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November Book Club: Heart Berries: Home

Terese Marie Mailhot & Praise for the Book

TERESE MAILHOT graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an M.F.A. in fiction. Mailhot’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles TimesCarve MagazineThe OffingThe ToastYellow Medicine Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of several fellowships—SWAIA Discovery Fellowship, Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Writing by Writers Fellowship, and the Elk Writer’s Workshop Fellowship—she was recently named the Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University and resides in West Lafayette, Indiana. 

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Praise for Heart Berries:

New York Times bestseller
Selected by Emma Watson as the Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick for March/April 2018
A PBS Newshour/New York Times Now Read This Book Club Pick
New York Times Editor's Choice
Winner of the Spalding Prize for the Promotion of Peace and Justice in Literature
Finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for English–Language Nonfiction
A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection

An NPR Best Book of the Year

"A powerful, poetic memoir of an Indigenous woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest—this New York Times bestseller and Emma Watson Book Club pick is “an illuminating account of grief, abuse and the complex nature of the Native experience . . . at once raw and achingly beautiful." — NPR

“There are so many sentences I had to read again because they were so true and beautiful. It’s a memoir of pure poetry and courage and invention. Whenever I think about it, my heart clenches with love.” — Cheryl Strayed, The New York Times Book Review

“A sledgehammer . . . Her experiments with structure and language . . . 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 . . . If Heart Berries is any indication, the work to come will not just surface suppressed stories; it might give birth to new forms.” — The New York Times


Discussion Questions

  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?