Natasha Trethewey was the US poet laureate from 2012 to 2014. Her Pulitzer prize-winning work highlights the racial and historical inequities of America and the ongoing personal expense of those injustices. Her memoir, Memorial Drive, tells the story of her mother Gwendolyn’s second marriage to a man who abused and then murdered her when Trethewey was 19 years old.
Reading your memoir, I got the sense you have been waiting your whole life to write it…
It did feel that way. For much of my life I felt I was running away from my past but once I was writing the book I realised I had always been working my way back towards it – I was letting out the wail that I hadn’t let out even when she died 35 years ago.
What made you start researching and finally writing it?
It had everything to do with my increasingly public persona as a writer. After winning the Pulitzer prize and then being appointed poet laureate there were more and more articles written about me in which my backstory became part of the feature and my mother was a footnote, an afterthought really, presented simply as this victim, this murdered woman and not the person who really made me a writer, whose life and death has shaped me so profoundly – and it really hurt. I decided that if there was going to be this continual mentioning of her then I was going to be the one to tell her story so that she would be understood in her proper context.
You don’t overplay this in the book – the opposite, in fact – but there is this terrible sense that if the police had properly protected your mother, she might not have been killed. Do you think their neglect of her had racial undertones?
You know, it probably is a complex intersection between not only race but also gender and gendered violence. Even then, violence against women by their domestic partners still was not taken seriously. And there was the idea, even, that men might have a right to discipline their wives.
What became of your stepfather?
He just got released from prison. In March last year.
How did that feel?
It was devastating when I got the news because, even though I knew intellectually all these years that it was a possibility, I never allowed myself to believe that it would happen. The only thing that made it bearable and less frightening was that I had moved out of Atlanta in 2017 to live in Illinois. Had I still been there I think I would have been looking over my shoulder at every moment.
You say in the book that you turned to poetry to make sense of what happened to your mother…
Shelley said: “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” Writing poems, particularly the elegy poems about my mother, did this for me.
Is it still hard to talk about what happened?
Sure. Even this level of conversation I am having with you is very hard. It’s not simply that I am sad. It is much more complex than that. I at once hold these two emotions and one of them is this sense of bereavement that I have lived with my entire adult life. The other is a real sense of happiness because I can talk about her and someone will listen.
It’s striking how Stone Mountain, the Confederate memorial just east of Atlanta, looms over your childhood figuratively and literally in the book. You could see it from your apartment. How did your mother explain its symbolism and history to you?
My mother wanted to make sure there were ways that she could counteract the psychic violence of racism and its manifestations in those kinds of symbols. I was just writing about this the other day [for the New York Times], how my mother used to sing to me “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave’, that anti-slavery, abolitionist song, whenever we saw these Confederate symbols, as a way of trying to tell me there was something that we could reach for beyond that, that was about justice, that was about our equal humanity.
Would you like to see the Stone Mountain memorial removed?
The Confederate monument that was right outside the courthouse where my stepfather was tried for murder just came down a couple of weeks ago. I think it was highly appropriate that it was removed and things like that should be kept in graveyards or museums so that we can contextualise their history. Stone Mountain, the largest one of all, really should be contextualised because, you know, it was one of the ones erected in response to black advancement in social justice and civil rights and it took a long time to get finished. They didn’t finally complete it until 1972, the year that my mother and I moved to Atlanta. So, when people talk about how getting rid of it would be erasing history – well, the monument itself is already an erasure of history. So, I’d be interested in figuring out a way that we can tell the fuller story about exactly why it’s there and exactly what it means.