Poet Natasha Trethewey: “My mother’s death is a wound that I carry that does not heal”

Interview.- Little known in France, the famous American poet published her first novel, Memorial Drive. In this moving story, which recounts her mother’s feminicide, she plunges us into the heart of racial discrimination and domestic violence.

In Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey, 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and Poet Laureate of the United States in 2012 and 2013 – an honorary title awarded in several Anglo-Saxon countries – evokes the wounds that have built her. The daughter of a mixed couple, the writer grew up in 1960s Mississippi, a fiercely segregated state where her grandmother was stuck for trying to publish her parents’ marriage banns and where her family went. saw the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in their garden. After this childhood spent literally in the shadow of Stone Mountain – the largest monument dedicated to Confederation, sometimes nicknamed the Mount Rushmore of the South – she was confronted with another violence, that of her stepfather, Joel, who beat her mother and ended up murdering her in 1985. For three decades, she, who believed she wanted to forget at all costs, will in fact have sought how to walk until this autobiographical story of a splendid and painful beauty, where it is said that “to survive the trauma, you have to be able to tell it in the form of a story”.

In video, three key figures on feminicides in France

Madame Figaro. – What made you write a story, you who are a poet?
Natasha Trethewey.
– After receiving the Pulitzer for Poetry, and more after being named Poet Laureate, I was treated to newspaper articles about my journey, articles in which my mother appeared as a footnote, and always like a victim, a murdered woman. It hurt me a lot to see the role she played in my life so restricted. I decided that I had to be the one to tell her story and tell the importance she had had in my personal and artistic trajectory.

Memories and poetry

Do you think traumas shape the people we become?
Yes. Geography is a fate: being born in Mississippi, exactly a century after the state first celebrated Confederation Day (which celebrates the lost cause of continued slavery and supremacy blanche) naturally played a role in the development of my identity … Our stories are imbued with the history of the place and the people who were there before us. I have two existential wounds. One of them is linked to history, with this original sin of America, its faith in white supremacy. The other, more profound, is the loss of my mother. I think that having lost her, and having lost her after having had her with me for nineteen years, above all, made me the author that I have become. I started to write poetry to try to make sense of what happened. Lorca evokes the duende, the wound that never heals. My mother’s death is a wound that I carry that does not heal. But this is precisely this awareness of death, which underlies everything I do. I think knowing the depths of such sorrow gives me a much more intense experience of joy.

Memorial Drive adopts a particular structure. Some chapters give voice to your mother …
It took a long time before I decided to include in the book the transcripts of the last phone call between my mother and my stepfather, of the document that she left in her briefcase the morning of the day she was killed, as well as his statement to the police, the first time he attempted to kill her. I ended up doing it because if I knew I could tell readers how remarkable she was, resilient and determined to save her life, it seemed to me that it was better for them to hear her own words, to through this documentary evidence that she left behind. Rather than giving him a voice, give him his voice.

For the rest, I wrote Memorial Drive like a long poem. I continued to worry about lyricism, metaphors, rhythm, sound, and I wanted to create a narration that is not linear, which, through certain images, sort of comes back to itself regularly. I thus drew the quotations in the foreground of the book: “The past beats in me like a second heart” (John Banville) and “Everything has a destination that the traveler does not know” (Martin Buber), recurring motifs …

Mother’s illness

You say that, even if you don’t believe it, you went to see a psychic, like your mother, shortly before she died. Do you feel that writing is actually reading, identifying clues and signs?
Absoutely. I have the feeling that I occupy two positions at the same time. Half of my brain is dedicated to magical thinking, it tries to make connections and detect patterns, to produce meaning. And I have the other rational half of my brain that helps me not believe in this stuff… Still, as human beings, we are essentially meaning-seeking creatures. And looking back, it is easy to see links forming, to recognize signs, the same way the Ancients, who once observed the heavens and saw stars there, decided to connect them to create constellations. which each have a story.

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Your mother could have been saved. Do you think that domestic violence was not, and still is not, taken seriously enough?
There have been advances – my mother was killed before restrictive order laws were enacted – but I think we have to continue working on how the police, but also the public, perceive this violence. , continue to fight against each other’s prejudices. People have misconceptions about who is affected by it. For some, “as you make your bed, you go to bed”. They are convinced that it is not the court’s responsibility to come to your aid if you have associated with an abusive man. That this is a private matter. When my stepfather was sentenced to a short prison term for first attempting to kill my mother, a man who was on the jury felt that they should have settled this among themselves, that justice did not did not have to intervene. As if domestic violence were not at the heart of a national crisis …

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Poet Natasha Trethewey: “My mother’s death is a wound that I carry that does not heal”

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