Friday 29 January 2021


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Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey   {Reviewed by STELLA}
In Memorial Drive, Pulitzer Prize-winning US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey lays out the path to her mother’s death at the hands of a violent partner. Moving, compelling and insightful, the memoir is both raw and personal, as well as politically charged, revealing of a childhood in the South, her own and her mother’s. Opening with a dream, the poet’s use of language and imagination lead you into this story of tragedy and resolve. Gwendolyn Turnbough was born in New Orleans in1944. When her father, a naval officer never returned amid rumours of a new wife abroad, mother and daughter returned to Mississippi. A resourceful and strong-willed woman, Natasha’s grandmother brought her daughter up to push against the expectations of society and it was while Gwen was at college that she met her husband. It was the sixties, and despite coming of age in the Jim Crow era and the visible and real threat of the Ku Klux Klan, change seemed possible. Even when you have to marry in a different state. Moving to New Orleans so her father could study full-time, Gwen with a young child at home, felt isolated, and the racial prejudice they encountered as a mixed-race couple put pressure on their relationship. It wasn’t long until the couple parted and eventually divorced. Getting on her feet again, Gwen enrols to study social work and juggles motherhood, study and working nights. And she’s successful. At work, she meets the man who will become a life-changing figure in Natasha’s life—Joel Grimmett or, as Natasha nicknames him, Big Joe. At first things hum along, Gwen is doing well with her career and Joel seems happy to be part of the family. But something begins to sour—mixed with alcohol and a jealous streak underpinned by Joel’s need for power and control. Natasha describes the descent into tragedy, for her mother as well as herself. In Atlanta, there is a ring road, and as a form of psychological torture, Joel drives the young girl endlessly on it, threatening to leave her out there or never take her home. This road becomes a symbol of oppression for Natasha well into adulthood—a road she avoids most of her life. As her mother’s career blossoms and they move onwards and upwards in the world, their lives from the outside seem just fine. The reality is far from this and when Natasha, now in the fifth grade, overhears Gwen being beaten, the texture of the family changes. She knows, her mother knows, and so does Big Joe. Escaping into books and school-life can only last so long for Natasha, and as things get worse, Gwen finds a way out, but, unfortunately, the presence of Grimmett in their lives can not be erased, especially as his paranoia and sense of entitlement increases. The memoir is mesmerising. Trethewey’s descriptions of the women in her family, the fraught racial issues over several decades, the political landscape and the societal norms that allowed a woman to be repeatedly beaten, and the inability of the law to protect her when it mattered the most are not just this daughter’s story but the story of many, but Natasha Tretheway’s honesty, care, and her willingness to look this tragedy full in the face reveals something remarkable—the ability to not only endure but push back against a system of repression, to take a victim and make them whole again—visible to the world and to herself.    

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