Our Shared Shelf discussion

Announcements > OSS EXCLUSIVE! Roxane Gay interviews Terese Marie Mailhot

Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jo, Our Shared Shelf Moderator (last edited Apr 13, 2018 12:47AM) (new)

Jo (jo_9) | 373 comments Mod
Hi Everyone,
Exclusive for Our Shared Shelf! OSS author and legend, Roxane Gay, interviews Terese Marie Mailhot, who answers our member questions about Heart Berries!!
Please read below...

The OSS Team

Roxane Gay: What has the release of Heart Berries been like? What are the best and worst parts of having such a buzzed about book out in the world?

Terese Mailhot: I’ve been working so hard. It feels like an accomplishment—like finishing a degree, or publishing work, or doing something for the right reasons. It feels good as hell. The best parts of a critical success is that I wrote the book according to my own artistic integrity, and people came my way—so, I believe in myself more. I care about my instincts and desires more. It probably shouldn’t work that way, but it feels validating to see people reading my book.

There are a few worst parts of having a book with buzz. The stakes are higher—which is good and bad. What I do matters more now. People want more from me now. Sometimes I read things about myself I don’t like, and I’m always considering what’s worth addressing.

I just want to keep writing. I want to keep working. I have a broader scope now, and I’m smart enough to keep my precision. My career is just that, a career. When before it was just me being an adjunct, getting rejected quite a bit. So, I can’t just sit back and enjoy anything just yet. I have other work to do and I need to do it now, like always.

RG: Do you enjoy touring?

TM: I do until I don’t. I loved being in bookstores and reading. I loved reading at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, and I loved being with Indigenous students at Stanford, and I love the Pacific Northwest. I stayed in a Four Seasons for the first time, and my brother and I just kind of marveled at the TV in the bathroom. I sound like a yokel, but for real. It’s just an amazing thing to travel and see things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It’s an amazing thing to do interviews for writing something.

And then my kids need me and I have work at Purdue and IAIA. I also have to write. I have learned how to write on planes, and in hotels, and Counterpoint is really good about organizing my life, but the kid thing and the two other jobs thing—I can’t drop any balls, so it can feel impossible on a bad day.

RG: There are many raw, vulnerable moments in Heart Berries. What does it take to write from the self with such intimacy?

TM: The whole book was the hardest thing to write. I think it takes ruthlessness, and then tenderness in revision. People say that I’m hard on myself. I just look at myself often, because I want to be my best self: on the page, to my kids, and to myself. Writing about failure is important to me. Writing about loss is one way I’ve found out who I am. When I was writing to Casey in a hospital it was all angry, and one-sided, and malicious, and then I saw it on the page and I considered, if this was fiction would I buy it? No. I wouldn’t buy the narrator was being truthful with herself if she was appearing so judgmental and angry. So, I asked myself what the work was really about—and, yeah, it was about Casey, sure. It was also about the fact that I didn’t need a man and trying to validate myself through men wasn’t going to work anymore, and maybe what I needed was my conviction, my voice, and love, on my terms. I am able to write fuller about my true self when I am viewing it through the eyes I use to edit fiction. I ask myself questions, like, is there a scene from my life I can bring in to contextualize this thesis statement or narrative occasion. I look at myself on the page like this. In real time: when I have a reaction, or emotion, and it feels wrong at first, I ask myself what it’s really about. It’s made me a better person, speaker, and writer. This type of interrogation of self might not be healthy, but from my background, living how I lived, I had to be hypervigilant of everything I said and did, so that just bleeds into my work. Even when I appear undone, it’s because I’ve allowed myself the grace of undoing—consciously or not. Sometimes my body has given me breaks or failures my mind hasn’t willed yet. Sometimes it’s the opposite.

RG: How do you define your artistic integrity?

