Narrative of My Heart: A Conversation with Natasha Trethewey
By Yvonne ConzaJuly 28, 2020
Trauma is a stigma, a weight, and a burden. It changes the way you move through life. Many memoirs speak scientifically about trauma and its impact. Trethewey chooses to describe what it feels like and how it manifests in daily life. She renders in detail how her toys “had to be perfectly arranged, all precise and even spacing,” and how she experiences states of “willed forgetting” in order to survive. These anchoring moments remind the reader how we seek control over chaos.
In addition to the loss of her mother, Trethewey’s memoir explores what it was like to grow up as the child of an illegal mixed-race marriage in Mississippi in the shadow of the Jim Crow South. The result is a deep examination of memory, race, and racism, subjects that fuel her renowned poetry collections, including Native Guard, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Monument: Poems New and Selected, her most recent collection of poems. Perhaps above all, however, Memorial Drive is a testament to a daughter’s eternal love.
YVONNE CONZA: What impulses did you need to let go of in order to be able to do this work?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s a hard one, as I had to let go the idea of the book I thought I wanted to write. The reason that I started going down the path of writing this book in the first place was that, after winning the Pulitzer and becoming poet laureate, journalists and others were writing about me and my mother. She was endlessly reduced to this victim, always a tragic footnote to my story, this person to whom this horrible thing had happened.
If I gave a reading, somebody would say, about Native Guard, this book is about three things: the black Civil War soldiers, her own growing up black and biracial in the Deep South, and her mother’s murder. Native Guard is not about my mother’s murder, but the word “murder” would be put out there, and then I’d have to walk up to the podium with that word lingering in the air.
What you’re saying is very familiar to me.
I decided that if my mother was going to keep being invoked in this way, I needed to be the one to actually tell her story. That people could not dismiss her as some victim of domestic violence who got herself in a difficult situation reduced to a “you made your bed, lie in it” kind of thing.
I wanted to tell a story about my mother and who she was. How this happened to someone as smart, brilliant, and resourceful as she was. When you try to tell a victim of domestic violence narrative, other people have a tendency to respond with reckless remarks. They should just leave the perpetrator. Or, they should do this or that. All without knowing what might go into that decision and how hard it might be. These things are said to all kinds of women: women who are poor, who are dependent on their abusers to take care of their children, to provide shelter. If a woman like my mother, who was connected, smart, and who had all of the options available to her to get away, if she couldn’t get away, how can we expect others who don’t have the same kinds of support networks and resources to get away? I wanted to write that and to tell her whole history.
I also wanted to be able to effect a little bit of restorative justice because, when I thought about the man who was my stepfather, I would think that there was a time that he was an innocent, that he was a child at some point. Something happened along the way that made him capable of what he was doing. I wanted to tell that story and do it with research that was paired with an outward gaze at history.
At some point, you have to let go. Allow the story its own existence.
I could have spent the rest of my life researching and trying to write that book. But I needed to let it go and trust that I could connect with readers, with audiences who had very different experiences of their parents, of race, of history, by being as open and honest about my own as a way to invite people in. I always say this about poetry: that it is the way that we hear so intimately into someone else’s experience, that intimate voice of the poem. I thought if I could use that same intimate voice readers might be with me and share in my experience, even if it was different from their own.
A component of the book has a soft inlay of a mathematical equation. A figurative formula seeking to tell the full story while balancing form, juxtapositions, numerology, accumulation of details and evidence, and the circular loop of memory. Does that resonate with you?
I think you’re right. When you say math it scares me, because, supposedly, I’m not any good at math. But I feel better when you say equation. I think of a poem like that. When they talk about the elegant equation in math, that’s what a poem is too.
It’s a kind of deductive logic. It is form — the way form works in a poem. Ultimately, when I sat and looked at what I had, I could see a pattern. I could see form. I could see ways of circling back to certain things that had to be answered because they were raised earlier. My quest for form, for formal structure, is the way that I’ve been trying to gain control over my life since I was a child. It begins with that need for symmetry and balance that I first started doing as a response to the traumatic situation. It seemed like the only thing I could control.
How important was a nonlinear narrative structure for you? Nonlinear is not the right word. There’s a propelling sensation of a mind in motion pulsing in every sentence, without the cumbersome constriction of a chronological telling.
Right. Maybe if I drew it, it would be like writing the word loop, in one continuous line of cursive again and again around the border of the page until it connects where it began. It always does feel to me like a circling back, even if I’m advancing, going forward. The circling back, which is of course, the loop of memory, it’s the natural movement of it, I think.
That looping/circling way of processing traumatic material is familiar to me. I don’t know if that’s specific to trauma. It might be.
Yes, I can’t imagine it any other way. I’m with you. That’s how it works.
How did omissions work within this memoir? They seem to serve a role and have a function.
When I started off, I thought I had to tell everything. But everything isn’t necessarily ultimately part of the story that I needed to tell. There was this kind of selective omission. Sometimes the omissions are supposed to speak louder than what’s there. [Pause.] Do you mind my asking what omissions you found?
