On Thursday, April 14, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey presented a reading from her memoir “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” at 6 pm in the Carl Grant Events Center, as part of the Annual Reading Series hosted by the Lyceum Committee of the English department at Union University.
An instant New York Times bestseller, “Memorial Drive” has won and been nominated for more than 35 different notable literary prizes and was listed as one of the top 100 books of 2020 by The New York Times Book Review.
Trethewey’s striking, poignant memoir is about her mother’s murder by her former stepfather in 1985, a heartfelt account through her eyes as a child of mixed race in segregated America. She addresses the painful, ever-present topic of domestic abuse with her masterful prose and poetic motifs.
On behalf of the Lyceum Committee that sponsored the reading, English professor and Writer in Residence Bobby Rogers began the event with a welcome and introduced Trethewey, saying that just as she has in previous works, “She’s worked the same alchemy with her memoir.”
“Thank you all for coming out tonight,” Trethewey said to the packed room of approximately 140 attendees. “’Memorial Drive’ is a book about grief. About surviving a trauma. Becoming a writer. And the long-abiding and enduring love between a mother and child.”
Trethewey began reading from the prologue which describes the last portrait of her mother before her death. She then read chapter one of her memoir which painted a vivid, heart-rending picture of her childhood—one particularly striking image being when she scraped her knee as a little girl and saw the white flesh on her knee in contrast to her darker skin, prompting her to wonder who she was, between these two worlds of a white father and a black mother.
After the reading, Trethewey gained a resounding round of applause, and she opened the floor for questions.
When asked how she garnered up the courage to write about such a painful, complex part of her past, Trethewey said, “It felt like a thing I absolutely had to do. I was written about. When I was written about, my backstory often entered the story. My mother was mentioned as this murdered woman. Just in the backdrop. to victim. That made me feel like her role in my life was being erased. If she was going to be written about, then I was going to be the one to do it.”
In response to another question, Trethewey read her poem “Imperatives for Carrying on in the Aftermath” from her poetry collection book “Monument,” which expresses the emotional struggles that came with openly telling her mother’s story.
The time of questions and answers was followed by a book signing and reception, where students and professors alike lined up eagerly for a chance to purchase a signed book and take a picture with the author.
As part of the Lyceum Committee, Rogers called Trethewey “a genius with form” and his memoir Memorial Drive “a lovely, heart-breaking book.”
“She does for the memoir what she’s done for traditional poetic forms: made it newly relevant and her own. She particularly uses found elements—transcripts from recorded conversations, details from a television newscast, scraps of her mother’s writing from her—to great and moving effect, ”Rogers said.
When asked what he hoped attendees would take away from the event, Rogers said, “So many things. Being in the presence of a highly-skilled, deeply inspired—let’s call her great—a great writer, can illustrate to students what the act of writing is capable of. It should be an inspiring evening.”
It certainly was an inspiring evening for several attendees, including members from the Jackson community, numerous faculty and Union students who were English and non-English majors alike.
“I liked how open she is, like how all the details, she just really didn’t hold back,” Judy Black, a senior English major said. “I feel like in writing you have to be very open and vulnerable and out there. I really, really took influence from that because that is what I want to do with my life. That’s what really gripped me. Made me just tear up, and I have not teared up before at a poetry reading or anything before. This is like the best reading I’ve ever been to.”
Black also said, “As someone who is mixed race, to be able to talk about those two halves of her life and instead of just identifying with one she talks about how both sides, her dad’s side and her mother’s side—both contributed to who she is. There are not a lot of mixed-race writers who talk about that and the unique experiences that they have. And that was really, really inspiring to see.”
Lydia McGinnis, a sophomore intercultural studies major, said, “Oh, it was a wonderful event. It was one of those events where I just sat there for a minute afterward and I felt like I had come out of an abyss. I was just sitting there and trying to process everything and I knew that I had to buy her memoir from her now. And I don’t usually feel like that. But I knew I had to get up and go and buy it and read it. Such a depth of feeling and emotion and resonance and also knowing that her story of her is so much deeper than we heard. Am really excited to read this!”
Natasha Trethewey’s book “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” is available at all major bookstores and online bookstores.