Natasha Trethewey on Myths, Grief and Joy

Three weeks after my mother is dead I dream of her: We walk a rutted path, an oval track around which we are making our slow revolution: side by side, so close our shoulders nearly touch, neither of us speaking, both of us in trances. Though I know she is dead I have a sense of contentment, as if she’s only gone someplace else to which I’ve journeyed to meet her. The world around us is dim, a backdrop of shadows out of which, now, a man comes. Even in the dream I know what he has done, and yet I smile, lifting my hand and speaking a greeting as he passes. It’s then that my mother turns to me, then that I see it: a hole, the size of a quarter, in the center of her forehead. From it comes a light so bright, so piercing, that I suffer the kind of momentary blindness brought on by staring at the sun — her face nothing but light ringed in darkness when she speaks: ‘Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?’”

So begins Natasha Trethewey’s latest book, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, which centers around the murder of her mother Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough in 1985, when Natasha was nineteen years old. Months after getting a divorce, after having survived years of his abuse, Gwendolyn was shot by her ex-husband Joel, Natasha’s former stepfather. Confronting her life through the lens of her mother’s death, Natasha, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and two-time US Poet Laureate, examines the relationship they had with each other, the strength of women, and what it was like growing up biracial in the South, in the shadows of memorials commemorating subjugation and violence.

Memorial Drive — which was named a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2020 and a Best Book of the Year by NPR, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Electric Literature, InStyle, and others — is now out in paperback. I spoke with the author about the craft of writing this memoir, mythology, the indifference of nature, and more.

Your book is organized into two parts with a number of chapters within each part, and each chapter is broken into many sections. You also have a prologue and five stand-alone, untitled, italicized sections throughout the book, including right at the beginning and right at the end, which appear in the table of contents as empty brackets. What do these brackets signify, and how did you decide upon the structure of your book?

That’s a great question. Those brackets for me represent what feels like the meta-narrative, the things that were sort of happening to me as I was trying to write [the book]. The other thing that made me want to use brackets is the part in one of the chapters where I describe the set of bookends I used to have on my table, these two little globes. I was sort of imagining my life before we moved to Atlanta and then my life after my mother’s death. And everything in between those brackets were the things that I was trying to forget. 

Did your experience as a poet influence this overall structure and even the way you shaped your words, from sentence to paragraph to chapter or section?

I think being able to use that kind of white space is among the sort of poetic techniques I was relying upon. I did see writing the whole memoir in the way that I think of writing a collection of poems — pulling certain motifs and images through; moving in a way that’s not linear, but returning to certain key moments to reflect on them or to amplify them when they appear again in a kind of cumulative effect.

I knew going into [writing this book] that I wanted to spend the most amount of time in the first chapter, “Another Country,” because I knew that for me to make sense of everything that was to come, I would have to show what it was we left behind. What it was I was trying to hold onto. And what gave me the kind of resilience that allowed me to survive everything that came after. Of course when I was writing [that chapter], I didn’t want to leave it, because then I had to go forward into what I had been trying to forget.

But also, I didn’t write the chapters in order. The very first one I wrote was 1985. It just clearly seemed to me like the beginning.

Mythology and folktales have a strong presence in this memoir. You mention that your father would tell you stories based on something you were doing as a child — the story of Icarus, for example, when you swung too high on your swing set. He also called you Cassandra, which, you write, “…would come to weigh heavily on me. It was as if, in giving me that name, he had given me not only the burden of foresight but also the notion of causality — that whatever it was, if I could imagine it, see it in my mind’s eye, it would happen because I had envisioned it. As if I had willed it into being.”

Later in the book, you describe how your stepfather Joel would take you for drives, and you were afraid he might abandon you and that you’d be separated from your mother. You write, “There is another way of looking at the myth of Cassandra’s burden. Since no one believes her admonitions anyway, perhaps she begins to think that only her silence can prevent what is to come…. I did not tell my mother anything about those afternoons with Big Joe, nor that I was afraid of what, one day, he might do.”

Can you speak more to this connection you felt with the character of Cassandra? Why was it important for you to weave these myths and stories into your memoir?

I think it was important because my [biological] father had been the person who gave me my primary name. He had been reading War and Peace and named me Natasha, and then he named me Cassandra in the short stories he had been writing, which were these fictional accounts of our life. [I think he named me Cassandra in his stories] because he thought the nature of my experience would mean that I would be both prescient and misunderstood. And so, from the moment that I conceived this notion of prescience, it began to connect in my mind to other things. If I foresaw something, just even by some ordinary chance like we often experience, it became laden with meaning to me. And so one of my attempts to control the world I was living in was to organize things, which is the kind of poet I am. I am interested in a kind of order and symmetry. I’m much more Apollonian in my tendencies for control like that, and I think it had everything to do with trying to wrestle control over whatever type of chaos I was experiencing as a child. 

