Former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey reads her memoir at Union University – Cardinal & Cream

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On Thursday, April 14, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey presented a reading of her memoir “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” at 6 p.m. at the Carl Grant Events Center, as part of the Reading Series organized by the Lyceum Committee of the English Department of Union University.

An Instant New York Times bestseller, “Memorial Drive” has won and been nominated for over 35 different notable literary awards and was listed as one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Best Books of 2020.

Trethewey’s gripping and harrowing memoir focuses on the murder of his mother by his estranged stepfather in 1985, a heartfelt account through his eyes as a mixed-race child in a segregated America. She tackles the painful and pervasive subject of domestic violence with her masterful prose and poetic motifs.

On behalf of the Lyceum committee that sponsored the reading, English teacher and writer-in-residence Bobby Rogers opened the event with a welcome and introduced Trethewey, saying that just as she did in her previous works, “she worked the same alchemy with her memoirs”.

“Thank you all for coming out tonight,” Trethewey told the packed house of about 140 attendees. “’Memorial Drive’ is a book about mourning. About surviving trauma. Become a writer. And the enduring, lasting love between a mother and her child.

Trethewey started reading the prologue which describes the last portrait of his mother before her death. She then read the first chapter of her memoir which painted a vivid and heartbreaking picture of her childhood – a particularly vivid image being when she scraped her knee as a little girl and saw the white flesh on her knee contrasting with her darker skin, making her wonder who she was, between these two worlds of a white father and a black mother.

After the reading, Trethewey won a resounding round of applause and opened the floor for questions.

When asked how she found the courage to write about such a painful and complex part of her past, Trethewey said, “It felt like something I absolutely had to do. I was written about. When people wrote about me, my backstory often entered the story. My mother was mentioned as this murdered woman. Just in the background. A victim. It made me feel like her role in my life was being erased. If it was going to be written, then I was going to be the one to do it.

In response to another question, Trethewey read her poem “Imperatives to Continue on the Stride” from her collection of poems “Monument,” which expresses the emotional struggles that came with telling her mother’s story openly.

Q&A time was followed by a book signing and reception, where students and faculty eagerly lined up for the chance to purchase a signed book and have a photo taken with the ‘author.

As a member of the Lyceum committee, Rogers called Trethewey a “genius with form” and his memoir Memorial Drive “a charming and heartbreaking book”.

“She does for memoirs what she did for traditional poetic forms: made them relevant and appropriated her own. In particular, she uses found material — transcripts of taped conversations, details from a television newscast, snippets of her mother’s handwriting — to tremendous and moving effect,” Rogers said.

When asked what he hoped attendees would take away from the event, Rogers replied, “So many things. Being in the presence of a highly skilled and deeply inspired writer – let’s say the great one – can illustrate to students what the act of writing can do. It should be an inspiring evening.

It was certainly an inspiring evening for many in attendance, including members of the Jackson community, many Union faculty and students who were English and non-English majors.

“I liked how open she was, like how all the details, she really didn’t hold back,” said Judy Black, an English major. “I feel like in writing you have to be very open and vulnerable and out there. I was really, really influenced by that because that’s what I want to do with my life. That’s what really grabbed me. It just made me cry, and I’ve never cried before at a poetry reading or anything before. It’s like the best read I’ve ever been to.

Black also said, “As a mixed-race person, 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 father’s side and her mother’s side, both contributed to who she is. There aren’t a lot of Métis writers talking about that and the unique experiences they have. And it was really, really inspiring to see.

Lydia McGinnis, a second-year cross-cultural studies student, said, “Oh, it was a wonderful event. It was one of those events where I just sat there for a minute afterwards and felt like I had stepped out of an abyss. I was just sitting there and trying to process it all and I knew I had to buy his memoir now. And I don’t usually feel like this. But I knew I had to get up and go buy it and read it. Such depth of feeling and emotion and resonance and also knowing that his story is so much deeper than what we have heard. I’m really excited to read this!

Natasha Trethewey’s book “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” is available at all major bookstores and online bookstores.

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