Writing the life

Trauma, fame, and the reader who cannot be trusted

Literary memoirs can offer lasting sustenance to the struggling writer. Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage and Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, my first introductions to the personal narrative form, helped me stave off an early mid-life crisis at thirty, when I felt my own work had lost its purpose. After reading about the early lives of the important feminist scholars from Cairo and Fez, I moved on to memoirs by Azar Nafisi, Sara Suleri Goodyear, and Sudha Koul, from Tehran, Lahore, and Srinagar, respectively. Their books filled in the knowledge gap my formal Canadian education had left me with: the struggles and achievements of twentieth-century women against backdrops of anti-colonial struggle, war, occupation, revolution, migration, and devastating loss. These writers helped connect me to history for the first time. Even when reflecting on pain and injustice, they could be warm, humorous, and reassuring—they had survived. I sought out memoirs by women and non-binary writers and artists of multiple backgrounds, eager to know their creative influences, and the defining moments in their lives, when they knew who they wanted to become, and what they wanted to accomplish in the world.

Heart Berries constitutes a very different kind of memoir, by a writer who is still within close range of her most formative and wrenching experiences. Vulnerability and toughness tumble over one another in Terese Marie Mailhot’s evocation of a continuous present tense, addressed to “You.” For most of the book, “You” is a man named Casey, with whom Mailhot is neither at peace, nor willing to part. By the third chapter it becomes evident that Mailhot has embarked upon writing to Casey in a journal as a therapeutic exercise, not only while she is in psychiatric care, but while her very survival remains a painful open question. My initial confusion from the first few pages turns, over the next hundred and ten, into claustrophobic dismay as I realize that a prolonged quarrel with her boyfriend appears to be the organizing principle for most or all of Mailhot’s book; it’s difficult not to just see it as an obstruction.

You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut. You were hairy and large. Falling in love felt fluid. It snowed when we fell in love. Everything reminded me of warm milk…Things have become more real with you. Every time I start to cry, you tell me that you can’t keep me from leaving. I feel abject without your passion…You should have thought before you made a crazy Indian woman your lover. Feel culpable in my insanity because you are partly to blame.

The flat expository sentences frequently fall to abrupt stops, accusations, and negations, opening up one instant and shutting down the next. Mailhot mostly avoids exact dates and place names or any semblance of linear progression. Trying to piece together her story from the plaintive and desperate edges of her romantic drama takes effort, as if scrolling compulsively through a newsfeed of emotional struggle while unable to pause for context or backstory. We see glimpses of childhood suffering and loss, as well as the awful and mundane work of psychiatric treatment, and its bitterly mocking moments of being:

While I’m walking along dull-blue lines or gluing Popsicle sticks, you are with a white woman named Laura. She plays tennis. She’s an ethereal white woman who thinks dogs are people too. You think, Isn’t this nice.

Her second-person address achieves no cadence but an unyielding defensiveness. I wonder why Mailhot would choose such an intimate form and subject, when at the same time she is determined to keep her readers so deliberately unsettled.

The discomfiting reading is not an unfamiliar experience; for postcolonial and feminist critics it can be a potential window into the meaning of a text. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said established the value of what he famously called the contrapuntal reading. The critic realizes that, due to race, class, gender, place of origin, or status as a colonial subject, she falls outside the intended audience for a literary or artistic work. Such a vantage point allows her to peel back its layers to reveal the systemic injustices or colonial privilege inscribing its author’s worldview all the more effectively. Discomfiture can also be productive with a book like Heart Berries, where the unsettled reader remains nevertheless sympathetic to the writer’s dilemmas and aspirations—enough to wonder exactly whom this text is written for.

Casey is a white man. While confronting an intimate partner with the realities of his embodied white privilege has a certain dramatic appeal, the approach also feels limited—actually stifling—in scope. The presumption of a colonial gaze consumes a lot of space that Mailhot could have devoted to more interesting matters.

Hints of Mailhot’s real narrative power shine in several resonant sketches of her family, which should have been at the centre of her memoir. The conscious carriage of her indigeneity and her lineage as a storyteller are likewise confined to short, allusive episodes whose vital content relieves the sense of claustrophobia, and whose style sometimes verges
on incantatory:

Mom did teach me story, though, along with Grampa Crow. She knew that was my power, and she knew women need their power honed early, before it’s beaten out of them by the world…It’s an Indian condition to be proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience… The Indian condition is my grandmother. She was a nursery teacher…She transcended resilience, and actualized what Indians weren’t taught to know: We are unmovable. Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief, but I don’t think she even measured time…Nobody wants to know why Indian women leave or where they go. Our bodies walk across the highway from the dances of our youth into missing narratives without strobe lights or sweet drinks in our small purses, or the talk of leaving. The truth of our leaving or coming into the world is never told.

Why do these passages take up so little space in an already slender volume, with such an unconvincing, whispery title scribbled in lower-case chalk letters? Something important has been hidden in this carefully modest guise. Right from her opening line—“My story was maltreated”—Mailhot is convinced she has already given away too much. She expresses recurring ambivalence toward her traditional role as a storyteller, and palpable distrust toward the reader: “I tried to tell someone my story but he thought it was a hustle…I was silenced by charity—like so many Indians.”