TM: I had an idea of what would make people pleased with me, and then I did what I thought would please me, artistically and personally. That changes and shifts, but the integrity of that determination remains. I’m writing what I want, and trying to do it as well as I possibly can. Heart Berries couldn’t be rendered another way and I respected that, and I had to write it. I wrote it with the knowledge that I might be ruining a career that didn’t exist yet, because maybe people would read it and think, this is uneducated, or undone, or it’s moving away from established ideas on memoir that are purposeful and more important than this work.

I know I always want to say the thing. I’ve marked that as part of an aesthetic—always say the thing. That sounds silly, maybe. It does, but it’s what I keep in mind. Sometimes it’s the most brutal thing, or the darkest thing, or the secret, or, it’s the thing I have to say a thousand times before the real thing comes. That’s a process for me—it renders the truth.

RG: How do you resist writing simply what would make people pleased with you? And what kinds of things make people pleased with you?

TM: I’m not writing not to please them, but I want to come into my own story in a way that interests me. I guess I’d like to be unexpected.

I know that I’m not writing within the conventions I was taught, concerning nonfiction. People wanted something linear, a story that could be conveyed with more detail, less ambiguity, and they wanted to remove the sexuality. I was concerned with an emotional and artistic truth over a linear account of what happened. I did more than let the narrative be fragmented. I tried to construct a full experience of fragmentation and memory retrieval, where the experience of writing it felt compelling to me. I wanted to push myself forward in form and idea—which I think means, whenever I found myself constructing something predictable, and easy to convey, I troubled it a bit.

In this book it was important to express what it was to be me. Losing Isadore, or raising Isaiah, only gained significance or weight if the interiority of myself was existing on the page, which meant I had to be personally engaged, and unconcerned with the expectations people were placing on me. In fiction it’s important to create an experience for the reader, and illustrate something to the reader, and with nonfiction, since it’s personal—you have to consider the self in a way that seems different. You have to construct a self for the reader, and determine how much you want to give. I wanted to give a lot, which meant a lot of risk. So often, I would show people who I was, and it was too much. I had to let the work be too much of the things I feared.

RG: What is some of the work that you need to do, now?

TM: I just wrote an essay about nudity for you. That sounds funny. I thought it was important to write about nudity and Indigenous identity right now, because I’ve seen a lot of pushback against our sexualities on Twitter. I felt provoked to acknowledge that nudity and sexuality is not a problem to fix within Indigenous communities. Native women’s bodies are being policed, even by our own people, and I just can’t understand the shaming.

I need to write my second book, which I really thought I had a handle on yesterday, but today, I feel uncertain. So, today I just bought a TV. That was something, and it will inform my second book. I just know it will.

RG: Do you ever feel restricted by the label of "indigenous woman writer"?

TM: Yes. Especially when I see publications always marking Indigenous writers this way. There is a publication that celebrates the same three Indigenous writers like a cycle, and I saw myself in an article recently there, and I thought, man, I don't want to be in that cycle. I want to be part of a larger writing community, because I think I learn more when my circle is larger. I don't want to feel burdened with the expectation I will do what other Native writers are doing. I am Indigenous, and a writer, but depending on how I see the term being used, sometimes I resent it.

RG:What advice do you have for other indigenous writers or writers of color, who find themselves being forced into that cycle by the literary community?

TM: My advice would be that they should handle it how they want. I was built to argue, I think. I like arguing. I can take up challenging people, and that's how I combat wrongful compartmentalization. I don't like being reduced. I like fighting for my work.

RG: What was the last great book you read?

TM: The last great book I read. It was an audiobook of Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich.

RG: What do you like most about your writing?

TM: I like my determination to get a line right. I like that it will take me years to convey the right thing about a certain person. I have never committed to anything else in this way, besides parenting—not a job, or a man, or a bank, or a diet.

Some Our Shared Shelf readers also had questions for Terese:

MARZIE: I wanted to ask Therese if she’s felt any pushback from Native Americans/First Nations community for her frank discussions about depression, substance abuse, and involvement in family services situations? I also wanted to say that this is one of the most poignant books I’ve read in a long time.

