Playing With Fire: Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries

During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Eli Burley’s Medium.

The first two things that Terese Marie Mailhot lets you know in her memoir Heart Berries are that she’s a hustler and that there isn’t much of a difference between hustling and telling the truth. The book begins:

My story was maltreated. The words were too wrong and ugly to speak. I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle. He marked it as solicitation. The man took me shopping with his pity. I was silenced by charity — like so many Indians. I kept my hand out. My story became the hustle…When I gained the faculty to speak my story, I realized I had given men too much.

The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless. We sometimes outrun ourselves.

This powerful sense of contempt for those too cowardly or careless to handle raw testimony with compassion is a trademark of Mailhot’s voice throughout. The author often delights in the irreverent and mischievous potential of narrative, using a sense of safety found in the obscurity of memory and story as a vital survival mechanism. Relating her life through bright flashes of sensation and emotion, Mailhot evokes a sense of freedom, of respite from colonial aspirations to empiricism and anodyne happiness through this ambivalent way of making meaning. The sense of outrunning the self that she ascribes to her Nlaka’pamux heritage pervades Heart Berries’ account of Mailhot’s life as the reader unpredictably slingshots backwards and forwards in time along with the author.

Mailhot’s playing with temporality mirrors other ways that chaos and comfort constantly overlap in the book too. Shortly after we are introduced to the author, she describes hoodwinking a “white mystic”, one of many “healers” her mother brought to their home to try and “exorcise” her as a child. Mailhot details the “spiritual fraud” of convincing the tarot reader that she is communing with her dead grandmother. She writes:

Storytelling. What potential there was in being awful. My mindlessness became a gift. I didn’t feel compelled to tell any moral tales or ancient ones. I learned how story was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.

For Mailhot, this impulsive sense of fun often mixes with a conditioned sense of caginess as she rejects neat, linear conceptions of healing and virtue. Through her many misadventures Mailhot is always learning something the hard way, as it’s the only way afforded to her. Marrying the wrong person as a teenager, for example, teaches her that “despair isn’t a conduit for love.”

In order to outlast the many traumas burned into her psyche, Mailhot also refutes myths surrounding Indigenous (and especially Indigenous feminine) resilience. She writes:

In my first writing classes, my professor told me that the human condition was misery. I’m a river widened by misery, and the potency of my language is more than human. It’s an Indian condition to be proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience. Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.

The Indian condition is my grandmother… she transcended resilience and actualized what Indians weren’t taught to know: We are unmovable. Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief. I don’t think she even measured time.

It seems that for Mailhot, being seen as resilient bares an eerie resemblance to having one’s suffering and enduring of it turned into a spectacle. It means being taught to valorize adaptation to toxic systemic conditions rather than celebrating the flourishing that happens outside the demarcated ideological space of these oppressive realities. It means discounting the pain of survival by selectively raising up the triumphs involved. To weather the kind of grief Mailhot speaks to, she and her relations have to become something more than human, something bigger than time itself.

This idea of the cosmic size and nature of Indigenous grief, its immeasurable emotional and historical weight, shapes Mailhot’s insistence that it be honoured just as much as Indigenous joy. At one point in the book, she reflects on the profound ways that she integrates horror into her worldview, remembering her mother’s passing:

I am familiar with death, and I remembered it was heavy to hold. My mother’s death was violent, internally. I remember once an elder skinned a rabbit in our yard. He wanted to teach me how to do it. He said so many times that the body is a universe. He slit the rabbit open and pointed with his knife to the thick parts of it. He said the word entropy…when my mother died, a tube had stretched open the dry corners of her mouth. She was not given grace into the next world…Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see.

Life and death are inextricably linked to randomness, and to the slow, inevitable leaking of heat and energy from existence in this description of Mailhot’s mourning. There’s a sense of deep connection that comes from being a living and breathing universe, but also a very human recoiling from the responsibility that it entails. The author is constantly, fiercely aware of what’s being asked of her by those around her and what she owes herself. Because of this, vice and escape become themes that Mailhot regularly immerses her story in.

This intense relationship with sensation seeking that fuses joy and pain manifests in the book through the author’s relationships with her mother, but also with her husband, both of whom Heart Berries is addressed to at times. Mailhot refers to her husband as looking “like a hamburger fried in a donut”, and calls their relationship “all-consuming,” saying, “I tell you that I’d burn my life down for you.” Her narration has a complex and varied relationship to richness and profundity in all senses of both words. She loves, indulges, and hurts deeply and candidly. Near the end of the book Mailhot writes to her husband, saying:

My people cultivated pain… I learned how to abstain from good things. I didn’t expect the best things, and I have turned loss into a fortune — a personal pleasure. It’s not a sustainable joy, I know…Pain expanded my heart. Pain brought me to you, and our children have blood memories of sorrow and your joy, too…Had I not been born and cultivated in this history, I wonder how dim and dumb my life would be. I feel fortunate with this education, and all these horrors, and you…I can name my pain so well that people are afraid of the consequences and power.

No matter what part of the journey Mailhot is on, she recognizes that encountering the extreme outer boundaries of misery and joy and still keeping her sense of self intact has filled a well of experience that she can draw from. Reframing darkness and light allows Mailhot to dispense with self-help style narratives of redemption written for a white sensibility that only underscores the brutality of hope.

More than redemption, the book is about the growth and development that can come along with embracing the constantly renewing cycles of change, trauma, and convalescence. Mailhot writes:

I became an editor. They pay me for my work. I became a fellow. Words I never knew to be — I am…I’ve exceeded every hope I gave to myself…I want to consider what I poured into myself and how my father made a life of not remembering. I know the limit of what I can contain in each day. Each child, woman, and man should know a limit of containment. Nobody should be asked to hold more.

Mailhot isn’t interested in the often sold myth of getting better, she’s interested in the real possibility of knowing better. She writes about a kind of thriving that involves being acutely aware of what’s humanly possible, finding and respecting the thresholds one can set for themselves while escaping the thresholds imposed on the self by colonial power. This, then, becomes the journey that Mailhot is on in Heart Berries: the journey of learning not to be in love with one’s suffering, but learning to love it all the same.

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