Natasha Trethewey took years to write 'Memorial Drive,' about the murder of her mother

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"Memorial Drive" by Natasha Trethewey. - HarperCollins Publishers/HarperCollins Publishers/TNS

CHICAGO — As Natasha Trethewey began to garner acclaim for her poetry — notably winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her collection “Native Guard” — news reports often mentioned the murder of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough. Trethewey, who was 19 when her former step-father shot her mother to death after years of abuse, never intended to write about this devastating event. But she has written two volumes centered on it — the 2018 poetry collection “Monument” and now her latest, a memoir, “Memorial Drive.”

In only 200 pages, “Memorial Drive” distills her family history as it intersects with that of the American South. It’s a memoir soaked in love and violence, compassion and racism. Throughout, Trethewey’s keen ear for language elevates the narrative.

We spoke with Trethewey, a professor of English at Northwestern University, by phone earlier this month. An edited transcript of our often tearful conversation follows.

Q: Near the end of your book you write, “Even my mother’s death is redeemed in the story of my calling, made meaningful rather than merely senseless.” It seems your writing has been leading to this book.

A: It does feel like that, that everything has been leading to this moment. Of course, I couldn't have known that all along. I only know it looking back and trying to make a story out of the events of my life. I knew that I wanted to create a monument in words and poetry to my mother.

Q: How long did it take you to write this book?

A: In 2012, which is when I was named U.S. poet laureate, that is when I officially said that I was going to write this book. In the aftermath of winning the Pulitzer and also being a poet laureate, I was being written about a lot in newspapers and magazines. And when that happened, my mother was always there as an afterthought or a footnote: murder victim. It hurt me a lot to see that people didn't quite understand the role she played. I decided if she was going to continue to be part of this backstory that I was the one that was going to tell it, so that it would be clear who she was and how important she was to my success.

Q: Your father was a writer too. Did you also write this to counter any perception that perhaps your father was more responsible for your career than your mother was?

A: Yeah, that’s the thing. This is something that is tied up with race and the patriarchy. I mean, my father, my beloved father: It became so easy for people to just draw a straight line through him to me. It’s problematic, because not only was he a man, he was also my white parent. And when I was growing up, white people used to say to me if I did anything well, Oh that’s your white side. As if everything good or successful or smart or anything about me came from there. And that was infuriating.

I saw one of those writers encyclopedia entries some time ago, and it listed my father — I wish I had the exact words for you, but basically the gist of it was — he was this professor and my mother was this poor Black woman. She was a social worker, she had graduate degrees and she was a high ranking administrator, but she just was reduced.

Q: I would like to talk with you about the transcripts of your mother’s phone calls with her ex-husband the night before she died. The DeKalb County District Attorney’s office had asked her to tape his threatening calls to build a case for his arrest, and you’ve included portions of the transcripts here. Your mother refuses to placate him as he repeatedly tells her he will kill her if she won’t reconcile with him, and yet there are also moments when she shows him compassion. What was it like to read those transcripts?

A: It was very difficult to read. I waited years before I finally allowed myself to do so. But when you read them, I think you see that she is uncompromising about the truth. You see that she is still compassionate, but resolves to make the life she wants in spite of the real danger that she faces in trying to do that. That is an amazing act of courage, and it is why I included those transcripts, because I didn’t think it would be enough for me to tell you. You need to see it in action. You needed to see her words and to see exactly who she was first-hand.

Q: The police had been protecting your mother, but they left her apartment and she was killed hours later. Given your experience as well as our current, national conversation surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, how do you view the police?

A: Well, yeah: to serve and protect, right? They weren’t able to. In that moment, they didn’t, which is why I understand and think some of the calls for reallocating some of police funding to social workers, for example, who might respond differently when they show up at domestic violence calls, could be really useful in communities.

(My mother’s murder) was before the Violence Against Women Act. This was even before anti-stalking laws were put into place. This was when a lot of people still believed — and they probably do now too — that a man has a right to discipline his wife. That there’s a kind of ownership that comes with marriage such that in legal documents — and I think in some of the police reports too — they continue to refer to my mother as “his wife.” She was divorced from him, but the fact that they kept making that mistake — if it was a mistake — suggests something about the ideas we have about women and domestic violence. For so long, the attitude was: Well, she made her bed; she should lie in it.

Q: How do you think race figured into your mother’s relationship with the police?

A: It would be so hard to parse that. I mean, I can’t help but think that of course it does matter in some ways. Perhaps she might have gotten a little bit more attention, but I don’t know. Maybe not. My mother’s case is telling, because she is what is called “the perfect victim,” and people who work in domestic violence shelters talk to me about that. Perfect because she did everything right. She did everything that women in her situation are instructed to do to try to save themselves. But also she was beautiful, educated. She was not dependent on her ex-husband for support or for her children’s support. She had friends. She was not isolated. She was beloved. So she had every kind of resource and safety net imaginable, and she still couldn’t get away. So how can we tell poor women, women who are dependent on their abusers, women who may have other dependencies, drug addiction, anything — how can we tell them that they can escape when a woman like my mother can’t escape?

Q: I wanted to talk a little bit about how you write about photographs and video in the book. The descriptions of photographs of your mother almost feels like art criticism.

