SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
“Memorial Drive” is the title of Natasha Trethewey’s new book. It’s also the street in Atlanta where her mother lived and – there’s no way to put this delicately – where she was murdered by her ex-husband when Natasha was just 19 years old. Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the two-time poet laureate of the United States, and she joins us now to talk about her memoir.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
MCCAMMON: You began your memoir on Memorial Drive, going back there for the first time in 30 years. Why did you decide to return, both physically to that place and to your mother’s story?
TRETHEWEY: After my own success as a writer, after winning the Pulitzer and becoming poet laureate, I was being written about a lot more in magazines and newspapers. And when I was written about, there was mention of the backstory, the life behind the making of the poems. And whenever that was written about, my mother was mentioned almost as a footnote or an afterthought as this murdered woman, this victim. And I felt that it diminished her importance in my life and in making me a poet. And so I decided that if she was going to be mentioned again and again, then – that I was going to be the one to tell her story. And I had to go back to that physical place because, for me, it was – moving backwards, that’s where the story begins.
MCCAMMON: And you do tell her story – her story of her marriage to your father. And we should note it was an interracial marriage. She was Black. Your father was white. You also talk about your childhood. But what do you want us to know about her as a person?
TRETHEWEY: How resilient she was, how intelligent, how lovely and powerful and loving she was.
MCCAMMON: I was wondering if you would read a section to us from your book. It’s Page 115.
TRETHEWEY: OK. (Reading) When I try to write about my mother, those lost years I do not want to remember, everything is scattered. I write on a yellow legal pad, carrying it around with me until the pages come loose, torn from the adhesive on the top. I write on scraps, envelopes, receipts, and I misplace them. I record audio notes in my phone, my voice husky and unfamiliar. I write upside down in my unlined journal in the center of it, as if my heart has been turned on end.
MCCAMMON: You talk about the lost years that you don’t want to remember. What happened during those lost years?
TRETHEWEY: Well, those were the years that we lived with my then-stepfather, who was tormenting me emotionally and psychologically and, later I would learn, abusing my mother physically.
MCCAMMON: You include phone transcripts in your memoir of conversations between your mother and your stepfather that she had recorded as evidence against him, as proof of his harassment and abuse. Days before he killed her, he told her in a recorded conversation that he wanted to kill her. Did the system fail your mother?
TRETHEWEY: Oh, I do think it was a failure. You know, there was a juror who was interviewed in the newspaper after the first time he tried to kill her. And what the juror said was, well, I live in the same apartment complex, and I think that this is a domestic issue; they should work it out themselves. Well, it’s a failure to think that it’s simply a domestic issue that they should work out themselves. They were no longer married. I think it was a failure every time a newspaper article or a police officer or a jurist called her his wife. The thinking that allows you to still call a divorced woman the wife of somebody suggests that he still owns her.
MCCAMMON: Your mother, of course, was not only a woman, but a Black woman. Do you think that race played a role in the way her case was handled?
TRETHEWEY: You know, it’s hard to disaggregate one part of her identity from another. Do I think that sometimes people are less sensitive to people who are different from them, people that they imagine to be lesser than them? Of course.
MCCAMMON: There’s a theme throughout this book where you seem to blame yourself, question whether there was something you might’ve done that could’ve changed the course of those events. How have you thought about that as you’ve gotten older?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I mean, I wonder all the time about the silences that we both kept and whether or not, had I told her early on that our lives with him was having such a negative effect on me, if she would’ve made the decision to leave then, to get out sooner and, in so doing, save her own life. The regret is a stone on my heart.
MCCAMMON: What would you say to your 19-year-old self now?
TRETHEWEY: You know, I think I’d probably say the same thing I said to myself in a dream. If, in a dream, the dreamer is actually really every character, when my mother says to me in a dream, do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals? That is my 19-year-old self saying to myself, do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals? I know it now. I would say it again, and I would hope that I would find the light in that, as I have.
MCCAMMON: Natasha Trethewey – her new memoir is “Memorial Drive.”
Thanks so much for speaking with us.
TRETHEWEY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN LUKAS BOYSEN’S “KENOTAPH”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.