This distrust is difficult to reconcile, not only with the intimate depths Mailhot plumbs but also with the rapturous praise she has received for her honesty and bravery, qualities that normally signal an author’s confidence in her readership. There is a clear tension between this praise and the way the book has been packaged and marketed to readers. For instance, the dust cover flap baldly describes Heart Berries as a “triumphant coming of age” story, as though talking loudly over the writer’s own deliberately nonlinear essay forms; it also spells out biographical facts Mailhot never does, including exactly where she grew up and her exact mental health diagnosis. The summary creates an overall impression of a seamless chronological narrative where there simply isn’t one.

Commentaries surrounding the text of Heart Berries, like so much editorial scaffolding, further compound this tension. For all the naked, raw, electric, fearless brilliance with which it is credited, Mailhot’s work is somehow not permitted to stand on its own. In his introduction, Sherman Alexie takes pains to emphasize just how cool, likable, funny, and smart his former student is; implying heavily that we should like her too. Joan Naviyuk Kane conducts a Q&A with Mailhot, who remains overwhelmingly focused, in the same plaintive and powerless tone as in her letters to Casey, on the issue of how readers might perceive or fail to perceive her craft.

Touching first on the “general field of Native memoir,” Kane invites Mailhot to talk about her literary influences. Mailhot right away names two writers, Joy Harjo and Elissa Washuta, whose memoirs “were in my periphery as I considered writing one myself,” then adds three more: Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, and Linda Hogan. Yet, instead of discussing their value to her, she returns to the same distrust, the source of her old vexation—how badly they have been read by others: “These books were being mishandled to essentialize Indigenous people’s art…I need to tell people that my story was maltreated, and…I won’t be an Indian relic for any readership.”

I recognize this defensiveness, this overriding worry over how one is seen, and this fear of readers who will always get it wrong. I recognize Mailhot’s burdened sense of responsibility to “represent,” and her defeated-sounding references to the stereotypes Indigenous writers are supposed to reject: “I feel like a squaw. The type white people imagine: a feral thing…” The same tendency to give centrality to whatever white people imagine often inhibits younger and emerging writers and artists with black, Muslim, and other identities the state has politicized since before many of them were born. I recall my inward groan of protest at Muslim comedians who made terrorist jokes after 9/11, as if the stereotype were the only ground on which Muslims could seek an audience’s attention; the treacherous ground on which we were already “known.”

Even gifted writers succumb to these ­inhibitions, in part, I would argue, from a missing culture of robust literary criticism in historically under-represented communities. Social media campaigns whereby individual writers are simply amplified and celebrated until the next person comes along, may just end up feeding the larger cycle of cultural amnesia. There is no adequate substitute for paying close and careful attention to the novels and poems that our peers and predecessors have made. We need to be the ones to decide why our work has value, what it means, how it can improve, and we need to fight for bigger platforms for such writing. When Mailhot turns aside from the question of how women’s memoirs have influenced her own literary formation, she misses a chance to raise the terms of the conversation about Indigenous art to her own standards, and to compel the dominant literary establishment to catch up. An invigorated practice of cultural criticism would give emerging writers the assurance of belonging to an intellectual and artistic lineage, rather than feeling alone under the difficult weight of identity.

No writer can control how their work is read; nor, ultimately, should they ever want to. To worry about how one may be seen to the point of inhibition and self-censorship is to give away one’s power to a bunch of intransitive verbs. Our right as readers to make independent sense of a literary work is inviolable, and trusting the reader, as much as trusting oneself, is indispensable to our development as writers.

The success of Heart Berries poses a crucial question about literary fame. I find it difficult to overlook the problematic association of fame with a sense of reward or redemption for the survival of trauma. However hard-won, fame is not enough to protect vulnerable artists; it can even obscure or compound the alienation of belonging to communities still targeted by racism and state violence. Between the arduous process of healing from multigenerational trauma and Mailhot’s achievement of a satisfactory personal resolution, how much remains unsaid?

Heart Berries stops short of fully realizing the inherent power of narrative memoir. A more rigorous and far-seeing editorial process before publication, instead of the second-guessing editorial intervention after the fact, might have produced a work that was allowed to stand on its own.

To write about one’s life in the face of trauma and injustice, with or without stylistic innovation, remains a compelling act of defiance for any writer. Perhaps Mailhot could have simply used more time to push past her ambivalence and come into her powers as a storyteller more fully.

The final twenty pages of Heart Berries shift into an unexpected story arc. The recovered childhood memory of sexual abuse leads Mailhot to an emotional breakthrough and a new understanding of her past. Her early anguish about all she might not say because “the words were too wrong and ugly to speak” finds a healing resolve: “My mother’s looming spirit guides me some days, telling me that nothing is too ugly for this world. I am not too ugly for this world.” Mailhot’s enigmatic final elegy to her mother arrives at acceptance of the limitations of what can be explicitly spoken: “Some knowledge can only be a song or a symbol. Language fails you and me. Some things are too large.” Mailhot here acknowledges the abiding ethical need that drives poets and philosophers: to probe the depths and moral uses of language. I hope she will return to this task in future.