In the busy hallways of the Oregon Convention Center, Terese Mailhot searched with a phone to her ear to find a quiet space.
The Seabird Island author had participated in a panel for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference earlier in the day — using her best-selling memoir Heart Berries to discuss the challenges of culture, landscape, trauma and family in non-fiction work — and had carved out time in her schedule to talk to the Agassiz Harrison Observer about her most recent success.
On March 20, Mailhot had been awarded the $50,000 Whiting Award for Heart Berries. The award is given out to 10 emerging writers in various genres to celebrate their future success and impact in the world of literature.
For 35-year-old Mailhot, who knew the Whiting Awards was trying to contact her, but didn’t know why, it was a “striking moment” in her career.
“Honestly, until the moment they said congratulations, I really thought maybe they were just trying to chat with me,” she said. “When they said congratulations, I realized … I would have time to actually write, and not have to travel and do events at the degree in which I’ve been doing them.”
Heart Berries is Mailhot’s first full-length book, taking a deep look at motherhood, loss, poverty, abuse, suffering and survival. Set mostly on Seabird Island, where she grew up, the memoir shares Mailhot’s story and the stories of family members who survived Canada’s residential school system.
“I tried very hard to communicate that where I’m from is a very special place,” she said. “But I also wanted to communicate the hardships we go through as Indigenous people.
“I also wanted to communicate what it’s like to live kind of as a living statistic,” she added. “What it’s like to go from welfare to try and have upward mobility and have food scarcity and things like that.”
At 22, Mailhot left Seabird Island without graduating high school, trying to get away from the “dysfunction that existed” in her childhood.
“Not everybody on Seabird has dealt with dysfunction or had a father who’s a drunk,” she said. “But for me, for my singular experience, that’s what happened.”
Those experiences founded the basis of Heart Berries.
“I think I found my exact story, and I think it’s a moment of celebration for me, and I hope people relate to it,” Mailhot said about her book.
“I hope they find a way to celebrate themselves and their own lived experiences after reading it.”
Between promoting Heart Berries on national television, writing essays for publications like Mother Jones and teaching creative writing at Purdue University in Indiana, Mailhot’s success hasn’t left her much time for resting and writing. But thanks to the $50,000 Whiting Award, that’s the opportunity she’s now able to take.
“I don’t rest at all. I’m non-stop, you know,” she said. “So I think I’m going to go somewhere and rest. Somewhere nice, like Colorado. Or I’ll go back to B.C. and take my family out.”
During her rest, Mailhot said she plans to work on her next memoir — this time about grief and the passing of her best friend in September of 2018.
“I’m going to try and write about grief in a way that’s not exploiting tragic events, but also showing (that) grief really changes form and becomes a type of honour,” she said. “Trying to relay that on the page is going to be difficult for me, but I hope to do it.”
Until that memoir is published, Mailhot’s inviting a lull in her literary achievements. But she thinks other young writers can take heart from the success she’s had so far.
“Nobody told me I could be on national television. Nobody told me I would be on PBS or win an award. And really, it’s not promised to you,” she said.
“But … the idea that I was able to do it and pull myself together and complete a narrative like this, I think it means this is within reach for a young woman with a story to tell, or somebody who’s really writing every day and really believes in their future.
“I think it means it’s possible.”