A: From the beginning of my career as a poet, I’ve written about photographs and paintings. In graduate school, I had to take classes outside of the English department, and so art history and art classes helped me think about looking at images in a certain way. I have a book called “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” about a series of photographs of women in the red light district in New Orleans. After reading John Berger or Roland Barthes, thinking about the punctum: what pricks you and draws you out of the frame to contemplate what’s around it. What’s not visible as well as what is visible. I also look at them just like I look at a painting — as an object. That’s also made of the materials, so like when you’re trying to write about a painting, you think about the paint and the brushstrokes as part of it. So looking at a photograph, I think about if there are any flaws in it. I look at all of those things to try to read in them the figurative possibilities.

And of course that goes back to that training and the metaphor that I talk about in the beginning of the book. The last photograph of my mother, the one that I begin the book with, that one very much was about looking at it and looking at it over the years and then finally noticing something that I had not paid much attention to before: a strange little corner behind her head that looks like the edge of the doorway. As many times as I looked at that photograph, I'd never looked at it that closely. There are other things I could have written about looking at it, but that became the punctum for me, the thing that made me think about doorways and thresholds that become part of the book.

Q: Did you try writing about other things you noticed in the photograph?

A: I wrote a little bit about a necklace that she had on, but I never included that part. The decorative clasp that was on the front of the necklace looked like the letter G. And so I was trying to describe it, and I just said I was talking about “the letter G,” and the more I said it to myself, the more I heard the word “liturgy.”

Q: How does writing both poetry and prose shape your work?

A: It feels to me very much like the way I put together an entire book of poems around a scene, something that I am trying to grapple with and make sense of and look at from all different angles, and weave and pull a kind of thread or motif throughout the whole thing. The process of making a poem is very satisfying. It’s a weird word to use, so I hope you know what I mean. It’s about the making of it. It feels very satisfying when I go from introducing my birthmark to then her birthmark and then finally to read the autopsy and to be able to bring that birthmark back. Because that is a motif. And it’s figurative.

Q: Speaking of the figurative, you’ve spent much of your career considering monuments. We’re seeing a lot of discussion now around who and what we should be commemorating in public spaces. How should we be thinking about this?

A: What is going to be remembered and what is going to be erased and what is going to be inscribed on the landscape are extremely important both on a personal level and on a national level, which is why Southerners have been fighting the Civil War figuratively since it ended because it is a contest over memory. It is a contest over what history we’re going to tell ourselves, what story we’re going to tell ourselves. It has everything to do with who we are, and now the whole country is involved in that contest over memory of the Civil War, its aftermath, the role of African Americans — that has everything to do with how lives are appreciated or under-appreciated.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to grow up in the shadow of Stone Mountain in Atlanta?

A: In my book “Native Guard,” I quote E.O. Wilson: “Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile.” That I could grow up in my native land and yet feel constantly that I’m being told of my second-class citizenship, that the story of the people who are my ancestors doesn’t matter enough to be inscribed on the landscape, and until you realize it’s just not inscribed, you think that there is no history, that there is no African American contribution to this place. ... And when we do see images of Black freedom, it is the statue of Lincoln lifting the veil from a kneeling slave: white man standing and Black men kneeling. Even if it’s a monument to emancipation, we can’t help but read the figures of values in that.

Q: Even your own father seemed to be insensitive at times to issues of race. How did that affect your relationship with him?

A: I wrote the book “Thrall” to try to contend with my father and with the deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference in racial hierarchy that are the bedrocks of white supremacy that even my beloved father could not unyoke himself from. Back before I wrote “Thrall,” I was with my father at an (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference together, hanging out like we always do late into the night, and I was mad at him, because I did feel like he had in some interviews begun to take a little too much credit for my success as a writer. It sort of changed over the years. I remember when I did my first reading from “Domestic Work,” my first book, after the reading I was taking questions from the audience and my father was there and someone who knew that asked my father, “So what do you think about your daughter?” And he said, “She’s my best poem.” And it was one of the loveliest things. But then later, when it became easier for writers to draw that line from him to me, I felt like he was taking a little bit too much credit for it and was in some ways participating in (my mother’s) erasure. So I said to him, “I’m going to write a book about you,” and he looked at me and said, quoting Yeats, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” And I knew that was his way of trying to tell me that if I have a complaint with him, it’s going to be rhetoric. It’s not going to be poetry. But I had written “Native Guard” by then and I already knew how to have an argument with myself. And so I wrote “Thrall.” And when I finally let him read it, he said, “It’s a beautiful book, but it’s sad.” And I said, “Daddy, it was sad while I was living it.”

Q: It’s sort of a gift to be able to be that honest with your father.

A: It was definitely about poetry. That was the language that we could use with each other. And that's why I wrote the book, because I needed to have that conversation, a very difficult conversation, with him in the only language that he would really listen to.

Q: You’ve spent your life using storytelling to make sense of trauma, which feels like something perhaps we can all learn from now.

A: All of us tell stories to ourselves about our lives, whether we’re writers or not. Stories about the arc of our lives’ meaning and purpose. And being able to tell a story about one’s life that you can live with is about being able to survive, and perhaps not simply survive but to thrive too. In the book, I quote Orson Welles: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on when you stop it.” I think that’s true about unhappy stories too. I think if this story that I’m telling had just ended with (my mother’s) death, that would be a very difficult story to live with. And so the story that goes on from there, one of hope and resilience, is a story that allows me to keep going. And I think those are the kinds of stories at a moment like this that we need to tell ourselves. They have to be stories about hope about the possibility of the future.

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