Natasha Trethewey’s memoir “Memorial Drive” is the story of the poet’s early life and the 1985 murder of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, as she fought to free herself from her abusive ex-husband and Trethewey’s stepfather in his second attempt on Turnbough’s life.
Since its release last summer, the book has received high acclaim, most recently winning the Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity. Trethewey, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has held two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and written five collections of poetry, is among the most celebrated poets of our time. In 2012, The New Yorker said of her work, “Trethewey’s writing mines the cavernous isolation, brutality, and resilience of African-American history, tracing its subterranean echoes to today.”
“Memorial Drive” is about Trethewey’s “deepest wound,” the details of which she spent much of her adult life trying to forget. But, of course, she could not forget, choosing instead to give herself fully to excavating her past in the most personal creative endeavor of her life.
Trethewey, the Northwestern Board of Trustees Professor of English, spoke to Northwestern Now about her life story, social justice and the role of poetry in our world today.
You were born to an interracial couple in Mississippi — on the 100th anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day in 1966 surrounded by racism. Could you talk about the connection between your life story and the social justice movements of the past and present?
I think about James Baldwin who said, “The story of the negro in America is the story of America.” I have a poem called “Miscegenation” about my parents having to leave Mississippi and break two laws to be able to get married, and I was born “persona non grata” because I was “illegal” in the eyes of the law. Of course, no one is illegal, and yet the idea of being illegal has visited us yet again, as we are fighting about the language used to refer to human beings not born in the United States. The language used for me in anti-miscegenation laws is the same language used by some to diminish same-sex marriage. We see these things repeated and repackaged for a new age, but they are not new at all.
Natasha Trethewey with her late father, Eric Trethewey, also an accomplished poet, and Gwendolyn Trethewey (nee Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough). Trethewey’s mother and father divorced three years after the photograph was taken.
Why, at this point in your career, did you choose to share your “deepest wound”?
I have spent most of my adult life — since I was 19 and my mother was killed — trying to forget. In trying to forget and bury so much of what was too painful to remember, I let go a lot of my mother.
There were countless stories I could have told about the situation. The memoir is the story I chose to tell, the story I had to tell. With my own increasing recognition, journalists started to write about me, and when they wrote about my backstory, they would often mention my mother only as a footnote; she would be described as merely a victim, a murdered woman. I felt that she was being erased, that her role in making me the person and the writer I am today was being diminished. I needed to restore her to her proper place as the woman who made me.
You write about your stepfather breaking into your journal when you were 12. Instead of putting your pen down, you made a captive audience of your mother’s abuser. Could you talk about your “first act of resistance?”
It seemed necessary to me, even then, to push back. It was around the time I had read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and I had been deeply moved by her story — and the way her writing was a kind of agency and an act of resistance. And yes, we know the tragedy of what happened to Anne Frank, but the fact that so many years later, school children like me — a Black child growing up in Georgia — could so relate to her shows the power of writing our stories to make meaning out of tragedy.
In addition to giving meaning to your mother’s death, what do you take from the writing of “Memorial Drive?”
People will ask me if I’ve healed. I don’t think about healing, about phrases like “making peace with my past.” The poet Rumi wrote, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” My wound is with me always, filled with light. It makes me who I am.
How does this most inform your work as a teacher?
I’d like to believe that I am best at talking to students about taking charge of their own stories. Whether you’re going to become a writer or not — we all tell ourselves stories about our lives, about the meaning and purpose of our lives — and I firmly believe that being in control of that story can help us not only survive, but also thrive.
What is the role of poetry in the reckoning the nation is facing now?
I’ve always said that poetry touches not only the intellect, but also the heart. The intimacy of the voice in a poem, the one-on-one exchange between the writer and reader, allows us to hear each other in a way that we don’t in the language of sound bites and other divisive rhetoric. Poetry asks us that we be more empathetic, that we practice our most humane intelligence. It shows, across time and space, not that we are different, but how we are alike.