Review | Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,
by Natasha Trethewey
University of Georgia Press, 2010.
In Beyond Katrina, Natasha Trethewey has created a rare and important document, even an essential one. The book chronicles the devastation and aftermath in her home state of Mississippi of one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States, and she refracts her account through the lens of her memories of growing up in the predominantly poor and African–American city of North Gulfport. She also draws on her family’s experiences, particularly the poignant and ultimately wrenching story of her younger brother Joe who went to prison for selling drugs, his choices determined by the unrelenting financial pressures he felt as a native son in the devastating wake of the storm.
Trethewey returns to the book’s epigraph again and again, and for good and compelling reasons: “Where you came from is gone. Where you thought you were going to never was there. And where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” This quotation by Flannery O’Connor underscores Trethewey’s (and this community’s) rather precarious, even vertiginous condition in which everything she knows and remembers has been radically altered or threatened by the overwhelming forces of nature and the almost equally overwhelming socioeconomic forces of fellow human beings who have sought to turn North Gulf Port into a kind of nondescript colossus of casinos and restaurant chains after Katrina. The book weaves personal reminiscence, poetry, photographs, a handwritten letter and extensive factual research to present a quietly searing and layered narrative whose understated but insistent, even urgent, plea seems to be, This is how it was for us, and I don’t want anyone, especially me, to ever forget it. In this sense, Beyond Katrina is doing the bracing and utterly essential work of re–membering, of putting a world and its inhabitants back together again piece by piece and voice by voice toward some greater whole and coherence. Its consistent leitmotifs are home, love and laughter, loyalty to one’s own and even, perhaps especially, loyalty to oneself. She underscores this sense of self in an uncharacteristically fervent passage that breaks out of the usually even–keeled tonality of the book’s prose:
Everywhere I go during my journey, I feel the urge to weep not only for the residents of the coast but also for my former self: the destroyed public library is me as a girl, sitting on the floor, reading between the stacks; empty, debris–strewn downtown Gulfport is me at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—early 1970s—with my grandmother; is me listening to the sounds of shoes striking the polished tile floor of Hancock Bank, holding my grandmother’s hand, waiting for candy from the teller behind her wicket; me riding the elevator of the J.M. Salloum Building—the same elevator my grandmother operated in the thirties; me waiting in line at the Rialto movie theatre—gone for more years now than I can remember—where my mother also stood in line, at the back door, for the peanut gallery, the black section where my grandmother, still a girl, went on days designated colored only, clutching the coins she earned selling crabs; is me staring at my reflection in the glass at J.C. Penny’s as my mother calls, again and again, my name. I hear it distantly, as through water or buffeted by wind: Nostalgia.
The iteration of this same me forms the connective tissue that bonds the larger—and in this case tragic—events of history with the personal and minutely local. A childhood hand brushes a doorknob and laughing voices echo from the porch even as the forces of history run their ineluctable and, just as often, brutal course. Beyond Katrina is not a book for the faint of heart, a challenge which is perhaps its most redeeming hallmark and virtue. It is, rather, a book for the strong, loyal, and steadfast of heart—for those with the courage to assert that, no matter how one defines it, home is always and inexorably where the heart is. (Even if, tragically and paradoxically, that same heart no longer has a physical reference point upon which to hang or wrap its yearning and grief for what has been lost.) And though it’s Trethewey’s narrative, it’s her brother Joe, writing from a county jail, whose voice lingers after the last page is read. The painful but ultimately resilient life he and the people from his community embody resonates in this excerpt from one of those letters:
In some areas of the coast you can still see abandoned buildings, boarded up and spray–painted with the words We are here, We have a Gun, We will shoot. These are reminders of the crimes committed and the actions people took to protect their homes. Burglaries and looting became major problems. Police issued warnings that if anyone was caught committing these crimes, they would receive a mandatory five–year jail sentence. Thieves would prey on houses hoping that they were empty from people evacuating before the storm—businesses as well. Business owners began opening their stores and handing out items. I saw a local store owner crying, saying, “If we don’t give it to them, they will just take it.” Police started allowing people to take things from the stores as long as it was for survival—like food and water.
Through the mass of the crowd it was hard to tell who was taking things out of desperation and who out of ignorance. When I asked some of the people in my neighborhood what it was like for them—how did you survive?—they said:
“Man, the people here would be ok, we know how to survive under stressful times.” “We are used to making the best of what little we have. Joe, you know that.” And, “It’s the upperclass people who panicked most under these conditions. Besides the Bible warned us that this was gonna happen”
And so, yes, a terrible storm like Katrina did happen, and the impact of its aftermath persists to this day. Yet people like Natasha Trethewey and her brother Joe are somehow able to tell us about it in calm, unwavering voices that communicate perhaps the hardest and most radiant hope there is—the hope that despite all of the loss and the heartbreak, there remain unbreakable and immutable bonds that will prevail in the midst of the worst tragedies. And the people here bear these burdens for the rest of us, even if many are not aware of it.
Natasha Trethewey is the author of three collections of poetry: Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf Press, 2002), and Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000). A fourth poetry collection, Thrall, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in fall 2012. She is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.