Thinking about the myth of Cassandra and the different ways that that burden has been interpreted, it seemed to me that if you said something aloud, you could set it in motion. And instead of that happening, you know, you could keep it to yourself.

Do you feel a connection to Cassandra now, in your adult life?

I suppose I try not to. She sort of haunts me. I know intellectually that I don’t make things happen, but I do have a catastrophic imagination because of my experience. I once had a conversation with my brother about this, and I was surprised to find that he has that, too — that we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t want to be prescient about that, so I have little talismans or gestures or language that I use to counteract some catastrophic image that I’ve had. I talk about this in the book a little bit, too. If I had a bad dream (as a child), that’s when I started learning to replace difficult images from the dream by thinking of words like “daffodils” and “lollipops” and sort of lulling myself with sound as well as visual imagery. 

Are there any other myths or stories that were or still are very central to your life? 

Absolutely. The ones that, I think, are as powerful as part of my personal mythology as the story of Cassandra are the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, or of Persephone. Daffodils are the flowers that I pick for my mother. In the myth of Persephone, she picks [daffodils] and the ground opens, and that’s how she gets taken into the Underworld. I’ve dreamed of my mother and imagined going to that liminal place where she is. That’s the imagery that begins the book, in that italicized part, and I’ve gone to this place where similarly Orpheus might have gone, where he goes to try and bring Eurydice back. I have this poem called “Myth” that behaves as a palindrome; it enacts the descent into the part of sleep where we dream, which is a metaphor for Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld. And then there’s that sort of coming back, you know — he’s got to lead her out of the Underworld, but he can’t resist at some point turning around. And that’s when she’s banished forever [from the world of the living], and it feels very much to me like dreams I have when I don’t quite realize that [my mother] is dead. And then I wake up and I realize it, and I’ve sort of left her back in that world of dream where I’ve seen her, where she’s alive, but she’s out of reach. 

Do you find that these myths ultimately give you strength or some kind of peace?

Yeah, they offer a kind of comfort through meaning, through the lens of interpretation. I mean that they give us a lens through which to interpret the events of our own lives, reminding us that these stories are ancient and ongoing and that we occupy just a little place in the larger ongoing story.

You also include a number of quotes throughout your book. Besides the weight of the words themselves in these quotes, can you speak more to any significance of the sources you’ve chosen, such as The Sea by John Banville?

That was just such a beautiful, beautiful book. That was one of the few books I’ve ever read where as soon as I got to the end, I went right back to the first page. I read a lot of books when I was trying to write Memorial Drive, most of which were memoirs, and I read Banville because the voice telling that story was so compelling. Getting to that moment where he says, “The past beats inside me like a second heart,” I knew early on that it would be one of the epigraphs for the book. And I knew that long before I wrote the final interstitial scene of driving and remembering driving with my mother. But I think in some ways I was drawn to that line from his book because that memory was waiting for me to dredge it back up and to make sense of it, that memory of being able to feel her heart as I leaned against her. 

Your Martin Buber quote reads, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Throughout the journey of sharing this story with the world, what secret destinations have you come upon? Has anything happened to you that’s been very surprising? Anything especially positive, or negative?

That quote holds true for all of us. Only looking backward can you identify the journey you’ve been on. I understand, again intellectually, that I’m making the connections because I’m looking for them, because I so desperately need to find them, and yet they seem remarkable.

When I think about the journeys, those secret destinations, I think about my grandmother. After her daughter was killed, she, just as I did, vowed never to return to Atlanta. And you know, I sort of ended up there. I’m making air quotes because obviously, ultimately, I went there by choice (to teach at Emory); I put myself in the proximity of all of these things that made it possible for certain things to happen. My grandmother’s house [in Mississippi] was uninhabitable after Hurricane Katrina hit, and I brought her back with me. And like my mother, she died in Atlanta. She never talked about it. My grandmother was stoic. I do think that she longed to see her home one more time, and I regret I could not take her back to Mississippi. But I also think she was happy to spend the last couple of years of her life with such close proximity to me.

In your interview with Ralph Eubanks for Square Books, you say that you carry the burden of your mother’s passing, but it’s a burden you never want to get rid of. As time passes, and with all of these conversations about your book, has grief changed in any way for you? Does the burden ever take on a different weight or shape?

I think right now, the grief I feel is even closer to the surface than usual. I don’t know if that’s simply because I’ve had to talk about it so much, or if it’s a result of aging. I know other women who are my age or older than me who lost their mothers young, and they also think of their mothers every day. 

You’ve also talked about how trying to move on in your life without thinking too much about what happened made you realize that, in so doing, you were forgetting aspects of your mother, even possibly of yourself. (I’m thinking in particular about your interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.) You realized you didn’t want that loss to happen. How did you keep bringing yourself back to your computer to write through the tough moments? Did you have any particular methods or practices to keep you on task and emotionally well?

