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February 9, 2018

Book Notes - Terese Marie Mailhot "Heart Berries"

Heart Berries

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Terese Marie Mailhot's memoir-in-essays Heart Berries is lyrically and innovatively told, and one of the most moving books I have read in years.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"A sledgehammer . . . Her experiments with structure and language . . . are in the service of trying to find new ways to think about the past, trauma, repetition, and reconciliation, which might be a way of saying a new model for the memoir . . . If Heart Berries is any indication, the work to come will not just surface suppressed stories; it might give birth to new forms."

In her own words, here is Terese Marie Mailhot's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Heart Berries:

"Jezebel" by Sade

The beginning of the book is an assertion—it's shameless and ugly. I did a lot of things to survive and I'm disinterested in figuring out whether or not I'm proud of them. I simply did them, and now I speak them and bring it all to light. I assert that my story was maltreated. People saw my story and saw stereotypes of Indian life and the stigmas we carry, and they saw my vulnerabilities, and sometimes exploited that with such inhumanity—I believe they never thought the truth of that violence would ever come to light. Jezebel is about women like me—and it's about women I know, who know the stigmas and stereotypes about their behavior, or their history, but they still bring the house down and nobody can deny their venerability. "Jezebel won't try to deny where she came from," "Try show her a better way/She'll say, ‘You don't know what you've been missing.'" "‘Every winter was a war,' she said/'I want to get what's mine.'" That is exactly what much of my life has felt like—people trying to save me, instead of revere me, or love me—or accept me. And only I knew my own potential.

"Bad Girls (Verdine Version)" rendition by Solange

"Heart Berries" (The second essay in the book) illustrates how I fell in love with Casey. I was so much trouble for him. I told him I liked him and he had a girlfriend at the time. I was wholly unprepared to be loved by a man who saw me as a human being. I was unprepared to receive love, or set boundaries, or even consider myself more than something to be bought or earned—never seen fully. He saw me and it frightened both of us to love that deeply, and we were so faulty. We were so bad at loving each other, but could not pull away. I like the line in this song, "Tell me what's wrong/No, I can't tell you what's wrong," and at that moment I could not communicate what was wrong with me. I couldn't tell him what was missing, but I felt deeply troubled/troubling. I like that line, "And still I try to pull you into my own hurricane/It's like you stopped me trying from a thousand miles away." Casey seemed to have this resistance to a. treat me how other men treated me, and b. be played, and c. at first he was resistant to deal with my trouble. Anytime I became "too much," he pulled away and I spiraled out. This song is a lot about feeling like trouble, and the loneliness of that.

"Tom Boy" by Electric Wire Hustle

"Indian Sick" is an epistolary piece I wrote when I was institutionalized at a mental health facility after breaking up with Casey. It was tragic. I was suicidal, but not because Casey left me, and we get to that epiphany later. In the beginning of the essay, I'm writing to Casey. I'm asking him to understand how I unravel, and that I am crazy, yes, but I'm ultimately asking if he feels at all culpable in my craziness. The love of a withholding man, who distanced himself whenever I was "too much," sent me into an extraordinarily dark place, and Tomboy kind of illustrates the desperate plea somebody makes when they just can't stand to be left alone. It starts, "There's a river flowing to nowhere/There's a place for us, but no one is there." I felt the absence of a love that felt necessary. He shook me, entirely, and there was no coming back from that. It's important to say, for women emboldened by my work—this man is not my salvation or my savior, but his love compelled me to consider how my father's transgressions against my mother shaped the way I see men. I had to rectify that to be a better mother to my sons, and to a love a man without shame. That's why I like that line, "There must be hope for me/In the name of all that's fair." It was ultimately that desperation that unraveled a memory in the recesses of my mind: the image of my father, standing over my mother in the basement of the house I grew up in. I remembered that it was my first memory. Loving Casey, and being left alone with that brought about something so terrifying—and that's where the essay ends. Love liberates, and the absence of it, too.

"Lucio" by Luca C & Brigante

The essay "In a Pecan Field" wants to exact the story of the family Casey and I created together. It's trying to exact it for when my children become men, and need to read that they were created out of love, and that my profound love for Casey was not easy—and that nothing pure ever is very easy to behold or be true to. I wrote, "Because, if my sons want to see how terrible our love was, and why we chose it, they can see us closest here." My children can grow up to be resentful of that love and its complications, or they can be thankful for how deeply we felt for each other, and how we've treated our jobs as parents with as much love as possible—I healed myself for them, mostly. Lucio is lovely, and simple. That's how I feel about my children, and I feel that way about nothing else. They bring me joy and reflection, like this song.

"Disintegration" by The Cure

"Your Black Eye and My Birth" is about letting go of the things that don't serve me anymore. It was hard to let go of dysfunction and violence. It was difficult to believe that I wasn't fighting for my life anymore. For so long, my brothers and I existed in a space of fear, where we were scared my father would come back, or scared our mother would need us, or scared to be alone with our thoughts. There was so much fear, and fear turned me brutal. I began to speak brutalities and commit brutalities against the people I loved—which was a symptom of a much larger issue, but I was aware I could change. It was an active choice that I make every day. When I listen to The Cure I think of my brother. When Robert Smith sings, "I'll pull out my heart and feed it to anyone/Crying for sympathy/Crocodile's Cry," I hear everyone in my family who felt the desperation of wanting to be somewhere else—or be someone else—someone the world would care about or believe. It felt futile for me, to imagine breaking the cycle of violence, but the birth of Casey Guyweeyo felt powerful enough to break some curse of our lives.

