In the closing pages of her memoir Memorial Drive, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey writes: “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.”
The memoir, out this week, is a meditation on Trethewey’s own life as well as those of her mother and grandmother — an interrogation of the self and of family history haunted, in large part, by the abuse Trethewey and her mother both suffered at the hands of her stepfather. It ended, ultimately, in the murder of Trethewey’s mother by her step-father when Trethewey was 19.
Like Lucille Clifton’s poem “june 20,” a rising tension is created between the threat of the known violence that is to come and the present movement of the narrative building to that moment. “I need now to make sense of our history, to understand the tragic course upon which my mother’s life was set and the way my own life has been shaped by that legacy” writes Trethewey in the opening pages. Structurally, this tension becomes the driving engine of the book; thematically, this becomes a ghost of the terrifying future that haunts the present text.
“There’s a flaw in the picture, a white spot at the center of her face from which she already seems to be disappearing,” writes Trethewey of her mother’s impending death early on in Memorial Drive. “If you were to multiply that spot, double its size every year for twelve years — beginning with our arrival in Atlanta — by the end of that time she’d be completely gone: only the space where she had been would remain, a hole like the shape of her Afro, or the sun.”
Trethewey calls the impact of her mother’s murder the moment she both knew she had to speak and did not know if she could speak. This points to a larger, central question of our contemporary experience: how to ethically represent trauma — both one’s own trauma and that of another. In unpacking these ideas, Memorial Drive is loosely divided into three braided strands: the narrative of Trethewey’s youth and women in her family; her act of reckoning with the information in the present; and interspersed reflections on trauma, as well as its intersection with race and gender.
This relationship between trauma, agency, and voice becomes an active force throughout the memoir: When young Trethewey finds out her stepfather has broken the lock to her diary and is regularly reading it, she discovers that writing is the only power she has while being terrorized by him — not to make him cease this violation, which would never happen, but writing allows her space to express her anger at him on the page, knowing he will read it and be unable to react without admitting to Trethaway and her mother what he had done.
Speaking, too, shows us how little Black girls are seen out in the world: In grade school when Trethewey hears her stepfather beating her mother through the thin walls — her mother begging, “Please Joel don’t hit me again” — and Trethewey gets up the courage to speak to a teacher, the young Trethewey is not heard. “Sometimes adults get angry at each other” was all the teacher said before turning and walking away.
But the most damning depiction of voice and trauma for Trethewey is this moment: After Trethewey’s mother has left with her and her brother and filed for divorce, Trethewey’s step-father comes to her school to kill his stepdaughter as a way of hurting his ex-wife. He changes his mind, as Trethewey discovers later in the police report, because Trethewey spoke kindly to him. Instead, he decides to kill Trethewey’s mother. This loss eats away at Trethewey, nearly destroying her: “all my adult life I have lived with the guilt that I am implicated in my mother’s death — or, more precisely that she is dead because I am not,” she writes.
In Memorial Drive, we see the deep saturation of luminous images and resonant meaning that Trethewey’s work is known for. And while it can be tempting to take for granted this stunning language that characterizes Trethewey’s poetic voice, it is important to note here the high level of craft that sustains this quality of resonant, imagistic intensity through the several hundred pages of linear prose narration that is here. In Memorial Drive, the musicality of language combines with imagistic intensity to create a world of heightened subjectivity in which the small moon that is the young Trethewey orbits the constant planet that is her mother and her entire world; thus her mother’s death and its aftermath — the emptiness of her absence — rockets loud across the constellation of Trethewey’s life.
“Nearly thirty years after my mother’s death I went back for the first time to the place she was murdered,” writes Trethewey. She had put off processing everything about this violent legacy until she could not anymore, until the act of putting off was more damaging than moving through the trauma. Admits Trethewey: “There is a danger in willed forgetting; too much can be lost. It’s been harder for me to call back my mother when I needed to most.”
This work of closely looking at the line of women in one’s personal family history as far as can be discovered is a fundamental aspect of the American Black women’s literary canon. This structure is characterized by the juxtaposition of personal, familial, and community history in conversation with archival texts and/or other evidence in search of identity and agency in conversation with a larger social history and ideas.
The work Trethewey does here is the work that Michelle Alexander does in The New Jim Crow. That Isabel Wilkerson does in The Warmth of Other Suns. That Ayana Matthis does in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. That Toni Morrison does in Beloved, in Sula, and Song of Solomon; that Nikole Hannah-Jones does in The 1619 Project. That Julie Dash does in Daughters of the Dust. That Beyoncé Knowles-Carter does in Lemonade. That Sadiya Hartman does in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. That Angela Flournoy does in The Turner House. That Sarah Broom does in The Yellow House. That Jesmyn Ward does throughout her entire oeuvre. That Lucille Clifton does as well.
American Black women writers do this work of discovery as a way of understanding the Black self and Black lineages that are erased in American culture. These are the lives left out of the historical narratives because of gender and race, whose marriages are discounted because of “jumping the broom” or lost or destroyed church records, whose claims to antebellum land rights, wealth, or just basic presence in genealogic records is as erased as the slave cabins from the tours of southern plantation mansions — the latter often occupied by cousins made through the rape of Black women by white men to create an enslaved labor class.
Unfortunately, while the work of these American Black women writers in shaping and defining this cross-genre style of literary inquiry and expression has become popularized in contemporary American fiction and nonfiction, the role of American Black women’s writing in formulating this conversation is usually erased.
One of the most powerful choices Trethewey has made throughout her career, both artistically and ethically, is to consistently push back against this erasure of Black women’s voices in her own writing — whether it be the intimacy of Black women’s lives explored in her earlier poetry collection Domestic Work or the larger scale excavations done in Thrall, her more recent collection. Here in Memorial Drive, Trethewey refutes erasure by giving over the telling of her mother’s actual murder, and the immediate events before and after her mother’s murder, to the transcript of her mother’s testimony and other archival evidence. This allows Trethewey’s mother’s voice to be heard — for her mother to finally have the hard-won agency and speak her truth that she was murdered for. By giving this space to her mother rather than speaking for her or over her, Trethewey centers the victim of the abuse and trauma. Again, agency and voice, not erasure, is Trethewey’s project here.
In this moment, Trethewey offers us a powerful way to decolonize and reconsider this question of the representation of the trauma of the self and of others. You cannot ethically represent another person’s experience of trauma, Memorial Drive tells us here; you can only ethically represent the experience of your own trauma. But when engaged with representing the pain of others, Memorial Drive tells us also, one must step back and de-center the self; ethically, one must — one can only — center and amplify the voices of the those who have experienced the trauma instead.
Hope Wabuke is a poet, writer and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.