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Mississippi Meditation: A Poet Looks 'Beyond Katrina.'

In a new memoir, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey revisits her own memories of the Gulf Coast region, and details how members of her family worked to rebuild their lives after the storm. She asks how the identity of the Gulf will be remembered — and how the region's stories will be told.


Other segments from the episode on August 18, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 18, 2010: Interview with Natasha Trethewey; Review of Yunte Huang's book "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American…


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Mississippi Meditation: A Poet Looks 'Beyond Katrina'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Pulitzer Prize-
winning poet Natasha Trethewey has been thinking of the hurricane's aftermath
on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she spent much of her childhood, and where
her - part of her family still lives.

And she's been thinking of the hurricane's aftermath on her family. Her brother
spent a year in prison. Her grandmother sheltered from the storm in a public
school and was never able to return home. Her house was unlivable after
Katrina, and she was too frail, disoriented and undernourished after the storm
to continue living alone.

Natasha Trethewey moved her grandmother to a nursing home near her when she was
teaching at Duke University, and then to Atlanta, where Trethewey is a
professor at Emory University.

Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Many of the poems
were about growing up biracial in Mississippi and Georgia. Her mother was
African-American, her father is white. When they divorced, Trethewey lived were
mother and, eventually, a stepfather and her younger brother Joe. After her
mother and stepfather divorced, her stepfather murdered her mother.

Trethewey's new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi
Gulf Coast."

Natasha Trethewey, welcome back to FRESH AIR. After your grandmother died in
her 90s, you brought her back to her hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, and had
her buried at her church. How long after Katrina was this?

Professor NATASHA TRETHEWEY (Emory University; Author, "Beyond Katrina"): This
was in 2008, three years after Katrina.

GROSS: What state was the church in?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: The church was still in the process of rebuilding. They
weren't using the sanctuary at the time. And so her service had to take place
in a small auxiliary building where they often served food, a very low-
ceilinged room that was filled up with whatever they were able to salvage from
the main sanctuary, so a few pews, some folding chairs. I think they even had a
kind of small pulpit to use for the minister.

But the windows all around the sanctuary, the high windows, were still blown
out and some boarded up. And so if you were to have driven by it, you would not
have though that anything - any services were ever taking place in this

GROSS: How did it feel to bring your grandmother back to a place that was still
in such a place of - such a state of chaos and disrepair?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: It made me feel like Katrina wasn't over, that for the people
there and the people connected to those people, it was still going on, that
recovery was taking such a long time. And there was something sort of sad and
homely about having to have her final home-going service in that little room
rather than in the beautiful sanctuary for which she had sewn the draperies of
the baptismal font, the same place that my mother was memorialized.

GROSS: And to bring her body to a place that had been partially destroyed.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Right.

GROSS: You know, it's death and destruction in one ceremony.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Mm-hmm. And even the stranger feeling of not getting to get
her back there even whole. I know it sounds odd, but my grandmother had an
amputation right before her death. And so she went back without her leg.

GROSS: Did she have diabetes?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: She didn't, which is the strange thing. She didn't have
diabetes at all. She just got – she had really poor circulation, perhaps from
having sat as a drapery seamstress all that time. And she got a wound on her
ankle that wouldn't heal, which is kind of like what it feels like on the coast
right now.

GROSS: So when you brought your grandma back to Gulfport, Mississippi, her
hometown, where you had lived, as well, it was - it just seems like the
intersection of so many things that had gone wrong in your family's life since
the storm - you know, your grandmother had to die away from her home. The
church that she was buried in, in her hometown, was still partially destroyed.
And your brother had recently been in prison, and he was allowed out to come
view his grandmother, but that was it. He wasn't really allowed to speak with
you or your husband or his child or his girlfriend.

So I'd like to talk a little bit about what happened to your brother and how
Katrina changed his life.

In the year leading up to Katrina, he'd started to repair rental properties
that your great uncle used to own. What were these properties?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: They were several little lots that held shotgun houses, really
small shacks that were so tiny that, often, the bathtub was in the kitchen. But
they were the kinds of homes that low-income people on the coast could afford.

They rented right up until the storm for about $230 to $250 a month, and we'd
had tenants there who'd been there for perhaps 30 years.

GROSS: And then your brother ended up working on them, repairing them. What was
his relationship to these homes?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, in the months leading up to the storm, my brother
finally began to take over this family business. We'd been hoping for years
that he would. My grandmother was getting too old to be able to handle the
business of managing these properties and hiring out people to do repairs and
collecting rent. So my brother began to do this.

