I am reading happily along in a memoir I have just discovered, published last year to near-universal acclaim by a young indigenous woman from Sea-bird band, when I lose my way and it takes some time to find it again. Heart Berries is by Terese Marie Maillot,35, from the Interior Salish tribe, the ancestral range of which stretches through British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon. I was excited that there was a literary voice from a nearby native clan to whom I could relate. Plus, reading the memoir of young women, especially those once marginalized, is like visiting one’s shadow teen self, with all the chaos, narcissism and bone-shaking insight of that time. Maillot is driven near mad from childhood sexual abuse, her mother’s death, losing her son to his birth father and finally, losing the (Anglo) man she loves, and eventually marries. A spell in the looney bin, ‘Indian sickness’, she calls it, rescues her. As does a sexual need so strong that satisfied, pitches her into an ecstasy which makes her life worth living. Maillot’s is a success story. Her talent, her willingness to strip herself naked, her steel, put her in a position where graduate schools paid for the privilege of teaching her.
Rupi Kaur, the Iranian-Canadian poet’s Milk and Honey is written along those lines, as were Elizabeth Wurtzel’s various addiction memoirs, The Chronology of Water, Wild, Cherry, and so on. So intimate you cannot tear away your attention, the imminent train wreck almost certain, these are dispatches from a country still not fully charted.
Over the past thirty years, specific indigenous educational programs have helped stand up native culture in a way Maillot’s activist mother couldn’t have anticipated. I personally think this is a good thing. However, and this is crucial, early on in Heart Berries, Maillot claims that Canada’s residential school system was so brutal that priests and nuns stacked the bones of native children inside new school buildings. An American friend, who lives on the far side of Bohemia made this claim a few years ago. Metaphor is necessary among victims, she insisted. No, it’s not. Beefing up the crimes of the past to force reconciliation only causes more resentment, more anger, and down the road, payback. The New York Times review of Heart Berries repeated this falsity, thereby ensuring it will be considered fact down the line. The source is a mad priest looking for a gig, encouraged by the truly terrible people who continue to feed off Aboriginal communities. In the ongoing mess of reconciliation, contested land rights, and, with luck, down the road, a form of integration, surely it is not too much to ask for the truth.
Under the category ‘freaky things about publishing’ Rupi Kaur, an Indian (dot not feather) poet from Toronto, is out-selling Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury-inside-the-White House-hysteria-tome. Poetry. Four lines on every page – maybe a few more. Line drawings. A young woman, immigrant, poet, from the obscure country, which is to say, Canada, outselling the biggest book in the US market right now.
Words fail. Except to say that the heart of the world is in the right place.
Of course, The Guardian has weighed in. And Buzzfeed beat her up. And like anyone popular enough to be perceived as making unfair amounts of money, grabbing unfair amounts of attention, she has been accused of plagiarism. Nope, nope and nope. This is courage. And beauty. And courage again.