I was so happy to hear poet Natasha Trethewey at the National Book Festival, where I also heard Orhan Pamuk and Elizabeth Alexander. (Yes, it took me too long to finally share my thoughts with you.)
I’ve been reading Trethewey’s new book Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which she read part of at the Festival. This memoir combines prose, poetry and photographs as a means to tell both a personal and regional story from the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Creative writing, like other art forms, allows the reader into a historical moment. If I were to pair Beyond Katrina with other books to offer the story of Hurricane Katrina, I would recommend Patricia Smith’s poetry collection Blood Dazzler and Dave Egger’s Zeitoun. Through poetry and prose, the reader can learn certain human truths about survival and conflict, as well as gain an understanding about the storm.
In Beyond Katrina, Trethewey gives voice to her family and land. She said at the Festival about her multi-genre piece, “I didn’t think my poems could hold something so large.” She added that she has great kinship to Irish poets because of a “similar sense of exile.” The enormity of the storm can only be understood in its moments and details. She opens the book with a quote by Flannery O’Connor, “Where you came from is gone. Where you thought you were going to was never there. And where you is no good unless you can get away from it.”
When I teach and write memoir, in either poetry or prose, there is always the question of the importance of the personal story. There is a possible danger in unearthing intimate or local stories. After recently finishing Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, I asked my students to write a paper arguing for (or against) the value of memoir. Many of them agreed that an important aspect is the life lesson – a certain kernel of truth – that can be gained from not only a personal story, but the author’s insightful analysis of a moment in life. Trethewey quotes Phil Levine in her book when she writes, “’I write what is given to me to write,’ Phil Levine has said. I’ve been given to thinking that it’s my national duty, my native duty, to keep the memory of my Gulf Coast as talisman against the uncertain future.”
If you are interested in learning more about Natasha Trethewey, you’ll enjoy listening to this NPR interview with her as much as I did. She offers more about her family history, including her mother’s murder by her stepfather (this is the subject of an earlier book, Native Guard, which "represents the idea that I am a native guardian to the memory of my mother’s life" (from this NYT article.) You can watch and hear her reading poems in this Youtube video.
If you are interested in working on your memoir, in small pieces, you might be interested in an upcoming, online memoir writing class that I will be leading.