You Can Go Home Again, But You Might Not Like What You Find There
Beyond Katrina by Natasha Trethewey. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2010.
Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United States and Pulitzer Prize winner for her book of poems Native Guard, is a displaced person. And not because of Hurricane Katrina. But because her life, like those of so many Americans, is one shaped by uprooting, by diaspora, by reinvention of self. The first poem she completed for Native Guard, “Theories of Time and Space,” which also serves as the opening of Beyond Katrina, begins:
You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. ... (5)
When she wrote those lines she was speaking figuratively, introducing a collection that explores the roles of place and race and history and family and the clash of cultures in her home she had left behind to pursue a career as a poet and college professor. At the writing, she was positing home is never the same because we are not the same people we once were. But she explains in the prologue to Beyond Katrina: A Meditation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast that the words of the poem have since become quite literal for her, that it is also true that home is not home because events have altered the place and even the culture of the place -- sometimes beyond recognition. In effect, her poem has been revised by events -- by Katrina, of course, and perhaps even more so by the aftermath of the storm. This small book is big with ambition, big with implications that go far “beyond” being another narrative of the disastrous storm.
Of course, when we hear the word “Katrina” we immediately think of the flooded Ninth Ward and the boarded up houses with body counts spay painted on the front door. Beyond Katrina does document similar grisly details, though not in New Orleans, but down the coast in the Mississippi Gulf Coast communities also decimated by the storm. One of Trethewey’s goals is to provide voice for Gulf Coasters who survived to face a radically changed world or who, like her ninety-one year old grandmother, were forced to leave the coast after Katrina. As one woman Trethewey interviewed argues, “There’s a difference between a natural disaster and the man-made disaster of New Orleans.... Don’t forget about us.... We have suffered too” (56). Trethewey explains the woman’s motives: “Though she acknowledged that more attention has been given to New Orleans because of the travesty of the aftermath, her own need to inscribe a narrative into our national memory prevailed” (56). Among other things, Trethewey honors that need with this book.
Katrina, as central to the book as it is, is not really the point. Katrina is the starting point, it is a reason for Trethewey to return home and face her so radically altered home place, it is an axis around which so much more revolves. Trethewey, as her title hints, wants to take our perspectives to a much wider vista. This vista looks “beyond” Katrina back several generations into the past, examining the intersection of social forces--race, economics, Mississippi politics, and the changing “meanings” of coastal culture in the national consciousness, to name a few--upon the evolving communities where her family has lived since her great grandparents, “Eugenia McGee Dixon and Will Dixon ... moved to Gulfport ... just two years after construction of the deep-water port” (35) in the very early years of the twentieth century, ... “[leaving] the cotton fields of the delta behind them” (35). So, the view “beyond” includes Trethewey’s extended family, her “roots” and those of her brother Joe, who is the dedicatee of the book and a key character in the narrative and an emblem or embodiment of the confluence of the multiple social forces at work both before and after Katrina. He is a hard-working nephew who inherits his uncle’s successful community-centered real estate holdings. He is a father to a young daughter. After Katrina devastated the area and his business, he is a survivor who scrambles to do any work that comes to hand -- including searching the beaches for bodies and debris that would hinder the machines “reclaiming” the beaches for construction of new multi-million dollar casinos. Because “in the midst of all that devastation and loss ... with no money left from all the work he’d done on the houses before the storm, with taxes due on the vacant land and no buyers for the property, ... [he] made a desperate decision” (92), he is also a convict serving time in the state penitentiary for transporting cocaine.
These are dramatic stories that take us “beyond” the storm and into the lives of Trethewey’s family. But the book is not simply a family narrative. Trethewey also provides a collage of other voices from the region, the voices of others who have lost their homes, who have come newly to the area seeking new opportunities in the now booming casino world, who were successful small business men and community leaders but who cannot rebuild because of the ways federal reclamation moneys have been allocated and because of local ordinances that privilege new developers with big plans over small scale former local shop keepers. Mr Tims, a neighbor of Trethewey’s grandmother, is a case in point. He has run Tims’s Snowballs for decades, but, he says, “This time the city won’t let me rebuild my business the way I want to. This old shack that my snowball stand is in -- I can’t even tear it down to build a new one. If I tear it down, the city takes the land. I’m only here now because of the grandfather clause. If your business was here before a certain date, you can keep your property. But if you tear it down to do something else, it’s gone” (87).
Another way in which Beyond Katrina goes beyond Katrina -- and even beyond the history of place and community and family that Trethewey weaves together --is that, in Trethewey’s words, “There is a suggestion of both a narrative and a metanarrative -- the way she [Trethewey’s grandmother] both remembers and forgets, the erasures, and how intricately intertwined memory and forgetting are” (11). In short, this small big book is also a meditation on the ways stories -- remembered clearly and also distorted by faulty memory or by political spin -- shape our “truths,” whether on the personal level or the national. It is both an exploration of the ways identity and possibility are shaped by events and the ways that the meanings of events are shaped by the stories we tell about them. It is, then, about all of us, because it so skillfully represents particular people living through difficult specific disasters, both natural and man-made.
Reviewed by Michael McClure
Michael Francis McClure is an
Associate Professor of English at
Virginia State University.
One of the editors of NOLA DIASPORA,
he has also co-authored an apocalyptic novel, 2020, with Scott A. Leonard.
Their nom de plume is Frank McArthur.