By Dwight Hobbes
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Natasha Trethewey visited the Twin Cities with a winning appearance at University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Theater on April 27. She is on tour supporting her newest book, a poignant blend of prose and poetry entitled Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (University of Georgia Press).
To many hereabouts, Hurricane Katrina likely didn’t mean much beyond a tragic, distant disaster that, upon leaving the news, pretty much was forgotten. Trethewey’s address brought it to heart with compelling immediacy as she related her personal connection to the catastrophe. She left Gulfport, Mississippi with her mother at age six, staying in touch with her kid brother Joe, a strong member of their small, close-knit community.
A skilled carpenter who owned a little land, Joe rented homes to friends and neighbors who, subsisting on low incomes, appreciated his keeping leases within financial reach and putting in long hours to maintain premises, including making extensive repairs to aged, longtime resident Miss Mary’s floors.
Being poor didn’t keep citizens from caring how they lived. You understood from Trethewey’s talk that this was one of those old-style Black neighborhoods where folk got along, looked out for one another and, in general, made the best they could out of life. Then, came catastrophe.
And the aftermath. Then, Joe redoubled his efforts. There was the cost of rebuilding. For which he applied to the state for a loan and was told he didn’t qualify, even as businesses outside the community received aid. Adding unconscionable insult to injury, she notes it’s documented that the Mississippi governor funneled funds earmarked to relieve residents.
In desperation, Joe finally threw up his hands, resorting to illegal means of revenue — and was imprisoned. The community, of course, languishes, crippled by acts of both God and man.
Beyond Katrina, from which Trethewey read, is no dry, academic study. A moving, brilliantly crafted and down-to-earth memoir, it’s a memorable, page-turning experience. It wields the soul-stirring impact of, say, Zora Neale Hurston’s historic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Only, this is real life.
A few hours before her appearance, Trethewey spoke with the MSR from her hotel room. Asked what America’s failure to adequately relieve those who suffered Hurricane Katrina’s wrath did to her perception of our society, she stated, “It’s complex. One might be upset with a particular administration’s handling of things. For example, in Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour, along with his administration, found ways to divert money — this has been reported on in the New York Times — from the poor people on the coast into business projects that were in the making before the hurricane hit. The handling of those kinds of things are about particular administrations.
“But, to me, it seems that American people on the whole were deeply sympathetic and empathetic toward the people and the struggles they were having on the Gulf Coast. I don’t believe it is the fault of the people so much that we have begun to forget a little bit about the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Trethewey added. “It has a lot to do with how the story has been [told in the media]. How we’ve seen much more about New Orleans because of the different nature of the tragedy there. That it was the man-made disaster of the levee break and the response after the levee breaks.
“I think that the people, Americans, when reminded, are deeply regretful for forgetting the storm and the tragedy happened there, too. There were people outside of New Orleans who suffered are still suffering.”
Among Natasha Trethewey’s credits are poetry collections Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin), which won the 2007 Pulitzer, Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf), and Domestic Work (Graywolf). Her awards include a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship for residency at the Bellagio Study Center the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prizes (2001, 2003, 2007) and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
She earned a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia, an M.A. in poetry from Hollins University (Virginia) and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (1995). She currently holds the Phyllis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University.
Next on her drawing board, Natasha Trethewey is “working to try to finish another collection of poems that, if all goes well, should be out next fall [in] 2012. The book is called Thrall. “It’s got a lot to do with my interest in Mexican [Olga] Costa paintings. Paintings of colonial Mexico in the 18th century that depicted the mixed-blood, mixed-race unions that were taking place in colony. And the offspring of those unions. That’s an interest of mine.”
Not surprising, when you look at Trethewey, who, at a glance, can easily be mistaken for White. “It’s rooted in my own personal history as the biracial child of a White father and a Black mother. It was fascinating to see those images represented.”
Meanwhile, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is a must-read by profoundly gifted author Natasha Trethewey.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.