“She will do whatever she wants.”
These words, spoken by Natasha Trethewey’s mother to her abusive stepfather decades before Trethewey became a Pulitzer Prize-winner and U.S. Poet Laureate, were a turning point, of sorts, in her trajectory to become a writer who would turn pain into poetry.
“I've replayed the scene in my head countless times,” Trethewey said. “‘She will do whatever she wants.’ Even now I hear in my mother's voice her measured restraint, the origins of my own. When I think of that scene, I'm reminded again of the moment in ‘Black Boy’ when Richard Wright declares he wants to be a writer and what it means to have someone with a kind of dominion over you, try to diminish you by telling you what you cannot do or be.”
Trethewey shared this and other reflections detailing the origins of her writing during a meditation Thursday (Jan.19). Titled “Why I Write,” the presentation and Q & A that followed served as the kick-off to Walk the Walk Week 2023. Held in Notre Dame’s McKenna Hall, the space was full with students, faculty and staff, community members and aspiring writers.
Although the personal traumas of her life - the prejudice facing her parent’s interracial marriage, the systemic racism in her Mississippi hometown, and the murder of her mother by her abuser - serve as consistent themes for her writing, Trethewey delivered a poignant message to the crowd: We are all threatened by ignorance in our daily lives, especially those most impacted by systemic forms of oppression.
“One needs resilience to push back against that, but one also needs a really good education, too…Robert Frost, in his essay ‘Education by Poetry,’ talks about the metaphorical nature of all language, and that if you don't understand metaphor, you're not safe anywhere, you're not safe in science, you're not safe in history, you're probably not safe in religion. That is one of the greatest tools, that understanding of metaphor, that we have to fight against ignorance and to create that sense of self that can push back against the received knowledge across centuries.”
Trethewey serves as 2022-23 artist-in-residence for the Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience, which promotes multiracial collaboration, qualitative and quantitative study methods and inclusive teaching.
In his welcome and introduction, University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., underscored the importance of the conversations that allow us to consider how we–both individually and collectively–can take an active role in making Notre Dame more inclusive.
“In just one semester so far on campus,” he said, “Professor Trethewey has helped us to shape and advance ongoing discussion of race, the arts and social justice at Notre Dame through class visits, poetry, reading and a public discussion on her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection ‘Native Guard.’ She has demonstrated the power of poetry and the arts to move us toward a more just and equitable society. In this same spirit, Walk the Walk Week is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what it means to be Notre Dame.”
And writing, Trethewey shared, is an avenue to “allow us to enter into things that seem unspeakable.” Whether through poetry, painting, or dance, authenticity from the artist themself invites us to have empathy beyond our own experiences.”
“The more real we are,” she said, “the more it will resonate.”
The University of Notre Dame’s eighth annual Walk the Walk Week, held Jan. 19 through Jan. 27, is a campus-wide series of events and discussions designed to invite reflection about diversity and inclusion at Notre Dame, in local communities and across the nation.
Trethewey is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir,” a book of nonfiction, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast” and five collections of poetry: “Monument: Poems New & Selected,” which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award; “Thrall”; “Native Guard,” for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; “Bellocq’s Ophelia”; and “Domestic Work,” which was selected by Rita Dove as the winner of the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet. She is also the editor of “The Essential Muriel Rukeyser,” “Best New Poets 2007: 50 Poems From Emerging Writers” and Best American Poetry.