British Columbia

'A book for us': B.C.-raised memoirist subverts Indigenous stereotypes

Terese Marie Mailhot's debut memoir about her impoverished upbringing on the Seabird Island First Nation in the Fraser Valley has been nominated for the nonfiction prize at the Governor General's Literary Awards.

Terese Marie Mailhot has been nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award

Terese Marie Mailhot is a writer from Seabird Island First Nation in the Fraser Valley. (Penguin Random House Canada/Isiah Mailhot)

Before being named as a finalist for two of Canada's most prestigious literary prizes, Terese Marie Mailhot says she struggled to find stories like hers on the shelves.

"There's no books written by girls from the rez who are aware of how you can go missing, and are aware of family dysfunction, and overcome it in a way where we also have agency and sexuality and desire and humour," said Mailhot, 35, in a phone interview from her home in West Lafayette, Ind.

"I wanted to write a book for us."

Mailhot's debut memoir, Heart Berries, is nominated for the nonfiction prize at the Governor General's Literary Awards on Tuesday, and has also been shortlisted for this year's $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

The literary grandeur feels like a far cry from the chaotic coming of age Mailhot chronicles in her bestselling book, which spans her impoverished upbringing on the Seabird Island First Nation in British Columbia's Fraser Valley, a Christmas stint in a mental-health facility and the resurfacing of repressed abuse from her childhood.

By turns wry and wounded, she strains against the narratives that have been handed down about Indigenous Peoples over generations of tradition and trauma, then filtered through the narrow expectations and terminology of Western institutions.

Terese Marie Mailhot, author of 'Heart Berries: A Memoir,' appears on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. (The Daily Show/The Comedy Network)

Living in a stereotype

As a teenager, Mailhot said she was deemed an "at-risk youth" by foster care workers before she aged out of the system and married her boyfriend to escape her mother's ladybug-infested home. Then, after giving birth to her second son as she was losing custody of her first, the welfare system designated her a "single parent." Even when receiving her post-secondary education in the U.S., she felt tokenized as a "diverse student."

"I was imparting my story to a readership that didn't know me, and I had to be savvy on what I wanted to present, because I knew that I was living in a stereotype," she said. "The way to subvert that stereotype was to render art from those experiences."

At a little more than 125 pages, the memoir eschews the expository conventions in favour of lyrical, lucid prose that evokes the non-linear nature of memory.

The writing, adapted from Mailhot's contemporaneous notebook entries, begins as an epistolary address to her lover, author Casey Gray, and the plot spirals outward from this messy courtship between a white man and an Indigenous woman, teacher and student, and eventually husband and wife.

"My husband didn't know he had damaged me in a way that I articulated in the book," said Mailhot. "He learned some things that it really hurt him to know about himself ... It's a little weird to use someone in real time as a muse."

As the story unravels, the "you" Mailhot is speaking to shifts from Gray to the "culprits of my pain." Her father is portrayed as an alcoholic artist who was jailed for abducting a young girl, and met his own violent end in brawl over a sex worker or a cigarette — Mailhot prefers to believe it was the latter.

The book then transforms into an elegy for her mother, a social worker who, as Mailhot writes, cared for children in a group home but was neglectful of her own, and her radical love for men who often didn't deserve it.

New life to future generations

"You really know the sacrifice you're going to make to dive in and find the truth of your life, but once you find it, you feel more human," Mailhot said. "By being able to deal with the things that my family more narrowly would want to keep secret, I think it has given new life to future generations."

In the book, she refers to her education at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., as a "renaissance" — a semi-sarcastic dig at the intrusion of Western narratives in Indigenous spaces.

Now a member of faculty at the institute, she thinks there could be a flourishing of Indigenous creativity on the horizon. Indigenous writers are making waves in Canada's book circuit, competing in several categories at the Governor General's Literary Awards, which will hand out a total $450,000 in prizes on Tuesday.

In addition to the effusive endorsements she has received from the likes of British actress Emma Watson and American essayist Roxane Gay, critics have hailed Mailhot as one of the leading voices of her generation who is boldly reclaiming stories of Indigenous womanhood.

Mailhot resists this line of rapturous praise. She doesn't speak for a generation, or an imagined monolith of Indigenous women. Her voice, and her story of survival, are her own, which is why Heart Berries has connected with readers not only on an artistic level, but a personal one.

"In the right room... when I'm reading those brutal passages, I'm not reading it alone, because they're crying in front of me," she said. "It feels like they're going on a journey with me, and I'm like carrying their hope."