By Michael Foley
Natasha Trethewey, along with writers like Jesmyn Ward and Greg Iles, has been a twenty-first century torchbearer for Mississippi’s literary legacy. Her book Native Guard earned her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and she was named United States Poet Laureate in 2012. Her new memoir, Memorial Drive, is by far her most personal work to date, detailing the events surrounding her mother’s murder when Trethewey was nineteen years old. It is at once both a departure from her poetry, and the sort of book that only a poet could write.
Trethewey, who is biracial, was born in a segregated Mississippi hospital on Confederate Memorial Day at a time that interracial marriage was illegal in the state. The significance of her birthday isn’t lost on Trethewey; she frequently acknowledges the racist iconography of the Confederacy that pervaded her childhood, even as she and her mother moved from Mississippi to Atlanta, from Southern Cross flags to Stone Mountain. Early on, Trethewey, who never dwells on any one subject longer than she needs to, spends a good deal of time speaking to “the necessity of fighting for justice in a state where the external reminders were increasingly unavoidable.” As she places her own birth in the context of her mother’s and grandmother’s life stories, she invokes a veritable Civil Rights Era Who’s Who List of Mississippi Martyrs: Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner all garner mentions. She conveys a sense of confusion about her skin color at a young age, and even more about why her white father and Black mother are treated so differently. Such is the reality of Mississippi and Louisiana and Georgia in the 1960s and 1970s, and, indeed, today.
In a letter written in the early 1960’s, her mother manages to express the feeling that so many progressive Southerners live with today: “I want to get out of this place, but I know my state needs me.” Trethewey echoes this sentiment herself:
“When I left Atlanta, vowing never to return, I took with me what I had cultivated all those years: mute avoidance of my past, silence and willed amnesia buried deep like a root. Nor could I have anticipated then that anything would ever draw me back to that city, to a geography that held at every turn a reminder of a past I was determined to forget even as I tried to honor her memory in every way I knew how. Indeed, going back for work, after accepting a university position, I thought I could circumvent my former life, going out of my way to avoid at least the one place I could not even bear to see. Until I did.”
She’s speaking of more than just the racist history of Atlanta here; she’s speaking of the site of her mother’s murder, and of the home she once shared with an abusive stepfather. That sort of story isn’t unique to the South, but the best kinds of southern stories, fictional or true, are those that could have happened anywhere, but carry extra significance by virtue of their setting.
Any story of a girl in the South suffering abuses from her stepfather forces me to draw comparisons to my favorite novel, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, a comparison that, in my view, can never be favorable. But Trethewey’s tale is different enough to keep that novel (mostly) out of mind: Bone lived in a very rural setting, while Trethewey lived in the city; Bone was the primary subject of abuse, while Trethewey was more of a secondary target, watching her mother take most of the abuse; and, most importantly, Bone, though based in some ways on her creator’s life, was fictional, while Trethewey’s experiences are completely real.
One of the most impressive feats of this memoir is the way that Trethewey, in a fairly short volume of just over two hundred pages, deftly changes her style in each chapter. She moves from first-person past tense to first-person present tense to second-person present tense (here, her experiences become your experiences) to a journal entry from her mother to the chilling transcript of a recorded phone conversation between her mother and her mother’s soon-to-be killer, the day before he shoots her in the head.
In some ways, this all plays out like a suspense novel. I’ve spoiled nothing by saying that her mother is murdered. That fact is established in the opening pages (and on the dust jacket). The power in the story is the build-up of dread that the reader can’t help but feel as we move closer and closer to the murder, realizing first the who, and then the why.
Memorial Drive is in no way a pleasant read. Every page is haunting, but that’s true of all of Mississippi’s greatest literature. The South is better for having Natasha Trethewey’s latest work.