An intervention in monument-making: A Litquake book talk with Natasha Trethewey

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On Wednesday, former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey appeared in a remote book talk with Tonya Foster to discuss her memoir “Memorial Drive.” The event was hosted by Litquake, an annual literary festival held in San Francisco. 

Trethewey joined the video call from a sitting room, complete with a bookshelf and a vase of flower stocks. Foster appeared in front of a computer-generated photograph of a blue sky filled with cumulus clouds floating over a field of tall grasses. The two backgrounds served as atmospheric settings for the evening’s conversation — one intimate and indoors, the other a passing weather formation frozen in time. 

Trethewey began to envision “Memorial Drive” in the aftermath of winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007 for her collection “Native Guard.” It took seven years to write the memoir. There is a deep thematic affinity between “Native Guard” and “Memorial Drive” despite the inherent difference between the two: The first is a work of poetry and the second is prose. Still, both grapple with the death of Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, through larger conversations about national monuments. 

Trethewey’s mother was murdered by her ex-husband on Memorial Drive, near Stone Mountain — the country’s largest confederate monument. 

Stone Mountain is “the nation’s largest monument to white supremacy and the maintenance of slavery,” Trethewey said during the book talk. 

Trethewey’s book presents a different kind of monument; it is a commemoration and a remembrance of her mother. Her memoir-monument is placed in direct contrast with the confederate monument at Stone Mountain. Trethewey asks her reader to contrast the two and to reassess what is truly important to remember and commemorate. 

“This book is an intervention in the standard way we create monuments,” Trethewey said. She went on to comment that if she could write her mother’s name across the mountainside, she would. 

“My mother made me the writer that I am,” she explained, dabbing her eyes with a black handkerchief. 

Trethewey did not shy away from holding space for vulnerability during the talk. At times, she was moved to tears when recalling the loss of her mother. She described how writing the book brought the deep hurt of that loss closer to the surface and how it sometimes felt like she was learning about the news of her mother’s death all over again. 

In Foster’s words, Trethewey’s book “tracks memory as a wound, a scar and a birthmark.” These three, incredibly compelling similes reveal a great deal about the frames Trethewey uses to examine old family wounds, but they do not speak to the most distinctive feature of Trethewey’s writing: her restraint. 

Trethewey’s memoir is nonlinear and elliptical. She set out to explain how she lost her mother, but maintained that the book “will not give you a blow by blow of domestic violence scenes.” Rather, she uses strategic silences, omissions and ellipses. The purpose of this restraint is to amplify what is said in the text, a carefully danced dialectic between silence and speech. 

Trethewey writes about loss and monuments with a masterful hand, but what made the talk exceptionally poignant were Foster’s considerate but challenging questions. At one point in the conversation, Foster asked Trethewey: “What did it cost you to write this book?” 

Trethewey has had to live with her mother’s death for 35 years, and while she used to be able to box it away, that isn’t the case anymore. Foster discussed Trethewey’s “memory work” as a scar or birthmark, but to Trethewey, the loss of her mother will only ever be a wound.

“There is no healing,” Trethewey said. “Give it palliative care.” 

She expanded on the idea of loss as a wound, saying that it should be kept clean and exposed to light, but with the knowledge that it will never truly close. 

But while writing has exposed Trethewey’s old wounds, there is also perhaps some solace. At the end of the talk, she quoted the Persian poet Rumi, saying: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” 

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].