Heart Berries makes for a slim volume, but it feels as though it weighs a thousand pounds. It turns its gaze on a constellation of fraught subjects: Mailhot’s upbringing on British Columbia’s Seabird Island Indian Reservation; her caring grandmother and abusive father; her teenage marriage, and all the wrong men afterward; her children, one lost in an custody battle; her tumultuous affair with Gray; the pregnancy she carried through both a graduate fellowship and a mental health facility. What brings it all together is the oracular power of Mailhot’s voice, which speaks into the silence: amplifying aspects of experience that have been muted, animating despairs and passions we tend to hide from view. “I can name my pain so well,” she writes, in an indicative line, “that people are afraid of the consequences and power.”
Terese Marie Mailhot graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in fiction; there, she studied with the writer Sherman Alexie, whose mentorship she discussed below. She’s the Saturday editor at The Rumpus and was recently named a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University. We spoke by phone.
Terese Marie Mailhot: I had already read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets twice when I signed up for a nonfiction seminar with Evan Lavender-Smith at New Mexico State University. He was something of a star for being an experimental nonfiction writer, and his reading list was really interesting to me. But he didn’t end up teaching that semester. Instead, the class ended up being taught by my now-husband Casey, who’d been my fiction professor a semester before.
I don’t even think Casey would’ve selected Bluets himself, but he had to teach Evan’s syllabus. The thing that surprised me was that people were so upset about it. They didn’t think it was a real book. Other students in my class, especially men, would say, “Well, I don’t like how she says ‘fuck’ all the time,” or, “I don’t like how she writes explicitly about sex,” or, “Why is she so ambiguous about where they are and who this person is? Why speak so abstractly, and why talk in riddles?”
I could tell Casey admired how much I loved the book, and he allowed me to defend it. To me, Bluets never felt abstract. I thought the way she referred to her lover as “the prince of blue” was oddly specific, a quality you’d give somebody you admire profoundly, who has struck you in a magical, dark sense. The way she wrote was exactly the way I wanted to—which is not immersing the reader in all the details of a location, but placing them in a specific emotional space. That didn’t really seem to work for people. I think they were expecting to read something like Wild, a travel memoir that felt from the top down like a full, linear experience.
Then something happened that surprised me. As we read the book, I noticed I was very struck by Casey. It was so unexpected. We didn’t have a flirtation or anything, and I think he was really clueless about all of it. But during breaks my friend and I would talk about Casey, about my crush on Casey, and about the book itself.