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Mailhot.jpgI’m behind, because life, but I’m reading!

I’m actually bumping a memoir I read two months ago to write this post because the book’s so good that I’ve been talking about it and now someone wants to borrow it. Must write this post before I lend the book away for who knows how long!

I recently visited Midtown Scholar, an acclaimed indie bookstore in Harrisburg, PA. It’s shameful that this was my first time—I, a native central Pennsylvanian—stepping foot into this space, but hey, now I’ve been there. And I’ll be going back.

In a 2010 Publisher’s Weekly review, Alison Morris described Midtown Scholar as “a cavernous space filled with some 100,000+ second-hand, out-of-print, and scholarly (…) books” that combines with an enormous warehouse inventory to make “the largest used book collection between New York City and Chicago.” The store also houses a coffee shop and its owners regularly host readings, workshops, and author events. It’s basically Disneyland for writers and readers.

I walked in, ordered a mocha and a chocolate peanut butter brownie, and immediately found a memoir to curl up with for the afternoon—one that had been on my Amazon nonfiction wish list for some time.

Roxane Gay calls Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries a “memoir in essays,” among other things. IMG_8013As someone who is interested in fragmented, sectioned, woven, fractured ways of telling a life story, this characterization intrigued me. I’m a poet first. With few exceptions, my line breaks left me when I left a violent relationship almost four years ago. Prose poems poured from me for a year, then essays. Just because I’m not enjambing much these days doesn’t mean the longer form is without its challenges for me. My goal to write a memoir is one that makes me incredibly anxious because I’ve never formally studied prose (hence why I’m reading and writing about 100 memoirs!). A memoir “in essays” seems a much more reasonable, manageable goal.

Until you read Mailhot’s memoir and think, as I did, holy shit, there’s no way I can do what this woman has done here.

And then, holy shit, I have to try to do something like what this woman has done here.

The best writing makes us think both simultaneously, no?

The poet in me had a strong response to the poetry in Mailhot’s prose, which seems to nearly burst from her as the only way to render strong emotion from the mind of a self-proclaimed “crazy Indian woman.” Never is she more lyrical than in delving into (non)explications of Native culture:

I avoid the mysticism of my culture. My people know there is a true mechanism that runs through us. Stars were people in our continuum. Mountains were stories before they were mountains. Things were created by story. The words were conjurers, and ideas were our mothers.

Thunder is contrary. Thunder can intuit, and her action is the music created by lightning. She comes because we ask, and that’s why falling apart is holy.

This passage immediately precedes the author’s excavation of an incredibly disruptive and dark memory of her father. As a reader, I recalled an earlier sentence spoken about the narrator’s lover: “You ruined me with touch.” But that’s not what the memoir is about; Mailhot comes to this memory near the close, so that its epiphany retrospectively lights the way from whence we have come along on her journey—into and out of mental health facilities, relationships, her husband’s bed, her own creative process and path.

Tempering the emotional lyricism is a frankness that often stung me with its poignancy. “I think self-esteem is a white invention to further separate one person from another,” Mailhot writes. “It asks people to assess their values and implies people have worth. It seems like identity capitalism.” Of course! Then, “I have tried not to call her my mother. I started to believe that a person cannot own land or a family member.” Of. course.

The entire time I was reading this memoir, people bustling around me with lattes and paperbacks, I was conscious of what it must mean for marginalized people to own their stories in writing this way, the risk it takes to arrive at a point of acceptance (a graduate degree, a book deal, for example), only to turn back around and lay bare that which makes you most vulnerable, once more. To insist that you are more than a “crazy Indian woman” and then write the book of your craziness, Indianness, femaleness.

The entire time I was reading this memoir, I was aware of my privilege. I have not known hunger. Though I once feared my son would be taken from me, he never actually was.

The point of resonance was in witnessing how Mailhot gathered together her pieces, bound, and stitched them into a narrative, the backbone of which is the story of O’dimin, or Heart Berry Boy (as told to her by a friend), meaning “strawberry,” who “became a sorrowful kid” after his mother’s death but “found solace in the dream world” and, according to First Nation wisdom, went on to become the first medicine man.

I like to think Mailhot’s title is saying that gathering the pieces of our story/stories, like putting sun-warm berries in a basket, is self-healing, a way to become the sum of our parts.

This memoir floored me in the best ways. I want to read everything Mailhot’s ever written or will write, and you should, too.