TM: Thanks, Marzie. I have felt pushback, but it's mostly my own projections and insecurities about revealing so much about my path to wellness and self-actualization. People have noted the danger in my visibility as an author, and people want positive and uplifting portrayals of Indigenous people. I really can't afford to acknowledge the pressure to be without fault. I've heard more good things than bad concerning my ability to acknowledge my mental health issues. I think it empowers people to see that they're not alone, and so many people battle with depression and dysfunction. I feel ultimately good about discussing those things in a public space.

ERIN: What advice do you have for aspiring indigenous writers? What is the biggest hurdle you had to overcome to get where you are today?

TM: My advice is that there's room in the world for our work. The biggest hurdle was creating the work. I dealt with so much trying to cultivate this story, and there were times I was afraid the writing would never come. I just had to power through and protect my time.

IRIS: If there is one lesson that you would want your readers to learn from your book, what would it be and why?

TM: I'd like people to know that love and healing are possible for people who can't see it for themselves. People can learn to do better. Every day I'm trying to do better for myself, and that's the lesson I received from writing the book. Writing about what happened to me allowed me to move forward and honor how far I've come.

NOURA: I wanted to know how it felt for her to write this book? how did she feel knowing that this book would be read by millions across the world, where people will know her story?

TM: I feel so anxious, Noura, and open-hearted. I wanted to leave something artistically significant as a legacy to my children and as a memorial to my mother. I couldn't have predicted that the book would resonate with women the way it has, and I'm just very thankful for that.


message 2: by Jo, Our Shared Shelf Moderator (last edited Apr 13, 2018 12:47AM) (new)

Jo (jo_9) | 373 comments Mod
ASHLEY: I have never heard someone say self-esteem is a white-person invention. When you talk about that in the book, it sounds like you're saying self-esteem does not exist in Native American culture. Self-esteem is defined by the dictionary as "a realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself; self-respect," so I find it hard to see how it could be absent from a culture. Can you explain this more - how self-esteem is a white-person invention and how does not exist in Native American culture?

TM: In my culture, in my family, we weren't taught to consider the self as a singular thing. We didn't talk about "a self," we spoke in first person plural at most gatherings, even at celebrations honoring one person's achievements. We see the self as connected to the land and the ancestors who were stewards of the land. The self is numerous. To esteem that would deal with a language I've never heard in a hospital or therapist's office. There were never any conversations growing up about self-esteem. When I became a woman I would hear therapists tell me to value myself. They talked about redemption in terms of value (the way one might redeem the value of a coupon). I could never think of the self in those terms, as something that could be tallied or quantified. The first and only times I've heard people talk to me about esteem, it was within white spaces, not home with my elders or my family. The language of "value," "worth," and "redemption" make me suspicious. I don't want to quantify myself, or qualify myself in those terms. I use terms like "self-love" instead, because love is boundless and impossible to quantify.

PAM: Do indigenous writers deal with the white gaze and if so, what was the most challenging aspect of it? Did you feel that you held back?

TM: I think all writers want to create work that speaks to a universal truth or experience. I think it means sometimes my work has to explain certain practices or ideas in a way that's accessible to the outside audience, and I don't mind doing that. It doesn't feel restrictive to exact my experiences so that anyone who wants to do the work of trying to understand has access. I want to connect to people from different communities. Giving things up to readers isn't necessarily kowtowing to white culture, because even people from my own nation need a little context and explanation. I think white people would know if I was spoon-feeding them things, so I just jumped right in.

DAGNY: bell hooks talk about how love is a verb, not a feeling. How love is what we do and what is done it us. What is love to you? Has the definition changed through the healing process/the process of writing Heart Berries, and if so, how/why?

