"The Past Is Never Dead" in Mississippi: History, Memory, and Repair in the Writings of Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward

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2021-08

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Abstract

“‘The Past Is Never Dead’ in Mississippi” is centered on the poetry and prose of Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward, twenty-first-century Black women writers whose writing focuses on the U.S. South, Mississippi in particular. The study shows the interrelatedness of historical time and geographical space, while rethinking ideas about historical narratives and their connection with fictional narratives. Across my chapters, I consider how their writing portrays concepts of memory and history and reimagines Southern histories and spaces through the reinvention of narrative and poetic forms. The study attempts to extend Patricia Yaeger’s arguments about the intersections of race and gender in U.S. Southern literature in her foundational book Dirt and Desire by focusing on twenty-first-century women writers and by illustrating how these writers have opened up new ways to think about geographical spaces through narrative temporality and poetic form. In so doing, the dissertation seeks to cement Farah Jasmine Griffin’s idea in Who Set You Flowin’? that the U.S. South is “a place to be redeemed,” and to highlight how these writers’ contributions add to Christina Sharpe’s theory of “wake work” in In the Wake. Each chapter makes these contributions through a focus on a different concept of historical representation. Chapter 1 uses Trethewey’s Native Guard to consider history as lyric, and Chapter 2 takes up Trethewey’s Monument to think about history as memorial. Chapter 3 uses Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina and Ward’s Salvage the Bones to think about history as weather and climate, and Chapter 4 takes up Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing to consider history as hauntology. As I show, Trethewey and Ward are reimagining Southern history to foster repair and to build toward a better future.

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Keywords

Jesmyn Ward, Natasha Trethewey, Mississippi, History, Memory, Repair

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