Students at the University of Indianapolis will have the opportunity to hear an excerpt of the New York Times bestselling memoir “Heart Berries” from author Terese Marie Mailhot herself. The reading is part of the ongoing Kellogg Writers Series at UIndy and will be in person on Oct. 14 in UIndy Hall A of the Schwitzer Student Center at 7:30 p.m., as well as virtually via Zoom, according to Barney Haney, Assistant Professor of English and Chair of the Kellogg Writers Series. There will also be a book raffle for copies of “Heart Berries” during the event, according to Haney.
Mailhot said that she started writing at a very young age while growing up on Seabird Island Band, a First Nation reserve in Canada. Her mother was a writer as well and her writing about their culture and colonization inspired Mailhot’s own writing about Indigenous identity.
“[My mother] wrote about the subjugation of Indian people in a way that was about restoration, and reclaiming our ways as a people,” Mailhot said. “It was always so empowering to read her work, because I feel like I understood myself better when I read it. And I wanted to write something like that, for Indigenous women, and also for women who had been victimized in their lifetime.”
While studying creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Mailhot started working on a novel. When she realized that she was writing about her own life, she decided to turn it into non-fiction.
“I realized that the thing that I’ve been working on my whole academic life was actually just a collection of analogies,” Mailhot said. “It kind of relieved me to know that I didn’t need to pretend anymore, I didn’t need to imagine these were two separate experiences.”
The title “Heart Berries” comes from a story that Mailhot was told by a friend, she said. The story is about Heart Berry Boy, the first healer in her culture, who left to find medicine for his people who were passing away from an illness. She said she was empowered by the idea of journeying alone to find yourself, but coming back to bring the medicine.
Mailhot said that she worries everyday to some degree about the repercussions of what she has put out publicly about her personal life and relationships. However, she decided to take a risk on telling her own story.
“The only thing is that I was already known as a troublemaker in my family and my community,” Mailhot said. “So it’s not like the book was that different than my personality. I just took a risk on the art. I already argue about my family, about our history and whose fault is what. I think all families are really like that, like just different ideas and different traumas and different experiences. So I figured I would take a chance on mine, and try to get it to be as honest and forthright as it possibly could be given as just my experience. And nobody has sued me yet, so that’s a great sign.”
Haney said that the Kellogg series has been dedicated to including diversity amongst the featured writers. He said he had been wanting to have an Indigenous writer do a reading for the series when he reached out to Mailhot, who teaches creative writing at Purdue University. The reason he reached out to her specifically was because of how powerful “Heart Berries” is, he said.
“She’s an amazing writer. It hits the diversity goals and objectives that we’re going after,” Haney said. “It also touches on things we really feel are important to the students with the mental health that she’s discussing here… I really was looking at writers who were speaking to that, because I felt like students needed to hear people that have worked through struggling to manage a serious mental health disorder and… made it through. Terese Marie speaks very, very much to that. I know she has a powerful thing to deliver our students so that was a big reason for bringing her here.”
Mailhot said she hopes that readers who have experienced or witnessed abuse or who have mental health issues will feel less alone after reading “Heart Berries.” When she does readings of her work, she approaches them with the thought that someone in the audience needed to hear her words that day, she said.
“Sometimes I’ve gone to a reading, like in Montreal, and I remember a man came up to me, he held my hand and he was crying, and he didn’t need to say anything, I just kind of knew that it touched him,” Mailhot said. “And that was cool. But, I mean, with others, it’s always something like that… I hate public speaking and I hate sharing my work. I wish people would just read the book and not make me talk to anyone. But, the reality is, it’s this way to connect with people in a very immediate way where they can shake your hand after and they can talk to you about their lives. And I think that’s the best part of it.”
Attending a reading can be a moving experience, according to Haney. Students have the opportunity to sit with their peers and hear from an amazing writer, and potentially relate to what the author expresses in their work, he said. Haney said the event could also be very inspirational for future writers who would like to write about their own lives.
Mailhot’s advice to aspiring writers is to practice and find individuality. Writers should not feel discouraged about the importance of their stories, she said.
“I think follow your guide regarding your voice and your cadence, and who you are as an artist, and also never feel discouraged that your story’s not important because, I mean, art really isn’t about shining light on important figureheads or speaking to the meaning of life,” Mailhot said. “Sometimes it’s just about enjoying and sometimes it’s just about sharing experiences.”
More information on the Kellogg Writers Series can be found at events.uindy.edu. Students can also register there for the Zoom link to Mailhot’s reading.