[Natasha’s question makes it impossible to deny going online and researching her mother’s murder. It’s as though she heard in my voice one of the unspoken selective omissions. I come clean, acknowledging how the internet gives a plethora of information without connection to the human story. Then we quickly return to the interview.]
Writers can feel that a trauma-driven narrative has to include everything. Yet, you trusted that the omissions would inform and advance the story.
What story I was telling took me a really long time to figure out. There’s what happened, but obviously that’s not the story. I worried about the omissions, because there are countless other little scenes and little things that could have been added. My father disappears from the book until he comes back after the murder to help me. There are so many parts of my life that are not being covered. I do worry that there are some readers who might think that the omissions, rather than being formal, are evasive.
Some of the worst things of horror or violence are not the ones that we look at head-on, but the ones that are just out of the screen, just out of the picture (omitted). They’re only implied by some other gesture, or the look on someone’s face who’s seeing it.
What books influenced you?
Mikal Gilmore wrote this amazing book Shot in the Heart. It’s a big book, really thick, and it’s about his family, trauma, and the death penalty, and Utah and Mormonism. He covers so much ground. It’s big and sweeping. I wanted to write a book like that, instead of a book that just feels like this tiny little narrative of my heart. Mikal was trying to understand his mother, his family, and his own trauma. Also, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Everything in that book, I’m like, yep, exactly. If you don’t believe it, if you don’t think it, if you don’t do this, then this won’t happen. I have so many talismans, ways that mirror many things Didion wrote about.
What role did poetry play in influencing your prose in this book?
Ultimately, I think of it as a very, very long poem. From the beginning I knew my two epigraphs: “The past beats inside me like a second heart.” — John Banville, The Sea; and “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” — Martin Buber. I had to figure out how the threads of those epigraphs were going to pull through as the motifs within the prose. For example, in Native Guard there’s “grave” and “cotton” and these words become talismans in that book. For this book, the 285-bypass loop around Atlanta — the loop, the bypass — it goes with the heart. When I looked at 285 on a map, it literally looks like an anatomical drawing of a heart in the center of the map of Atlanta, and when I saw all those pieces, things that were both literal and figurative, I could then write Memorial Drive as if it were a long poem.
Did getting to the emotional truth rely more on poetry? Or on prose? Or did shifting the gears between them happen pretty readily, at will?
That was hard. I met with my editor back in 2012 and signed a contract to write this book. He said to me that it was going to take a long time. But in the meantime, I was supposed to be writing some poems, a different book of poems and I wasn’t making any headway. I’d moved, a big cross-country move, and then there was fire in my new home. All of these things were keeping me from doing what I was supposed to be doing.
Thinking it would be easy, I decided to do a “New and Selected” book of poetry, most of them were already written and, in the new section there were poems about this history with my mother. While working on the memoir, I’d have to stop and turn the sheet over, and a poem would come out. Things kept coming out more as poems than memoir. For example, “Letter to Inmate #271847, Convicted of Murder, 1985,” which is a poem in the new section of Monument, was something that I just had to do while trying to write Memorial Drive. When I wrote “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath,” the first poem in Monument, it helped me see how to craft and get through this memoir. I know it doesn’t make much sense, but writing that poem felt, for me, like I’m finally talking back to every person who has said ridiculous things to me about my mother and about domestic violence, and about what I should and shouldn’t be writing about. I answer them in that poem. It felt fierce, a weird way to start a book, because some people might feel kicked in the teeth. If you’re one of those people who has said, “My mother would never put up with that,” or the other things that I mentioned, you should feel kicked in the teeth. Because that is actually what I’m trying to say.
That really allowed me to go back into the memoir, because that poem also ends with this image of something a Korean poet said to me in Seoul, that one does not bury the mother’s body in the ground but in the chest; or like you, you carry her corpse on your back. I spent so much time thinking about what that meant. It troubled me, because it made it seem like, well, here I am dragging, for 35 years, my mother’s corpse along on my back, so visibly that they could just see it on me. And what does that mean?
But the more I thought about that, I realized it’s not one or the other. It’s both. That I could plant the living mother, the memory of her live self, like a seed in my heart, that just continues to grow. But yes, I carry her corpse; and no, I don’t want to put it down. I don’t want to. It’s not just that I can’t: I won’t.
Your writing often connects to photographs. When I asked your publicist if there was going to be photos in this book, he said no. You only needed that one image on the cover. Within the book you created photos in different ways. I applaud you for that choice.
Thank you. I feel like I don’t know how — of course I would feel this way, how can anyone not look at her in that photo and just — [crying] — see such a strong, beautiful woman who from the beginning wanted the best for me.
She’s a treasure of a woman. And that little girl in the photo, if you notice, her hand is upward in a sign of strength.
It was like I was holding on to her.
Did you ever get the grave marker for your mother, the gravestone?
No. I still haven’t. Now I have to admit that I am less concerned about the physical marker there. I imagine that I will still do it when I can make time to do it. But I feel like the monuments I’m trying to erect for her, with this book, are perhaps more lasting and will reach more people than a headstone.
Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Electric Literature, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The Millions, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. UK’s Dodo Ink will feature her work in the 2020 anthology Trauma: Art as a response to mental health.
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