In hindsight, I can see how much I tried to resist writing this book and writing certain parts in particular. I sold the proposal in 2012 and didn’t turn it in until 2017. At some point, I met this woman who was an editor; we were at some writers’ conference or something, and I was talking about not being able to write this book, and she asked me a really pointed question about whether I was trying to avoid it or find a way of avoiding it. And I said, “Oh no, no, no, no, that’s not it.” But now I wonder to what extent avoidance was some part of it. One of the hardest things was to actually find the story and the right tone to take. Because the facts, the things that happened, the tragedy of it, that is not the story. And not until I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and The Story did I begin to understand how to hold these two things separately but in tension with each other. I remember writing a list on a sheet of paper, with two columns. One column was the situation: that I’d been a child who grew up with domestic violence and that my mother was murdered even after getting away and getting a divorce. And for the other column, I wrote a list about the story. I realized in so many ways that this story was about my relationship with my mother. And the ways my [biological] father encouraged me to be a writer. And how my mother continues to nurture me. 

You know, I wrote Native Guard when I moved back to Atlanta, when I took the job at Emory. At the time, I was writing elegies, but I didn’t know that they had anything to do with the research I was doing about Civil War soldiers. I was concerned with my home state of Mississippi and the Confederacy and white supremacy and historical erasure and all that. I had not even put together in my mind yet what I think about now as my two existential wounds — the wounds of history and America’s original sin of white supremacy, and losing my mother when I was 19. I began to put them together in that book, but I did not see until writing this one just how much they were linked. This goes back to your question about journeys. It’s the deepest link: she died in the shadow of the largest monument to the Confederacy. Imagine looking from space and seeing that giant thing that we remember, emblazoned, this idea of white supremacy, and then the tiny little death of my mother there on Memorial Drive.

In your book, you write, “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.” There’s been so much trauma in the last year for a lot of people that relate to the topics addressed in your book — trauma related to racial injustice, domestic violence rates soaring as people have been stuck at home because of Covid-19, and so on. Do you have any advice for writers and non-writers alike who might need some help recognizing or making sense of their stories? 

I have faith in our ability to make meaning out of what seems senseless. What I keep going back to are poems that deal with the idea of the indifference of nature: Audens’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Some of Patrick Phillips’s poems from Elegy for a Broken Machine. Lisel Mueller’s “When I’m Asked.”…

I feel like we are in a moment where we see this indifference of nature in the fact that it’s spring again and flowers are blooming and it’s beautiful, and yet India just had its highest [Covid-19] death rate recently. These things happen side by side and the world seems not to notice. We’ve seen people be indifferent to each other in all this resistance to just basic public health and safety that would protect people who are vulnerable. We’ve seen people be indifferent to the demands African Americans are making for justice, for equal protection under the law. And yet, that’s also part of an ongoing story. The thing that’s comforting to me is that I know I’m not isolated in my feelings of grief or alone in the way I experience the indifference of nature. Our suffering connects us and has the potential for us revealing ourselves and our feelings to each other. One has to have faith in certain kinds of things to keep going, even when it looks like the worst is upon us. I think often about [Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] quote that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. I still feel like we are bending toward justice.

How has life been for you during Covid? What has the experience been like for you with the restrictions of a global pandemic affecting where you go and how you communicate with people about your book?

It would be really nice to be in a room with other people and to be close. To be able to hold hands or to give a hug. I can remember giving readings and afterward meeting people who are weeping, and then I’m weeping. I miss not having that connection. But I’ve heard from a lot of people, and I know that people are being reached by the book, by the language, by the story, by my relationship with my mother and her strength and wisdom.

You’ve said that “to know such grief means that when you experience joy, you know the depths of its opposite, and that makes it that much sweeter.” What have been some of your most joyful, sweet experiences lately?

I’ve just been feeling so lucky, even in the midst of this terrible time. In 2017, [my husband and I] moved into our house and six months later, it burned down. We were out of it for two years while it was getting restored, and all I wished for during those two years was to get back into that house. And we moved back in like three months before the lockdown.

When the pandemic first hit, we didn’t know what was going to happen or how dangerous it was going to be, so my husband’s parents moved in with us. They had just sold their house in Delaware (to be closer to us), and we were able to bring them in to live with us for about ten weeks. And it was lovely! They were wonderful, and we had rituals every night for dinner. It was very nice. And now they’re back home and we’re here and the world is starting to open up a little bit. We’re getting to see our other vaccinated friends and it’s been particularly sweet. Just last weekend we went out and sat outdoors at a restaurant again for the first time, with two other couples. And we hugged each other. They were the first people that I’ve hugged other than my husband, and it was just extra, extra special. 

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir
By Natasha Trethewey
Published July 28, 2020
Paperback June 1, 2021