This tight book of memoir in connected essays, Terese Mailhot’s debut, has been universally lauded over the course of 2018. It was reviewed in the New York Times, and then became a NYT bestseller. It was a finalist for many of Canada’s major nonfiction awards, and blurbed by the likes of Roxane Gay, Katherena Vermette, and Sherman Alexie (before his MeToo allegations). Heart Berries had a lot of hype, especially for a first book from a young woman born on a coastal reserve in rural British Colombia. It deserved all of it.
Each essay is self-contained with beautiful structure, sustained metaphors and thematic callbacks, but the essays are also connected, building off each other with novelistic order. The writing is spare and honest—self-harmingly honest—allowing readers to stare at all humanity under harsh fluorescent lights. Mothers and fathers and lovers fail. The author fails. Paul Simon fails. At first this feels like a glimpse into a troubled world of near-criminal characters, but, while it’s true that a slew of terrible things occur, the troubling is more from Mailhot’s honesty than from her particularly bad luck. Yes, she had bad luck. But the same story written by a less-skilled memoirist would have smoothed some of the struggle and slapped a flattering filter on that harsh fluorescent light.
It’s hard though. I ate a lot of muffins while reading, to stanch the hurt.
Heart Berries begins with an essay called “Indian Condition,” which shoves readers into the thick without context. More than any other, this essay has a poetic clarity, an economy of words that gives the reader feelings first and meaning second. In a later essay, “In a Pecan Field,” Mailhot describes this style as inspired by traditional Salish stories, which “are a lot like its art: sparse and interested in blank space.”
Later essays are more explicit, filling in some of the blanks. “I can’t turn [this essay] into Salish art,” she writes in “In a Pecan Field,” “I had to fill these pages with the story of our new family, because the merging was so complicated, even I was confounded. I had to write full sentences, and the exposition lent itself to the dialogue, and there can’t be ambiguity in the details of this story…I said what happened up and down on the page.” Rather than presenting as a failure to be as sparse as Salish art, Mailhot’s admission reveals the meticulous attention she’s paid to each essay, matching its form to its content.
This slim volume also asks interesting questions about Indigenous literature. Mailhot refuses to contextualize the narrative within a history of cultural genocide—that work is for the reader to do on their own time. But she still grapples with expectations of Indigenous writers and traumatic memoirists. “As an Indian woman, I resist the urge to bleed out on the page,” she writes, taking care to describe her father as unique and complicated, while also acknowledging the many stereotypes he fits. She quotes a creative writing teacher who asks the class “not to write about abortions or car wrecks,” then she proves how deftly she can bring originality and insight beyond the shock of trauma.
As an observer, Terese Mailhot embraces all the knotted details of her heart and her world. As a writer, she is piercing and merciless in carving those observations into insight and story.
(Photo: Amy Attas)