Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966)
Trethewey's works forge a rich intersection between the historical and autobiographical. In poems that are polished, controlled, and often based on traditional forms, Trethewey grapples with the dualities and oppositions that define her personal history: black and white, native and outsider, rural and urban, the memorialized and the forgotten. The daughter of a black mother and a white father, Trethewey grew up in a South still segregated by custom, if not by law, and her life astride the color line has inspired her recovery of lost histories, public and private.
Life and Education
Although Trethewey has spent much of her life in Georgia, she maintains deep roots in her native Mississippi, where she was born on April 26, 1966, in her mother's hometown of Gulfport. Her parents, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a social worker, and Eric Trethewey, a poet and Canadian emigrant, met as students at Kentucky State College (later Kentucky State University) in Frankfort and later crossed the state line into Ohio to marry—a situation whose ironies and implications the poet deftly explores in "Miscegenation."
Trethewey's young adulthood was ruptured by violence and tragedy. In 1984 her mother divorced her second husband, Joel Grimmette; a year later, Grimmette shot his ex-wife to death. Nineteen-year-old Trethewey, who was finishing her freshman year at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, where she was an English major and a varsity cheerleader, turned to writing poetry to deal with her grief.
Trethewey completed her B.A. degree at UGA in 1989, and in 1991 she earned an M.A. degree in English and creative writing at Hollins College (later Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia, where she studied with her father, a professor there. By the time she earned her M.F.A. degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1995, Trethewey was starting to publish, and her work has since appeared in the country's most prestigious literary journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry in both 2000 and 2003.
Trethewey took her first teaching job as an assistant professor of English at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, in 1997. In 2001 she joined the faculty at Emory University, where she is a professor of English and the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry. In 2005-6 she served as the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Trethewey was the fourth African American poet, and UGA's first graduate outside of journalism, to win a Pulitzer Prize. In early 2008 she received the Mississippi Governor's Award for literary excellence, and in 2011 she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Mississippi named her state poet laureate in 2012.
Trethewey lives in Decatur with her husband, Brett Gadsden, a historian and assistant professor of African American studies at Emory.
Although Domestic Work began as Trethewey's homage to her maternal grandmother's lifelong labors, the embedding of personal particulars within a historical context transforms the work into a portrait of a generation, in poems with a distinct musicality. In "Three Photographs," one of several poems based on old photographs, the viewer is compelled to witness for those unable to speak for themselves: "The eyes of eight women / I don't know / stare out from this photograph / saying remember."
Trethewey mined her own experiences as a mixed-race woman for her second book, Bellocq's Ophelia (2002), based on E. J. Bellocq's early-twentieth-century photographs of prostitutes in the infamous Storyville District of New Orleans. Written mostly in the form of letters or diary entries by the imagined Ophelia, the poems envision her as an object caught in the monocle of a scrutinizing white male customer, as a subject framed in Bellocq's lens, and as a woman beginning to grasp her role in shaping her own identity. Winner of the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, Bellocq's Ophelia was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets' James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association.
At my mother's grave, ants streamed in
and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising
above her untended plot.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Believe me when I say
I've tried not to begrudge them
their industry, this reminder of what
I haven't done. Even now,
the mound is a blister on my heart,
a red and humming swarm.
As a monument not only for the forgotten soldiers but also for the poet's mother and for Trethewey's own conflicted relationship to the South, Native Guard exemplifies this writer's ambitious project to testify to "those stories often left to silence or oblivion, the gaps within the stories that we are told, both in the larger public historical records and in our family histories as well."
In 2010 the University of Georgia Press published Trethewey's Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a narrative chronicling the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 on her childhood home of Gulfport, as well as on the life of her family.
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, vol. 4, ed. Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey Jr. (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2005), s.v. "Trethewey, Natasha."
Pearl Amelia McHaney, "An Interview with Natasha Trethewey," Five Points: Journal of Literature and Art 11.3 (2007).
Charles Henry Rowell, "Inscriptive Restorations: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey," Callaloo 27.4 (2004).
Natasha Trethewey and Joshua Cogan, "Congregation," Virginia Quarterly Review (fall 2009): 140-61.
Kevin Young, ed., Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers (New York: Perennial, 2000).
Mindy Wilson, The Georgia Review
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.