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Anisfield-Wolf: Natasha Trethewey Shares Love And Loss In 'Memorial Drive'

"Memorial Drive" by Natasha Trethewey [Nancy Crampton]
Book cover and photo of Natasha Trethewey

In “Memorial Drive,” Natasha Trethewey wrote about her “wound that never heals.”

The two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner shared memories of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who died at age 40 at the hands of her ex-husband. Trethewey was only 19 when her mother was killed outside her Georgia home in 1985.

“The impact both of her amazing resilience, her fierce love for me all of her life, as well as her death, that is what I've carried with me into becoming who I am,” Trethewey said. “I can't imagine who I'd be without that, without both the influence of her life and the impact that her death had on me.”

Trethewey has written several collections of poetry and teaches at Northwestern University. Earlier this year, she was named one of the non-fiction winners of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, a Cleveland-based prize for writers who aid in understanding racism and diversity. Trethewey said she was compelled to write about her mother in "Memorial Drive"  in order "to rescue her story from the oblivion of the afterthought or the footnote” in stories about her own life.

Trethewey also detailed racism in her mother’s life throughout the memoir, from her parents having to elope in Ohio due to bans on interracial marriage in the South to her mother being ushered to the “colored” floor of the hospital to give birth to Trethewey on Confederate Memorial Day in Mississippi.

Trethewey said she too witnessed the everyday racism growing up.

“People around us, white people, when we went places would respond to me and my parents,” she said.

Trethewey’s mother and father divorced, and she and her mother moved to Georgia in 1972. Her mother remarried and raised a son with her second husband. After years of abuse, she left her second husband, which he refused to accept.  

In “Memorial Drive,” Trethewey included the transcript from her mother’s phone conversation with her former husband the day before he killed her. She had recorded the call in order to get an arrest warrant for the threats he was making on her life.

“I wanted to let you see and hear for yourself, to hear in her own words, all of her strength and resilience and resolve, her determination to live life the way she wanted to, not at the hands of an abuser,” Trethewey said.

In the recorded conversation with her ex-husband, Gwendolyn receives an ultimatum: give him another chance or die.

When Gwendolyn asked him if he had considered what hurting her would do to her daughter and their son, he said: “It will probably be with them the rest of their lives, but I think they will adjust to it. They will have to. And then, if they don’t, you could be as much to blame as I would be.”   

“He gave her no choice,” Trethewey said. “He kept saying, you know, ‘Here's your choice, come back to me or die,’ which, of course, is no choice. But she was not willing to go back.”

From a chance encounter in Georgia a few years ago, Trethewey gained access to her mother’s records before they were purged. A police officer who responded to the scene of her mother’s murder recognized her decades later in a restaurant and offered to get her the records.

“I put myself back in that proximity, a place that I sort of had vowed never to go back to, but because I was there this could happen,” she said.

Trethewey is working on a new book of poetry that brings her back to another familiar place. 

“It is returning me to my native geography, to my Mississippi with all of its myriad contradictions, its terrible beauty and its terrible, terrible history,” she said. “It's, I always joke, a place that keeps on giving. I don't think that I can ever exhaust the wellspring that is my native land.”

Get to know more of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners Thursdays in August during the "Sound of Ideas" on WCPN Ideastream Public Media. Celebrate all of this year's winners in a TV special airing Sept. 14, 9 p.m., on WVIZ. 


Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.