TM: Love dragged me down a bit. I felt hurt by my will to love people. Now, it's something better. I'm striving every day to give and receive the right kinds of love. James Baldwin has a line about love I read often:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” ― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

message 3: by Pam (new)

Pam | 1091 comments Mod
Terese Marie Mailhot AND the amazing Roxane Gay touched a question I had. This is just amazing. Ah. Love. #FangirlJoys

Thank you so much Terese for writing an irreducible and complex novel. I read in awe of your courage and passion.

And a large thanks to our guest interviewer Roxane Gay, the fact that you took some time out of your crazy schedule is so amazing. Thank you.

Thank you to Emma and the modertors as well for all the work you do to continue making OSS a continual place of learning.

message 4: by Dagny Moland (last edited Apr 13, 2018 01:14AM) (new)

Dagny Moland Seim | 48 comments "Even when I appear undone, it’s because I’ve allowed myself the grace of undoing—consciously or not."

That quote is going to stay with me for a long time.

Thank you so much for a great interview!

message 5: by Earlina (new)

Earlina (goodreadscomearlinagreen) | 1 comments Great interview by Roxane. Terese, we hear you. Thanks for sharing.

message 6: by Briony (new)

Briony (naiadra) | 58 comments This interview is fantastic, thank you so much! Wonderful book.

message 7: by Katie ♡ (new)

Katie ♡ (itskatiekoalafiednerd) | 10 comments Amazing interview! Really gives me an insight of the author behind this awesome book 🖤

message 8: by Angie (new)

Angie Feliz | 10 comments Thank you so much for this!

message 9: by Marzie (new)

Marzie | 10 comments Thank you for an amazing interview Therese and Roxane, and thank you for choosing my question to answer! I loved this book and have recommended it often. I look forward to your future work, Therese.

message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Hello there!

Thank you so much for your time, for your investment. This is truly inspiring and I am so grateful for all of that!

Maybe I am rambling but thank you again!

Have a great day!

message 11: by Markus (new)

Markus | 2 comments Thank you for this interview!

I especially enjoyed your elucidation about self-esteem/self-love as this was a paragraph in the book that I thought a lot about.

message 12: by Jen (new)

Jen (jenkap335) | 5 comments What a treat; THANK YOU!

message 13: by Rafa (new)

Rafa | 24 comments Great!!

message 14: by Cyn (new)

Cyn | 80 comments Such a great interview!!! Thank you so much to Emma ans the moderators, and of course to Roxane Gay and Terese Mailhot for making this happen

message 15: by Kate (new)

Kate Griffiths (katemariegriffiths) | 73 comments This is amazing! ☺️

message 16: by Sue (new)

Sue Reading this interview after finishing the book was such a treat!

Thank you!

message 17: by Noura (new)

Noura Khalid (theperksofbeingnoura) (theperksofbeingnoura) | 7 comments love this!

message 18: by Ashley (new)

Ashley | 194 comments Thanks so much! This interview is very insightful.

message 19: by Meg (new)

Meg Reid (bookskoala) | 1 comments Thanks so much for your time! Very inspiring!

message 20: by Kasi (new)

Kasi (kasireadsjunkandstuff) Thank you both for taking the time out of your busy schedules to provide deeper insight, context, and meaning to the book.

message 21: by Dustin (new)

Dustin | 30 comments Thank you, Roxane Gay and Terese Mailhot, and the entire OSS group for making this happen. You all are amazingly brave and truly an inspiration to me, both personally and creatively. This interview, as well as the member questions, are all great and very insightful. I enjoyed read them. I learned a lot.

I also love the James Baldwin quote. I'm sharing that one, for sure.:)

You all are wonderful and a gift, by which I mean OSS as a whole. (((Hugs)))))

message 22: by Dustin (new)

Dustin | 30 comments Also, Terese, thank you so much for sharing your essay on nudity. It's terrific!

message 23: by Wendy (new)

Wendy | 3 comments I love Roxane's book Bad Feminist!

message 24: by Wendy (new)

Wendy | 3 comments Thank you so much for this interview!

back to top