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‘Heart Berries’ author Terese Marie Mailhot answers your questions

Terese Marie Mailhot, author of our January pick for the NewsHour-New York Times book club, Now Read This, joins Jeffrey Brown to answer reader questions on “Heart Berries,” and Jeff announces the February book selection.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, Jeffrey Brown speaks with the author of the January selection for our Now Read This book club with The New York Times, and he announces next month's selection.

    The conversation is part of Canvas, our ongoing series on arts and culture.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Our book club pick for January is a memoir by a young woman writing her way out of pain.

    It's titled "Heart Berries," tells of growing up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia, of traumas and trials, of a breakdown, and perhaps a breakthrough through the very act of writing.

    And author Terese Marie Mailhot joins us now from Lafayette, Indiana.

    Terese, thanks for doing this, and thanks for being part of our book club.

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I just described, in my way, your book. I wonder how you describe it.

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    Yes, I grew up on the Seabird Island Band, which is an Indian reserve in British Columbia, Canada.

    And we experienced abject poverty. And my mother was an activist and also a poet, and my father was an artist and very abusive. And it was a long journey going from that to where I am now, as a professor with a tenure track job.

    I couldn't deal with pretending anymore that I wasn't unscathed, you know? So the book is a lot about that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, one of our readers, Tina Hitchcock of Derry, New Hampshire, she says, how mindful of audience were you as you were writing?

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    I guess I knew, the more singular the story, the more it would ring true for people. If they could see the small details of my life, and if I could be individual in my account of it, I think people would see me more clearly.

    The better you articulate your story, the more it connects.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    People wondered about the process here. Writing in real time, it reads like a journal, or was it rewritten, and was there a lot of editing later on? How did it work?

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    I had to come up with a thesis which was a novel, you know, connected short stories, really.

    And my protagonist was an indigenous woman, and she was very articulate, very strong and willful. And at the end of every story, there would be, like, a murky ending, where there would be some type of darkness, you know, some history of pain that was never really identified. And then, eventually, I just cut out all the contrivance.

    And I realized, why don't I just write what I was writing in my journal? And why don't I fine-tune that to make it art?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Lisa Pinot of San Antonio, she asks for any insight about how people, readers, can perhaps access their deeper feelings, especially to bring them out, as you were able to through writing.

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    I had always tried to present normal. Even in grade school, like, I would try to act like nothing was going on in my home.

    And I got so good at that, and then I just found myself breaking down because it wasn't working. Like, diving deep into your history is really painful.

    But I think it could be better than trying to cover it up, you know? I think you understand yourself better the more you try to think about your life as a story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Diane Beckman of Cary, North Carolina, asked about a particular word that you used.

    She asked, perhaps you can put more broadly how words like squaw were used.

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    My first encounter with, like, the squaw trope, like watching "Peter Pan."

    And you see the little Indian girl, and that's the only representation you get as a child. And there's something about that, that is just ingrained in you.

    So, for me, squaw was, like, such a loaded word that represented savage, that represented how women, indigenous women, have been degraded down to this caricature or this, like, trope.

    Sometimes, when I feel at my worst, I feel like I inhabit that word. I feel like that's all that people saw sometimes. When I would tell them that I'm from an Indian reserve or that I'm indigenous, they would see the cliche or what little they knew about indigenous people.

    And it was such a hurtful term that I had to really consider that language and make it part of a thesis question in one of the parts of the book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, I think, for many people, the real power here is hearing an untold or undertold story.

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    I think a topic like murdered and missing indigenous women, or the violence indigenous women face, or the way we're marginalized, I think those stories are coming through.

    And we have Native women writing books that are very meaningful, and I think it's so important that we tell our own stories. You know, I think that kind of control can give some new text to what people have been seeing about us.

    And I think it's so important. I see it more and more, but it's also because I'm just entering this realm and meeting other Native women writers, that I'm experiencing what feels like a revelation, that we can speak our own stories. So it does — it makes me really proud.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, we will continue our conversation and have it all online and on our Now Read This Facebook page.

    For now, Terese Marie Mailhot, thank you for joining us.

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And before we go, our pick for February.

    It's called "American Prison," and its subtitle says it all, "A Reporter's Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment." Shane Bauer takes us inside the world of a private prison and documents the evolution and impact of the for-profit correction system.

    We hope you will read along with us, get involved with many other engaged readers and members around the country, and join us on our Facebook page and here on the "NewsHour" for Now Read This, our book club partnership with The New York Times.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And on the "NewsHour" online, you will find more from our January Now Read This author, Terese Marie Mailhot, including an annotated page from "Heart Berries" in which she talks about coming to terms with her father's life and death.

    All that and more is on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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