Trethewey, in one of the most heart-rending interviews Terry Gross had done for "Fresh Air," was overcome by the anguish she carries over her mother's slaying by Trethewey's stepfather. Trethewey was 19 when her mother was shot and killed outside of her home in suburban Atlanta.
Discussing her new book, "Memorial Drive, A Daughter's Memoir," Trethewey recounted to Gross a chilling scene in which her stepfather confronted her when she was a cheerleader at a high school football game. The Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate believes her stepfather intended on killing her, but decided not to because she greeted him cordially.
Trethewey also told Gross about the pain of growing up in southern Mississippi as the daughter of a mixed-race marriage. Her father was white and her mother black. Trethewey was born on Confederate Memorial Day, and grew up seeing the Confederate battle flag fly on her birthday.
Her mother and grandmother were civil rights activists in Mississippi, resulting the the Klan burning a cross on their lawn, the subject of one of Trethewey's poems.
Trethewey's leaving Emory University to teach at Northwestern outside of Chicago was a blow to Atlanta's literary stature. In the interview with Gross, Trethewey implies that she wanted to leave Atlanta because of the anxiety she would feel living in the same city as her mother's murderer.
The critically accomplished "Memorial Drive," like Trethewey's poetry, widens the scope of Southern literature. For years, the black woman's experience in the South was expropriated and distorted by Faulkner and other writers.
Trethewey, Mississippian Jesmyn Ward and other black women writers are creating an enduring literature that tells searing truths about Southern violence and oppression. They are also telling inspiring stories of family love, dedication and overcoming.
Atlantans will recognize the title of Trethewey's memoir as referring to the road that leads from downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain, where the massive sculpture of Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee is visible from long distances. Trethewey told Gross about growing up near Stone Mountain, and the oppressiveness she felt viewing the Confederate shrine daily. Yet, she doesn't want the monument destroyed, she told The Los Angeles Times.
The road also passes Oakland Cemetery, where a towering monument honors the Confederate dead buried there and tourists visit the grave of "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell. Black slaves and free blacks also are buried there. Trethewey's poems and non-fiction examines such tangled strands of Southern life.
Trethewey in her work engages with the legacy of white-male-dominated Southern literature. In her brilliant"Southern Pastoral," the poet tells about a dream in which she gathers with the Southern Fugitives. In the poem, she pictures sipping bourbon with the dead white poets, and Robert Penn Warren lining her up to take a photo with the Fugitives, who wrote the Agrarian manifesto "I'll Take My Stand," steeped in Confederate nostalgia.
The poem ends with an echo of Quentin Compson's statement at the end of Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom," in which he denies hating the South. Trethewey's poem ends, "You don't hate the south, they ask. You don't hate it?"
For all the heartbreak the South's brought her, I believe Trethewey loves the South. We are richer for it.
In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We're gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer's backdrop—
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I'm offered.
We're lining up now—Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say "Race" the photographer croons. I'm in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father's white, I tell them, and rural.
You don't hate the south, they ask. You don't hate it?