Poet Natasha Tretheway on Having a Brother in Prison
As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Terry Gross at NPR’s Fresh Air has this affecting interview with poet Natasha Tretheway, whose new book is Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (UGA Press, 2010). Among other subjects, Tretheway reflects upon her brother’s year in a Mississippi prison after he was caught transporting 4 oz. cocaine for a friend in exchange for $4,000 (having lost all his sources of income and fallen into debt when the family rental property business went under after most of the houses were destroyed in the hurricane). The interview is worth listening to in full and hard to excerpt but here is one passage:
Prof. TRETHEWAY: … I worried very much about whether or not people would judge my brother for that. And even when I started writing this book, or writing at least the finishing, the second half when everything changed, when I found out that he was going to prison, I had a hard time writing it because I felt that I needed to explain to someone, to this imaginary reader, the entire story – from the moment he was born – so that people would empathize with him. And so that really kept me from being able to write for a long time.
I don’t worry about that as much now. I think that there are so many people who have difficult stories like this in families, and that people are not simply waiting to sit in judgment, but instead are open to trying – understand how people feel despair and pushed to make difficult decisions that may not be the best ones.
GROSS: So what convinced you to tell his story in your book?
Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, it took so long for me to be able to see that telling his story would be useful, not only to give voice to his own experience, but actually, as a way of allowing his story to speak for the countless people whose stories aren’t being told. My fear was that he would be judged and that people would simply think well, you know, this is a drug dealer, this is just who this guy is. And I even said, I said this to my agent and I said this to my editor, and finally, one of them said to me, you’re trying to convince people who can’t be convinced. And then the people who are going to think he’s just a drug dealer aren’t going to be changed by anything you have to say, nor are they going to read the book.