Mailhot grew up in foster care for a time, and after she aged out, at 17, she married — she didn’t know what else to do. She had a child, and lost custody of him as she was giving birth to another. The marriage collapsed. Mailhot fell into a messy affair with her writing teacher and a second marriage. (“I wasn’t stable, but men don’t usually care about that.”) It’s to him that the book is addressed. “Casey, I want to be polite and present myself as decent,” she writes early on before, happily, jettisoning that ambition.
Credit Isaiah Mailhot
“Heart Berries” has a mixture of vulnerability and rage, sexual yearning and artistic ambition, swagger and self-mockery that recalls Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick.” Mailhot writes of a friend: “She thinks my husband doesn’t understand how to communicate love, and I think he’s impotent.” Later, of Casey: “I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said. You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut. You were hairy and large.”
She is unsparing to everyone, especially herself. She makes some horrifying admissions: “Isaiah cried all night, and I remembered well that I held a hand over his mouth, long enough for me to know I am a horror to my baby.” She describes blinding rages in which she gave her husband a black eye, broke every glass in the house and some of the windows.
In a trice she can shift registers, though, and her candor and keenness of eye translate surprisingly well to tenderness. “I wondered if maybe falling in love looked like a crisis to an observer,” she writes. “I found myself caressing my own face.” In every revelation — of joy or suffering — there is an unmistakable note of triumph. “I was the third generation of the things we didn’t talk about,” she notes; there is exhilaration in shattering this pattern.
“We function the way ghosts function in ghost stories,” the Ojibwe writer David Treuer said in 2006 about how indigenous people are represented. “We sort of hover around to admonish people about what they should be doing, what they’re doing wrong, how they’re destroying nature. We’re always there, but chained to our own deaths, not really alive and active and engaged.”
A decade later, however, and we have a wave of acclaimed young indigenous writers — Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, Tommy Pico, Elissa Washuta, Tommy Orange — all of them vigorously engaged in projects that carve out new spaces for self-definition, and creating characters that do the same. (“We have some strength in numbers now,” Diaz has said. “We’re actually considered for our work that isn’t meant for natives.”) It might be just the beginning. Sherman Alexie has projected that the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which brought together members of 300 tribes in America, are going to catalyze the next generation of indigenous artists and activists.
If “Heart Berries” is any indication, the work to come will not just surface suppressed stories; it might give birth to new forms. “The writers before me seemed to do the work of looking at being indigenous so we could look through it,” Mailhot writes. Her experiments with structure and language (some more successful than others; she can be fatally attracted to a faux lyricism) 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. “In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution.” And heart berries, she tells us, referred to strawberries in the language; as the lore goes, the first medicine man learned how to put them to use.
So much of what Mailhot is moving toward here still feels nascent — the book wants a tighter weave, more focus. But give me narrative power and ambition over tidiness any day. “I wanted as much of the world as I could take,” Mailhot writes. “And I didn’t have the conscience to be ashamed.”