And when he started doing it, he began to really fix them up, you know, fix the
roof and add new appliances and carpet and windows. So he was doing that kind
of work, and the tenants were really happy that he was fixing up these places
that had fallen into disrepair over the last few years.

So this is what he was doing, right up until the hurricane, and he invested a
great deal of his savings into being able to fix them up.

GROSS: And he was in the position of soon being able to see some profits from

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right. He had all but one of them, I think, rented.

GROSS: So what happened after Katrina? Were the homes destroyed?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: They were damaged so badly that the tenants couldn't stay in
them. The buildings were really sort of falling down around them. And so they
had to leave.

And the buildings, at that point, were torn down by the city because they were
blighted. And if you can't afford at the moment to fix them up, then the city
will just tear them down and bill you for it.

GROSS: How much do they bill you for tearing down a house?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: A few thousand dollars.

GROSS: So instead of making him money, now your brother was really in debt,
because he was billed for all the homes that had to be torn down as a result of

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right. And then, of course, having to pay the taxes,
then, on the vacant land, just to try to hold on, at least, to the land.

GROSS: Okay. So tell us the story of how he was imprisoned.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that it was in a moment of profound despair that
my brother, when contacted by someone he'd known a long time and asked to
deliver a large amount of cocaine, agreed.

He did it. He made, he told me, about $4,000. And so when the person asked him
to do it, he did it again. So he must have done it a couple of times before
someone set him up. I think someone who was perhaps trying to make a deal for
himself told the police about Joe, and they were waiting for him.

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: And he was caught with four ounces of cocaine on him.

GROSS: And when was this?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, it happened in the spring of 2007, though he didn't tell
me about it then. He didn't tell me about it because that was the moment that
happy things were going on in my life, and he didn't want to ruin that.

GROSS: By happy things, I'm guessing you mean that's when you won the Pulitzer
Prize for Poetry.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right. So at the same time that I was winning the
prize, he was being arrested.

GROSS: So how did you find out?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He didn't tell me until a year later, when he was about to go
to trial, and his lawyer told him that if he didn't call me and ask me to come
down there and to speak on his behalf, that he might be in jail a very long

GROSS: Did you speak at his trial?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I did.

GROSS: What did you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, I tried to explain to the judge something about his
history. One of the main things I wanted her to know was how good a kid he is,
but how tragic his life had been and how different his life was from mine.

You know, I was older when we lost our mother, and I still had my own father.
But it was father, my stepfather, who killed our mother. So, at once he lost
both of his parents, and he was an 11-year-old boy when it happened.

And the morning that our mother was killed - my brothers had to live with this.
But he was waiting at the bus stop, and his father came and got him and took
his key and let himself into our apartment. And my brother recalls the last
thing my mother said to him, which was: Why did you let him in?

And Joe tried to tell her that wasn't the case, but because of that, I think
he's carried that burden of guilt. And then when he went to live with my
grandmother, a woman who loved him dearly but could not look at him without
seeing the face of the man who killed her daughter, and so it made their
relationship very strained. But that's the house he had to grow up in when he
lost his parents.

GROSS: We talked about this on your previous visit to FRESH AIR because you'd
written a book of poems about your mother's murder, and your stepfather had
abused your mother, and then I think it was right after you got out of high
school that he murdered her. He shot her twice, in the head and in the neck.


GROSS: So I guess you...

Prof. TRETHEWEY: My brother was there to see that.

GROSS: He actually witnessed it.


GROSS: And then felt guilty because your father - your stepfather had taken
your brother's key to get into the house because his - your stepfather tried to
kill your mother once before. So she didn't him anywhere near her. They were

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right.

GROSS: So, yeah, it's so interesting to think about how your family history and
your brother's family history compare. I mean, your parents, when you were
born, it was an interracial marriage: your mother African-American, your father
white. Your father was - is a poet and professor. Your mother, at the time, was
a social worker.


GROSS: And I don't know what your stepfather did for a living.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He was a Vietnam veteran, and he went to technical college,
and so had a business as a repairman, air conditioning and cooling systems. And
he also worked as a maintenance man for a facility for kids who were in

GROSS: Oh. So, you know, your brother grew up in a home where his mother was
abused. By the time she was abused, you were a little older, and you'd already
had some stability in your life. I guess he really never knew what that kind of
stability was like and what a safe home was like.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, actually, the funny thing about it is - and he tries to
address some of this in the letters that he wrote to me. Up until the moment
that my mother had to run away with him to get out of the house, he thought he
had a perfect life. He thought he had two parents who loved him and, you know,
a house in the suburbs, and he didn't want for anything.

