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The immense power of memoir and truth

The truth shall set you free, as the saying goes, but it can also help you to be respected and earn a living. Terese Mailhot's acclaimed memoir Heart Berries tells her harrowing life story but it's the writing that of it that brought her to STARFest.


Terese Mailhot, in conversation with host Marilyn Dumont

Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m.

It's a free online event.

Pre-registration is requested. Visit for details.

Memoir doesn't seem to quite do justice to some people's real life stories put to paper.

Terese Mailhot's Heart Berries is more like a testament to the author's own resilience. It goes from her life with a violent, abusive, alcoholic father to being in the foster system to her family's intergenerational trauma resulting from the residential school system and on to her treatment at a mental institution.

But that's only one side of her incredible story. With an English degree and an MFA in fiction now in hand, she has become a celebrated author and journalist who has had work published in Guernica, Elle, Granta, Mother Jones, Medium, Al Jazeera, the Los Angeles Times.

Heart Berries was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for English-Language Nonfiction, was also listed as an NPR Best Book of the Year, a Library Journal Best Book of the Year, a New York Public Library Best Book of the Year, a Chicago Public Library Best Book of the Year, and was one of Harper's Bazaar's Best Books of 2018. She is the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award, and she is also the recipient of the Spalding Prize for the Promotion of Peace and Justice in Literature. She teaches creative writing at Purdue University.

Not bad for a first book, one which is a revelation on this rising talent's life and her immense talent. One must wonder if there was any hesitation on the author's part before having such a personal piece put to print. Its genesis, she explained, started with her graduate thesis.

"I had originally written the book as fiction. There was a protagonist, too. She had a lot of bravado and was entering academia, and came from, I think, bad circumstances. Every short story in that thesis had a murky ending," she began, adding that her mentor Ismet Prcic had to question that tactic.

"He said, 'Why are you doing these murky endings? Why are they so murky? What is the darkness you're alluding to?' After a couple of years of struggling with that, I felt like I could answer the question in nonfiction. The reason why I was fictionalizing my experiences is because I think the medium of fiction allows you to expand on experiences and rove around intellectually and also fictionalize your life so it's more safe and comfortable to write from personal lived experiences. Even if you're writing a setting, you can use a different lens; it's not a personal lens."

The murky ending that she was alluding to was her father. The things that happened in the dark, she added, were the things that she couldn't speak of. She always attributed that to her father.

"I basically just wanted to tell the truth, and I wanted to be less murky about it... more explicit, and that gave way to aesthetics. It is an aesthetic and style choice to be more explicit, to pare down, to let the truth come to the surface, and to also be disruptive. For me, those were my feelings. It had to be true. So that was liberating. I think, I feel scared every day with how I've been honest about my life... but also, I feel really good about it. I do. I feel like I made the right aesthetic choice to choose this genre of memoir and also memoir in essays, which for me was more experimental. I also feel good that I stopped writing murky endings. I stopped alluding to things and I just started telling. I think you can't waste your reader's time and I feel good that I didn't do it."

Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.
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