Terese Marie Mailhot: On Personal Narratives and Grief

Interview by 
Nav Nagra
Black and white photo of author and creative non-fiction judge Terese Marie Mailhot looking into the camera

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries has been loved by all since its debut. A New York Times bestseller, Heart Berries was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for English-Language Nonfiction, was selected by no other than Emma Watson as the Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick for March/April 2018. This powerhouse novel was also listed as an NPR Best Book of the Year and was one of Harper’s Bazaar’s Best Books of 2018. Terese Marie Mailhot’s work has appeared in Guernica, Pacific Standard, Granta, Mother Jones, Medium, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award, the Electra Quinney Award for Published Stories, a Clara Johnson Award, and she is also the recipient of the Spalding Prize for the Promotion of Peace and Justice in Literature. Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band and she graduated with an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Currently, she serves as faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.

Room is honoured to have Terese Marie Mailhot judge our 2019 Creative Non-Fiction Contest and we were beyond thrilled to sit down for a chat.

ROOM: Heart Berries has often been perceived as a cathartic or therapeutic work for you. Did you feel that way writing the work or did you find that it was a therapeutic release once it was done?

TMM: I think it took me six years to write, “My father died at the Thunderbird Hotel on Flood Hope Road.” That’s the opening line to the essay in the newest edition. Moving through that story, and finding the exact right words felt good. I felt more autonomous when I stumbled less, talking about his death or my mother’s or abuse or love. The more articulate I became, the stronger I felt.

ROOM: Writing about your experience in Heart Berries also reads as the experience of other women. How does your narrative fit into the greater conversation about what women are going through now and truly have always gone through?

TMM: Women, not all, but many, like seeing they aren’t alone. My story is very common. I was abused. Mistreated. Hurt by men. I came up. Women resonate with that story because it’s theirs sometimes.

ROOM: You write about escaping labels and stereotypes. How did these labels and stereotypes inform your sense of self and how you approached these prescribed assumptions when it came to exploring them in Heart Berries?

TMM: I still am bound by labels, only these ones are a little shinier: Native Author, Professor, . . .

My sense of self is always found when I’m pulling away from the desire to fit into the right label. I never fit in, and it’s hard for me, and owning that I am isolated from communities I wish I fit into is part of what makes me a decent author.

ROOM: I like to think that everyone who finished reading Heart Berries has become hungry to hear more from Indigenous writers. Whose works would you recommend?

TMM: I really still ride for Tommy Orange. He’s writing short stories right now and he is brilliant and original.

ROOM: What would you say to someone who is looking to put their personal narrative to the page?

TMM: You really can knock it out the park. It’s hard to get in the room. It’s tooth and nail and sometimes not worth the trouble, but if that’s what you want, well let’s get it.

It takes help, I think. I’m going to try very hard to create more opportunities for people.

ROOM: What’s next for you?

TMM: I’d like to read more. I want some time away from grief. I just lost a dear friend. I want joy in my life and time to cultivate work on grief from my perspective, which is mostly my mother’s and her mother’s. I'd like to write about how we’ve overcome grief and know the other shoe keeps coming down, but we keep fighting and creating a legacy for our babies. 

Nav Nagra is a member of Room’s editorial collective.

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