“A skittish tapestry” – Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

“I went into the bathroom and swallowed a bottle of aspirin. It was funny then, somehow, because Mom had only died several months before: her douche and hair dye and tweezers were still in the bathroom. I had to search through her things to find the bottle.

I told Ovi what I did, and he laughed at me. He said that I should go and barf, because aspirin isn’t fatal. He went to get me some water, and, before he could return, I ran to the bathroom and made it to the sink. I threw up slimy, smaller white pills.

I had to hold myself against the walls to return to my bed. My stomach hurt so much. My C-section scar ached. I laid down on my back and he opened my door. He sat and observed me. He smiled as I groaned.

“Do you need an aspirin?” he asked.”

Ask a British fortysomething for their most memorable cinematic moment, and the ‘Choose Life’ scene from Trainspotting – when the anti-hero sends up the rules for the rightful life – may well take top spot. Here was a young man, a dropout and heroin addict, ridiculing the life he was meant to live – making substance abuse seem like the sensible choice. 

Opposing that small band who step out of life’s race altogether, are the select few who reach adulthood with all pistons firing – young masters of the universe. As for the rest of us, limping / collapsing over the line, we soldier on – papering over our cracks, giving our all just to stay standing. Terese Marie Mailhot is just such a person – the product of a broken and abusive home, saturated with alcohol and bad memories. In heart berries, her memoir, she flits between adulthood as well as episodes from childhood, weaving a skittish tapestry, a patchwork of who she is. Importantly, she’s Indian (Native American, not South Asian) – someone who grew up on a reservation but then left to carve out a life beyond. And the bite in her story lies in the tension between the intellectual human being – a woman with plans, with ambition to become a writer, and her ever-present susceptibility to ghosts from her past, threatening to run riot and destroy her fragile future.

Every aspect of Mailhot’s backstory – and arguably, her position as an Indian woman in particular – could have been tapped for easy sympathy. But the author avoids the low road. Instead she is undramatic, analytical, searching. Her story roams, is non-linear, asks questions – the demand on the reader is simply to listen and reflect, not to self-flagellate. Despite the intensely personal moments shared, Mailhot is not self-effacing – she is blunt and honest. And her interrogation of her wider / white world, especially in relation to her on-off white lover, is a masterclass in writing about race without ‘writing about race’. There is no soft-peddling, but neither does she shout into a megaphone – rather, she drops observations, however uncomfortable, and then moves on. I get drunk, she points out, and I’m an Indian woman. But I’m not a drunk Indian woman. And the difference between those positions is what makes heart berries so raw, eloquent and arresting. 

Any Cop?: Unlike the fictional anti-hero, Mailhot did ‘choose life’. And heart berries, a memoir of someone you’ll not already know, and re-telling a life bounded by uncommon axes, it’s remarkably connective. Quietly seething and yet wholly undramatic, Mailhot’s story will speak to anyone. 

     

Tamim Sadikali

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