Ottawa Writers Festival: From the heart with Terese Marie Mailhot

Terese Marie Mailhot. Photo: Isaiah Mailhot

What’s surprising, Terese Marie Mailhot says in her candid way,” is that a book can have a life of its own.”

Mailhot’s first book Heart Berries (Counterpoint), is an epistolary gut punch of a memoir certainly does — have a life of its own since being published in February, 2018.

It’s been reviewed (favourably) by the New York Times and won awards including the initial Spalding Prize for the Promotion of Peace and Justice in Literature.

She’s still a little taken aback. “I notice a book can be trendy and I notice a book can gain popularity which is terrifying in the sense that most writers have never been popular. I didn’t know it was something to strive for.”

She certainly doesn’t lack for courage. This short (about 100 pages) book reveals a life of abuse, mental illness, trauma and ultimately survival.

Mailhot is from the Seabird Island First Nation in British Columbia. Her mother was an activist and her father was a drunk who abused her. Her first husband took her first child with him when he left her to raise her infant second son.

And while she is revealing her story, there is something bigger coming along with it.

“They teach you in writing class that specificity breeds universality. The more specific the story, the more it rings true, honest and real for any type of reader.

“I knew I would be taking a risk in paring down the language and using radical thoughts towards Indigenous peoples and our identities and about mental health. I knew I could be specific,” but she feared it might not ring true because Indigenous experiences are “so marginalized.”

To this interviewer to book is a testament to hope and perseverance.

“I didn’t have any goals besides writing a book. I was ‘adjuncting’ at community colleges in composition while I was finishing the book. I kind of knew it was make or break as a writer.

“I had already been kind of broken anyway so it couldn’t get much worse than what I had already experienced. The worst thing I faced was rejection and I was used to that.”

Still she said she knew she needed to get her brothers and her children on board with what she was going to write “especially since the book was dealing with the epistolary form and I was writing to my mother. Getting my brothers on board and also using their stories and integrating them into mine was really important.

“Since I was writing about my own family it was like I needed their approval.”

She was helped in the writing by a mentor, Roxane Gay, and other women writers who “understood the game before I entered it.”

The book talks about her own PTSD. That honesty was important to her.

“I think we are in a culture where we are supposed to produce a lot and be successful professionally and hide everything personally.

“What that does is it makes us sick physically and emotionally. We really don’t need to burden ourselves with shame of it.”

Nor does the book shy away from issues inside First Nations.

“Within my own community I was always a trouble starter. So was my mother because she was an activist.” She believes it is important to rally for the marginalized people within a marginalized community.

That doesn’t make it an easy process.

“I assumed the book would have some taboo content and that it would disrupt a lot of things going on in my community. It did to some degree and I have had to deal with the repercussions of that which was interesting.”

She was writing about sexual violence within an Indigenous community from her perspective.

“I did have a father who was a drunk and it perpetuated a negative stereotype. I also dealt with mental health illness which is difficult to talk about.

“You have to be accountable for what you do in your community. You have to be accountable for the trauma you inflict and it is generational even though it’s not directly related to white supremacy.

“I think just generally talking about sexual violence within an Indigenous community made some people fearful of me because they were complicit.

When she goes home she said she is talking to women “who are trying to get justice or trying to shine light on some of the darker things in their community. It is difficult that it is happening everywhere.”

“I think the chief and council within my own nation don’t want to hear me out. I’m advocating for non-band members, who are sex offenders, to be removed from the band. I do advocacy work, I do fundraising, I do all types of work and my own community’s government has been silent on the issue of sexual violence within our community.

“It’s hard to talk about because you are supposed to lift up your own community but I am critical of it and that’s a tough place to be.”

While the powers that be may not like what she has written, Mailhot said the women in the community are supportive. “My family definitely is, they are very proud.”

Writing is looking through  lens at things and that is “kind of terrifying for anybody you know,” she said.

She knew she was revealing much, some of it made her uncomfortable.

“There were a lot of things that I was uncomfortable about like my relationship to my children. Exposing that exposes them by proxy. It’s also a little dangerous for an Indigenous person to be critical of your own parenting.”

That’s because, she said, for Indigenous women there is a real concern about losing custody.

“It takes little for them to investigate or to probe into your credibility. So in talking about post-partum depression, I felt like I was going to reveal too much but ultimately did it for sake of other Indigenous women so they would know they were not alone in their darkest time. There could be healing from that.”

Being poor also puts parents scrutiny, she said.

“I think everybody should have a quality of life in order to raise their children and shouldn’t be scrutinized for not being able to provide financially. I see a lot of mothers told they are not good parents because they don’t have enough money.”

These days, Mailhot is teaching creative non-fiction writing at Purdue University. She is a tenure track faculty member and has an office. In a way she is the ultimate long shot.

“That is the unfortunate part. Ideally somebody should be able to get a GED and then think they could see themselves as a tenure track professor (where she was marking a stack of papers on the day we talked) and envision that for themselves. A lot of people have to deny themselves that to make a living. It’s more accessible to like become a receptionist.

“That was my goal. I wanted to be a receptionist when I didn’t have a GED. When I got the GED, I thought I’m going to be a high school teacher. Then I took a creative writing class and I realized I could continue working on this and see where it goes.”

Success has been quick. But she’s rolling with it.

“I think it’s the name of the game. You have to work the book. People say when you get sick of it, it’s time for Book Two. Like any job, once you have some success, you get a promotion.

“It’s weird thing about balance. People imagine you can have it but with my schedule I just have to accept there will be a huge imbalance right now. I’m kind of biding my time until I can take a nice break and cultivate new work.”

So when she can she writes in a journal.

“I put it aside. I am forgetful and I might go back to it and not remember what I was thinking. I play it loose until feel very inspired and very strong. When I’m working it’s really intense. I don’t like sleeping. I don’t like eating and it’s miserable for everybody.

She has a new husband the writer and teacher Casey Gray. She has three children now, 15, 13 and a toddler.

“I like being mom. I do. I like babies, I am good with babies. Up to five it’s harder because the can’t verbalize but after five they ask really interesting questions. My son Isaiah he said ‘Life is kind of like a first player game eh mom’. I was like ‘Sure’. It’s true. Watching him play, that’s how he learned about point of view.”

She in the early stage of thinking about a next book. This time “I’m thinking about something interesting conceptually like the idea of grief and how it functions in Indigenous communities. We see people dying a lot. We deal with a lot of death. I’m still undecided if we are just really efficient in processing or are dissociative.

“I see so many successful Indigenous women and they just power through and rally a whole community to create all necessities for a funeral.”

Mailhot says that these days she has found her person Casey Gray.

“When I found my person, I felt like I could move on to other things. I feel like that is a big deal for women. Whether that relationship is successful who knows.” But it has become a milestone that has her thinking about minivans.

The title Heart Berries comes from an Anishnaabe story told to her by a woman named Denise Baldwin.

The story as represented by the book has been changed to protect the story. It tells of a young man facing a time of trial who goes out on his own and he finds heart berries that save his community.

“The message is true to the story of the first medicine man who found his medicine in search outside community in the face of grief and loss.”

Sounds close to home.

In town: Terese Marie Mailhot will be at Christ Church Cathedral Monday May 6 at 8:30 p.m. on a panel with Alicia Elliott. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.