"Willow Tree" rendition by Alton Ellis

"I Know I'll Go" is the point in my book where I remove myself from the long shadows of shame. I meet my father for the first time since he left my mother. And while I can't exactly remember how he left us, I try to interrogate if I even care anymore. I try to remember what I can of the times he left my brother and I in his van so that he could drink in a bar. My brother tells me that he was only a child when that stuff happened, but that he remembers feeding me empty bottles. It's this moment in the book where I really decide how to manage the grief I carry in my father's absence. I used to listen to "Willow Tree" and envision a moment in my life where the crying would be done, and I wouldn't need anyone's tears. I believe I came to this moment by envisioning, not the man my father was, but who he had been before his father broke him, or before he went to prison. I tried to think of my father as a baby in his newness, and I still feel compelled to love that version of my father. It's brought me peace. It is a love "I've searched for/I need your tears no more."

"New Person, Same Old Mistakes" by Tame Impala

"Little Mountain Woman" is really an essay about how dirty I felt when I loved people who couldn't love me back. The feeling of abandonment always triggered me, but I've always been drawn to people who are withholding or callous. I want the things that damage my psyche. In many ways, I wanted to prove I was lovable by cultivating love where it didn't exist. The people who cared about me assumed I knew better than to throw myself into love, or give up my personhood for the sake of someone else. I silenced myself for men, and let them exploit every good thing about me, until I couldn't wash that feeling away. The essay examines that and resists feelings of regret—I like to be shameless, and I like autonomy—I've chosen my life, and loved people knowing the risks. The chance that someone would prove to me I was worth loving always outweighed the risk of them damaging me irreparably. I can't say I would live differently, because loving with the entire weight and history and heart of myself has paid off. I've learned I don't need a man to validate me, but, the type of person I am, I couldn't have come to that conclusive thought in my essay or life had I not loved as hard as I did. I like when the song goes, "I know that you think it's fake/Maybe it's what I like/The point is I have a right."

"Paper Thin" by MC Lyte

"The Leaving Deficit" is a more playful essay, even though the content is heavy. It's about the art of leaving. I learned to leave men with finesse and attitude. When a man abused me I didn't cower—I took their punches, and before I would leave, I took their credit cards or guilt-ridden gifts. I adorned myself with rings and bracelets and diamonds and wore the bruises, too—and I did not give a fuck, really and truly. The men fell away, and then leaving was not sustainable, so I learned new things. People should not have to go through this, and I refuse to feel shame for how I reacted to unspeakable abuse. I refuse to feel shame for enduring abuse, when those men are living comfortable lives—without an ounce of shame for what they put me through. Men think I'm cold—I'll be that. Men think I was a gold-digger, and maybe I was—but they treated me like an object, so who's exploiting who? Men called me a slut, but fell deeply in love with me. I am not bound to their ideas of me, and I'm glad I left them all behind. Like MC Lyte says, "What you say to me is just paper thin."

"Love Song" rendition by Lani Hall

I lost the urgent feeling to abandon things and then I had a reckoning. "Thunder Being Honey Bear" is about retrieving the most awful memories of my father from the recesses of my mind. It liberated me from a feeling I couldn't identify. The truth that my father hurt me always felt in my periphery. It felt like something I couldn't speak, but something I always alluded to in my fiction, or when people asked me about my father, I often had a visceral reaction. I felt sick at the thought of him, and then—like a flash—I knew without question why. All of the symptoms, the signs, the conversations, the images and memories, they lined up in the right exact moment—and delivered a horrible epiphany I can't forget. I was holding a cup of coffee, and I was working on my thesis for grad-school, and then I remembered. I wasn't the same after that. Every moment since this reckoning has been a profound act of reconciliation and restitution of self. Love Song is a call to action. I like when she sings, "They say it's very hard to leave behind the life we knew/But there's no other way/Now it's really up to you/Love."

"Cher Chez LaGhost" by Ghostface Killah ft. U-God

The latter essays of the book are about coming into my own. It's a renaissance. When I think of renaissance—of discovery—I think of how magnificent it is to see people in their most untouchable and audacious form. I think of Ghostface Killah in a golden housecoat, with a gold, eagle bracelet—I think of my own audacity. I have a skill to illustrate my life—I've acquired this skill against insurmountable odds. My existence was an impossibility, and nobody cared about me enough to protect me—and now I'm living my life safe from all that, and I'm audacious and happy as I can be, every day. I revel in my power, and wield my talent in a way my ancestors might be upset about, but ultimately I know they're happy. This song is a celebration of a metaphorical golden robe I wore until I could afford the real one, which is satin and it's practically paying for itself.

Terese Marie Mailhot and Heart Berries links:

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
New York Times review

Booklist review
Bustle profile of the author
CBC interview with the author
Indianapolis Monthly interview with the author
Inlander interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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