The Shelf: Natasha Trethewey

September 1, 2010Teresa WeaverComments

Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey’s brave new book, Beyond Katrina (UGA Press, $22.95), is modeled on Robert Penn Warren’s Segregation. Warren had revisited his native South not lengthy following the Brown v. Board of your practice ruling-a figurative storm that altered the nation’s cultural landscape as significantly because the very literal Hurricane Katrina modified the coast of Mississippi. Trethewey’s go back to Gulfport, where she was created in 1966, started like a personal meditation around the residual results of the 2005 hurricane. When her beloved brother, Joe, lost all things in the storm and then made “a desperate decision” that arrived him imprisonment, though, she made the decision to inform the broader story from the Gulf recovery with the prism of his experience. In poems, essays, and letters, Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007 and shows at Emory College, grapples with a few of the dualities that comprise her like a person and propel her being an artist: black and white-colored, native daughter and prodigal child, poet and documentarian. In a single moving passage, Trethewey constitutes a private pilgrimage to her mother’s grave along with a now vacant church lot. “Debris still littered the grass. Everywhere, there have been pages torn from hymnals, Bibles, psalms pressed in to the grass as though these were cemented there. I bent close, attempting to read someone to someone driving by across the beach, I have to have appeared as if a lady praying.”

Trethewey on . . .

Writing prose versus poetry It’s very different. I can get lost in writing a poem and forget what time it is. There were moments when I got lost in the prose writing, but mostly . . . it was a different kind of work, and I just wasn’t used to it . . . One of the reasons I’m always writing about history is that I think it takes me a long time to process things that have come to pass. I need a great amount of distance from them.

Home Gulfport is always home to me, because I think of it psychologically as the place that made me. But I imagine living my life somewhere else.

The Pulitzer effect I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. But I felt like this then, and I still feel like this now: It’s a great danger to bring either past failures or past successes anytime you sit down to write.

Reading the dictionary for fun Every single word is a poem! And when you read the history of a
word . . . I just love that.

Guilty reading pleasures I have to admit that I’m a fiend for academic fiction, on the low end and the high end. I just read P.F. Kluge’s Gone Tomorrow, an academic novel with a murder—in an English department, even. One of my colleagues told me about Jane Langton, who writes a lot of these English-department murder mysteries, including one at an Emily Dickinson symposium. I read these books like I would eat chocolate!


Also new . . .

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
(Random House, $30)
Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, spent more than a decade researching and writing this mesmerizing blend of history and narrative journalism. Using the lives of three people, the former Emory professor chronicles the migration of African Americans from the South to cities in the North and West, from World War I to the 1970s. “It was the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking,” Wilkerson writes.
A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell
(Algonquin Books, $24.95)
Emory professor Joseph Skibell’s sweeping, fantastical novel begins in Vienna in the 1890s, on the night his protagonist meets Sigmund Freud, and ends in a Warsaw ghetto in the 1940s. By following the storied life of young Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn, a hopeless romantic, Skibell fashions a magnificent portrait of Eastern Europe and modern history.
My Bright Midnight by Josh Russell
(LSU Press, $18.95 paperback)
In this captivating love-hate story set in World War II–era New Orleans, the city itself is one of author Josh Russell’s greatest, most indelibly drawn characters: “Sweet flowers and sour booze, fried fish and rank garbage, baking bread and burning tires: New Orleans’s tricky balance of perfume and stink.” Russell teaches at Georgia State University.

Photograph by Joel Benjamin



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