Hands in Pockets: Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive

Ln June 5, 1985, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough was murdered by her ex-husband. Thirty years after this crime, his daughter Natasha Trethewey looks back on this moment which “dislocated” her life and profoundly marked her writing without her still managing to directly confront this outburst of violence which, beyond the private drama, concentrates the flaws and tears in the United States, from the racial question to feminicides and military traumas. Memorial Drive out in pocket, at Points, in a remarkable translation by Céline Leroy which renders the breaths and the faults, the tears like the impulses of life of Natasha Trethewey, her quest for an intimate truth beyond a form of repair.

If Nathalie Zberro and the Olivier editions offered us to discover the work of Natasha Trethewey, let us emphasize that the author, born in 1966, is known and recognized in the United States, winner of numerous prizes including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007 for Native Guard. But the crucible of his poetic work is the death of his mother, murdered by the author’s ex-father-in-law, who was then 19 years old: “I turned to poetry to find meaning in what happened past ” (” I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened », New York Times, June 2012). Echoing, in Memorial Drive, this moment described as “the mute event of my past, silence and chosen amnesia, buried like a root deep within me”. It is this radiant heart of her life as of her work that Natasha Trethewey probes, in a staggering book of dignity, power and freedom. Everything her mother tried in vain to obtain — the right to be herself, to love, to be independent and even simply to live — but passed on to her daughter, Natasha Trethewey gives it to her in return and forever, in a story that has nothing of simple homage or even of the tomb, but is presented as the portrait “come alive” (as Kafka writes from memory) of an unforgettable woman, too free, too dark, too womanly for the era in which she was born.

Memorial Drive evokes as much My dark side of Ellroy that The Mourning Diary of Barthes and it escapes these comparisons, in its radical singularity. But it takes from the first for its share of investigation and from the simultaneously intimate and universal diary of the second, each of these three books seeking in the disappearance of a mother the crucible of an existence dedicated to writing. At the very beginning of the story, Natasha Trethewey recounts having dreamed of her mother, three weeks after her assassination: “ Do you know what it’s like to carry a wound that never heals? she asks, a phrase that recurs in the last pages of Memorial Drive, like an obsessive stop, “a chorus”. The author has few elements to cling to in an attempt to understand the insurmountable: only an autopsy report and photographs remain, since the memories are now confused with these images of a woman who radiated despite the trap that was closed in on her. Each shot is like “a revealing moment, the proof of a triggering element”, two photographic terms like a set oftests. Nothing can be linear any more since an existence has been cut short by a heinous crime, the jealousy and the obsession of a man crucibles of a feminicide. Natasha Trethewey articulates all these dimensions in a text that draws its power from the chaos it stirs up without ever trying to give it back a logic that would amount to giving meaning to an act that has none, must not have any.

From images to memories, from fragments to archives, from testimonies to traces, bringing together with terrible courage all that was “scattered”, Natasha Trethewey brings her mother back to life. Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who “had the rest of her life ahead of her,” is the, in these pages, before our eyes. She “emerges like from the depths of memory”, forever present in the words of her daughter, in our memories now since this book makes grief and then an intimate knowledge the knot of an intimacy – in Natasha Trethewey, between her and U.S. When the tragedy occurred, thirty years earlier, the author had tried to turn the page and build consoling fictions. To never return to Memorial Drive, to refuse the terrible symbolism of this place name — “I often think of this axiom of Heraclitus (…) “geography determines destiny” —, to empty one’s mother’s belongings, to do nothing if not, bring along a few books and two equally tragically significant objects: a “heavy belt made of revolver bullets” that the mother wore in so many photographs, the sound of which accompanies the daughter’s memories, and “a dieffenbachia” that Gwendolyn and which Natasha took care of as a child, a plant with a toxic sap when a branch breaks… “The common name for dieffenbachia is ‘the cane of the mute’ because it can cause a temporary inability to speak. Under the effect of fear or shock, one can also be struck dumb; in English, we speak of dumb grievance, of silent sorrow, when the pain is not expressed in words. I could not grasp at the time the metaphor specific to this plant, my relationship to my mother, what it meant that she entrusted me with its maintenance while warning me of the danger it represented”. For a long time everything was said between the lines, obliquely through analogies and symbols, unconsciously in choices which could seem insignificant and whose scope is revealed little by little, as impossible mourning nevertheless imposes its own laws and logic. .

