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Discussion questions for ‘Heart Berries’

Our January 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Terese Marie Mailhot’s “Heart Berries.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Terese Marie Mailhot on our Google form. Mailhot will answer reader questions on the PBS NewsHour broadcast at the end of the month.

WARNING: Spoiler alert on questions further down

  1. Early in the book, Mailhot tells the story of the first medicine healer in her culture, whose name was “Heart Berry Boy,” or O’dimin. What’s the connection with this passage and the title of her novel?
  2. As an indigenous woman, how does Mailhot describe life in a predominantly white world? In what ways does her identity give her power? Or fuel her insecurities?
  3. “I think I have the blood memory of my neurotic ancestors and their vices,” writes Mailhot. How does Mailhot’s connection with her ancestors inform her understanding of her own life?
  4. Mailhot refers to herself many times as “squaw”— an English term used to describe a Native American woman or wife, often in a derogatory or offensive manner. What characterizes a squaw, in Mailhot’s view?
  5. “Native women walk alone from the dances of our youth into homes they don’t know for the chance to be away,” Mailhot writes. What did you learn from this memoir about the ongoing crisis of violence against indigenous women and girls? Or about assaults on indigenous communities more generally?
  6. A running theme of the book is Mailhot’s experience with settler colonialism, in which people take land that is inhabited by indigenous people for their own. What critiques of settler colonialism, both past and present, does she offer?
  7. “It is my politic to write the humanity in my characters, and subvert the stereotypes,” Mailhot writes when reflecting on the death of her father. How does she overturn stereotypes about indigenous people in her book?
  8. At one point, Mailhot writes about her mother’s interactions with the musician Paul Simon, who uses her correspondences with the prisoner Salvador Agron as inspiration for a Broadway musical. Why is Mailhot disappointed with the way her mother is ultimately depicted in the show?
  9. In addition to her mother sharing her letters with Paul Simon, there’s another scene in which a white artist seeks to capitalize on one of Mailhot’s family members’ stories: when her father agrees to talk to a documentarian about his art. Why, in Mailhot’s view, are these artists unreliable narrators of her family history?
  10. How does Mailhot’s memoir compare with other representations of Native women that you’ve seen in literature or cinema?
  11. Mailhot addresses her partner, Casey, directly throughout much of the book, but she retains her voice and authority. What’s significant about that to you?
  12. “If my security depends on a man’s words or action, I’ve lost sight of my power,” Mailhot writes of a conversation she has with her aunt. How do power dynamics play out in Mailhot’s relationships with other men throughout the book?
  13. Mailhot is sexually abused by her father as a young child — an experience that has a profound effect on her mental health later on. Do you sense that she finds some way to forgive him by the end of the book? Does he deserve forgiveness?
  14. Did Mailhot’s memoir make you think about mental health differently?
  15. Mailhot’s memoir is not plot-driven, nor is it chronological. What did you make of her unique writing style?
  16. Fundamentally, is this an optimistic memoir?

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