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 Paula Stanco’s Medium.
Terese Mailhot cleverly writes about issues of the Indigenous condition, as well as the human condition. Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot offers a raw, poignant look at Mailhot’s life through the lenses of her journey through mental illness and her identity as an Indigenous person. Mailhot is part of the Seabird Island First Nation, which is an island located in the Fraser Valley, just east of Agassiz, British Columbia. Mailhot’s voice throughout her work is unique and at times unsettling, as stated by the book’s publisher, which tends to be illustrative of her mental state. The publisher’s comments also state that “Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept.” This statement has a lot of significance both to Heart Berries and life in general. Memory is malleable and is affected by both external and internal stimuli. If someone does not want to accept something, or is unable to because of trauma, for example, then the memory in question may be incomplete, suppressed, or only partially recalled. This condition is not static, though, and can at any time be changed and developed as the person goes through different life experiences or works through their trauma. The work of many pieces of literature and of going through life is to have ‘character development,’ so to speak — making progress makes us feel useful and can bring about satisfaction, and potentially wisdom and clarity.
Mailhot’s use of imagery is at once beautiful, thought provoking, and sometimes confusing. One brilliant line is “I learned how to make a honey reduction of the ugly sentences. Still, my voice cracks.” It packs a lot of meaning and can be read in multiple ways, in terms of analyzing the words themselves. A reduction, from a culinary perspective, is to concentrate the flavours, making it more palatable. Even without the word “honey” coming before, the mixture would become sweeter. So to have a “honey reduction” makes the words extra sweet and palatable for the people in Mailhot’s life to hear her say the things she says in a sweeter, more pleasant way. But another way to read “reduction” is that the word implies trivializing and belittling; that may not be how this particular passage is intended to be read, but it could symbolize times when Mailhot felt she was brushed aside by other people. As well, the line “still, my voice cracks” stands in contrast to the use of the word “honey,” because cracking would be the opposite of something honey would do — honey is smooth, flowing, and moist. Honey is also long lasting and durable as a product, so to have honey be unable to smooth over the cracks all the time indicates a deep issue or trauma that Mailhot describes. An interesting concept was mentioned in class regarding resilience seeming “ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.” Indigenous people have experienced the impact of colonialism for generations, and the effects are still present today; as well, colonialism in other, perhaps more nuanced forms, is still occurring. The “Indian condition” is survival rather than resilience because it is impossible to recover quickly from these colonial conditions that still continue today.
Story is a very powerful concept for Maihot, as it links to her personal lived experience and to Indigenous culture as a whole. She draws power from storytelling, and calls it “inhuman,” because the power to tell stories does not solely come inherently from her, but also from a power beyond and greater than herself — whether it be spirituality, nature, the universe, the creator, etc. The “inhuman place” may be where the lies come in, as Mailhot often references that sometimes her stories are lies, or she brings up lying and fabrication when describing storytelling. As she says in chapter one, Indian Condition: story, for Indian women, was always meant to be “immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.” There is a running theme throughout the memoir of medicine and healing, from mystical healers to medical professionals in Mailhot’s institutionalization journey. Mailhot’s sentiment that every mourning feels brand new is a thought-provoking line, and reminds the reader that for Indigenous people, their pain and trauma when facing certain issues does not fade away forever; it can flare up or they may have new incoming issues to grieve over. Mailhot emphasizes the urgency and presence of the “Indian condition.” In chapter 3, “Indian Sick,” using the phrase “Indian sick” frames mental illness from an Indigenous perspective right off the bat. Elsewhere in the chapter, Mailhot says she is tired of the truth she does not acknowledge, which brings to mind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Another line, “my body left resonance that can’t be dismantled or erased” feels like a reference or parallel to colonialism.
In chapter 10, “Indian Condition,” the line “my education was a renaissance” holds a lot of meaning and implications. Renaissance also means rebirth, so to have an education is really like the start of the next chapter of Mailhot’s life. Using the word “renaissance” also implies that there is a whole body of knowledge surrounding the before and after of her education, as per the traditional Renaissance. When Mailhot says “I know what comes after discovery,” that brings to mind a colonial or colonist line of thinking. It links the reader to thinking about what happened after colonists discovered North America, for example, for themselves, as well as the after effects of colonialism. Mailhot also says “I was given a sovereign land to write every transgression,” which brings to mind the concept of Indigenous sovereignty. Forms of Indigenous sovereignty are the most integral place where Indigenous communities can assert their culture and tell the settlers around them who they are as a people (Nixon, lecture 1). So it is especially important that Mailhot has this space to write for herself, representing herself as well as her Indigenous community, and the fact that she has completed an education backs up her position as an intelligent woman whose story will be heard by many people. She says that pain expanded her heart, and that she feels “fortunate with this education, and all these horrors..” This offers an important lesson and reminder that pain is useful; everyone experiences pain — some people have more or deeper pain than others, and the nature of it is different and comes at different times for people — but it can often be a teacher and help you grow in life. Indigenous women “cultivating pain” is also a very female/feminine thing to do, as cultivate means “to prepare and use (land) for crops or gardening,” or to “try to acquire or develop (a quality, sentiment, or skill). We can see Indigenous womanism evoked here.