Écrire pour sauver une vieFor a long time, the only image of the mother was that of the silhouette of her body drawn in chalk on Memorial Drive, Atlanta’s main artery, then other images and photographs found their place and the “need” imposed itself to “give meaning to our story, to understand the tragic trajectory my mother’s life followed and how my own life was shaped by her legacy. Natasha Trethewey tells her mother (and first of all a woman), she fills the atrocious and gaping chalk silhouette with stories, memories, built from the full where there was only emptiness, lack and incompleteness. It tells of the fierce fight of a black woman for a freedom that everything hinders: the birth of Gwendolyn in New Orleans, in 1944, in a world still “limited by Jim Crow laws”; a first marriage, interracial, still illegal in Mississippi (as in 20 other states); giving birth on a floor reserved for blacks; but also, outside this private sphere marked by limits linked to skin color, she evokes the Ku Klux Klan, the riots, the assassinations, including the massacre of Emmett Till and his photograph in the magazine Jet which will leave a lasting mark on Gwendolyn, the summer of her 11th birthday, in 1955 — like a revenge of history, the New Yorker tells us that Natasha Trethewey had John Edgar Wideman for a teacher, Wideman who wrote an exceptional book on this child who died of being black whose title could say Memorial Drive, Write to save a life.

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Natasha Trethewey and her parents, 1966 © Natasha Trethewey

It is a “dislocation” or a “dissociation” inherited by Natasha Trethewey: her parents are not “of the same color”, “I did not correspond to any of them. What was I? “. Gwendolyn will then have one of these definitive answers of which she has the secret, here front sublime: “You have the best of both worlds”. The second will be back tragic: Gwendolyn, divorced from Natasha’s father, met a man who imposes an ever more terrible life on her, blows, manipulations, threats, she leads a life under the influence, hiding the marks, the pains, keeping her head high and doing silence a barrier. She was forced to marry Big Joe, Natasha will only understand ita posteriori. A Vietnam veteran, he came home traumatized by what he saw and did and turns his violence against Gwendolyn, but also against Natasha, born from his wife’s first marriage. And when this man, drunk with his supposed power, would also like to constrain the mother as well as her daughter, Gwendolyn in defiance of her deep terror has this scathing sentence: “She. will do. EVERYTHING. This. What. Wanna “.

To write despite the pain, the shame, the guilt, Natasha Trethewey must face thirty years of silence and dare to expose the most intimate. She has to renounce everything she had wanted to believe and tell herself, she has to investigate, to come back to Memorial Drive, this place she had wanted to leave forever. But it goes even further — and we must insist on the literary force of this book, beyond the power of its subject: 1664520487 245 Hands in Pockets Natasha Trethewey Memorial Driveshe ends up making her mother’s voice heard, direct, unmediated, made ever more present, ever more alive throughout the book, until she appears to us and speaks to us, confiding in herself, exposing her fear and her strength, since two terrible recordings, a few hours before her death when the young woman tries, in vain, to reason with the man she had the incredible courage to leave a little earlier.

Memorial Drive recounts everything that makes up an existence and can condemn it like a trap that closes and makes all the uncertain moments the chronicle of an announced death. She talks about her own life: a magical childhood, learning allegory with her father, discovering her mother’s strength, the certainty of what literature can do, for herself and for those to whom .the.s we address. Constructing the unforgettable portrait of Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, she exposes and dismantles hidden or more explicit racism, the mechanisms of violence and influence. She never yields to pathos, everything is stated in a sobriety, admirably rendered by the translation, which lets the emotion well up and explode under the apparent observation. Her prose is a one-way mirror: “Here is what I know,” she writes. The story is constantly hampered by the lack of documents, revived by photographs and memories. It is the exploration of a “phantom pain”, in a sublime iterative story that gives back to a mother her truth, her dignity and her power as a woman, to make it the allegory of a freedom that nothing can now no longer constrain.

Natasha Trethewey Memorial Drivetranslated from English (United States) by Céline Leroy, Editions Points, September 2022, 216 p., 7 € 50

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Hands in Pockets: Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive