with our relationship and its problems that also profoundly struck by her love."

Taking risks

"If I was writing about my lived experiences as a Native woman, I feel like the risk was showing people that I was not the mother I intended to be. I was not the medicine I had intended to be for other people. I was not functional in many ways. Anything from having my children taken away to losing a job to losing a partner, those were the risks I was taking in writing the book. Those risks are still there. But I think I like risking things. I would rather live like this than to feel dishonest and to feel like I'm not being accountable or telling the truth of my life to bring people closer to the lived experience of Indigenous people. The story is singular and it's enough for it to give some dynamism to how we look at Indigenous people — that there is true diversity.

I hope that they're willing to see the book as one single piece of art.- Terese Marie Mailhot

"Even if [readers] are not interested in the approach or if they find it difficult, I hope that they're willing to see the book as one single piece of art and give me the credit that I believe I deserve. That's what I hope for — that they don't see it as the tourist or a voyeur. They see it as a piece of art. For a long time I saw how Native people were being read and a lot of times it felt like they were just exploiting our experiences to talk about being Indian or talk about what being Indian is or to fetishize our experiences or a loss or a tragedy. I really wish that would end."

Terese Marie Mailhot's comments have been edited for length and clarity.