Natasha Trethewey is hailed as one of the greatest contemporary American poets due to the nature of her reflections on race, historical erasure, family, memory, and the working class. Her poems convey a broadly recognizable expression of loss and touch a common human nerve in their search for the past. Though Mississippi is her birthplace, Trethewey received a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia in 1989 and became UGA's first graduate outside of journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. She is currently the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University, where she teaches in the Creative Writing department.
Trethewey was born to a white professor and a black social worker in Mississippi. This led her to question her identity at a young age; in her own words "as a child, I was acutely aware of people staring at me. I have been asked all my life, What are you? My mother was black, and my father is white."1The racial legacy of the South, ever present in Trethewey's childhood, remains existent and highlighted in her works. In one interview, she described her somewhat complicated views on growing up in the South; "I think perhaps if you're an African American writer, you always have a love-hate relationship with the South. And I love it, but I know it has secrets that need to be uncovered."2 In one poem, titled "Incident," from Native Guard, she recounts the night when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her family's yard:
It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.3
When Trethewey was six, her parents divorced. After her parents' divorce, Trethewey moved to Atlanta with her mother; several years later she would attend UGA.
Trethewey's works weave together stories from her own past and from the common past of the American people. In Native Guard, she preserves the story of a black Union Regiment guarding Confederate prisoners on Ship Island, Mississippi, working through the perspective of one of the soldiers. According to Trethewey, "for the sake of sanity, there is a lot of necessary forgetting. But the trick is to balance forgetting with necessary remembering, to avoid historical amnesia." 4 The desire to avoid this mistake remains present throughout her other works as well. Her most recent work, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, pays homage to her birthplace, Gulfport, Mississippi, and the post-hurricane predicaments of the people there.
Even though her first poetry collection was only printed in 2000, Trethewey has already won multiple awards for her work. In addition to the Pulitzer for Native Guard, Domestic Work won the 1999 Cave Canem poetry prize, a 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Bellocq's Ophelia received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association. Trethewey has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She also makes frequent contributions to publications such as The Southern Review. In 2008 she was named the Georgia Woman of the Year, placing her in the ranks with other winners such as former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, two-term Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, and former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears. Her upcoming book, Thrall, is scheduled for publication in 2012.
Natasha Trethewey’s latest volume of poetry, Thrall, was published in 2012. That same year Mississippi named her its official poet laureate, and the Librarian of Congress appointed her to serve as poet laureate of the United States.
The following titles by Natasha Trethewey may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:
Domestic Work.Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2000.
Bellocq's Ophelia. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2002.
Native Guard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf.Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Thrall.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.