He'd only had a glimpse of the way that his father could be angry or volatile,
just a very small glimpse. And he didn't really know that the abuse was taking

GROSS: Did you?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I did. You know, being older, I guess I was more aware, and I
could see what was going on. And I'd wake up in the middle of the night when he
would stay asleep and hear what was going on.

GROSS: And you protected your brother from that knowledge.


GROSS: How much older are you?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I'm seven years older.

GROSS: That's a lot.

My guest is Natasha Trethewey. Her new book is called "Beyond Katrina." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Natasha Trethewey, and she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf

When your brother was in prison, he wrote a poem...

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes, he did.

GROSS: ...which you reprint in the book. And I'd like you to read that poem.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I'd be happy to. The poem is called "Cycle."

(Reading) I am named after my father. He's named after his. No disrespect to my
grandfather resting. I pronounce my name Joel(ph) instead of Joel. I am nothing
like him. Although I am in prison, I'm not him.

GROSS: I like that poem. I like that, you know, I am not him. And I think you
must have been surprised that he wrote a poem. I was surprised. I don't know
him, but I mean, you're the professional poet. Were you surprised that he wrote
a poem in prison?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I was very surprised. He actually wrote a couple. That's the
only one that I print in the book, but he was writing letters and meditations
and poems when he was in prison. That one was particularly moving to me because
it had never occurred to me, and when I was thinking about my own grief and the
burden of this history that we share, that he was carrying the added burden of
being named the same name as the man who murdered our mother.

GROSS: You wrote a poem about your brother leaving prison. It's called
"Benediction." I'd like you to read that for us.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes, I'd be happy to.

(Reading) "Benediction." I thought that when I saw my brother walking through
the gates of the prison, he would look like a man entering his life, and he
did. He carried a small bag, holding it away from his body, as if he would not
touch it, or that it weighed almost nothing.

The clothes he wore seemed to belong to someone else, like hand-me-downs given
a child who will one day grow into them. Behind him at the fence, the inmates
were waving, someone saying all right now. And then my brother was walking
toward us, a few awkward steps at first, until he got it, how to hold up the
too-big pants with one hand, and in the other, carry everything else he had.

GROSS: Was there anything that helped your brother get through his time in

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, the thing that really helped him get through was that he
had a kind of faith in justice. I mean, my brother's not a religious person,
really, either, but he could have faith in human beings to do the just thing.

He also told me that he got through by writing, knowing that he was
contributing to this project, that his words would matter, and his story.

GROSS: To what project, your book?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right.

GROSS: Is that why he wrote?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I told him that I was working on the book, and that I needed
to know as much about his experience as I could. And so he started writing some
things that he thought would be useful for me, but then, because he was doing
that, he started writing these other things, as well, like poetry, that he did
not think would have anything to do with what I was writing.

And he didn't know that – nor did I, at the time, that I would use anything
directly written by him. So once he got into the habit of trying to write
things to me about his past or what he remembered of our family from when he
was growing up, he also, on the other hand, started writing poems and doing
things for himself that helped to get him through. And, of course, they became
things that I do use in the book.

GROSS: So it's nice that this book was kind of a collaborative project with
your brother, even though you were physically separated.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: Is he still writing?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He is still writing. He was given a lovely journal from a good
friend of mine as a get-out-of-prison gift, and so since then, he's been
writing his thoughts in it. And I'm trying to encourage him to, you know, maybe
let some of us see what he's writing. But he hasn't done that yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. What is he doing now?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He is looking for work, seeing his parole officer, taking
classes at the community college toward his GED. It's been hard for him to find
work. You know, he's got to check the box that says he was a convicted felon.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
book is called "Beyond Katrina." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pulitzer Prize-winning
poet Natasha Trethewey. Her new book of poetry and prose is called "Beyond
Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast." It's about the aftermath
of the hurricane on her family's home town and on her family.

Her younger brother, Joe lost all of his sources of income after the hurricane.
In return for $4,000, he agreed to transport and deliver several ounces of
cocaine for someone he knew for a long time. Then he did it again and ended up
spending over a year in prison. He kept his arrest a secret from her until he
was ready to come to trial.

During the first year that you were a Pulitzer Prize winner and you were
getting, you know, more attention than you were used to, once you found out
about your brother's incarceration did you try to like, keep that quiet while
being interviewed? Did you try not to call attention to it?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, I did. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's what they told me. And once I felt a little freer, that
I didn't have to explain over and over again what a good guy he is and that he
hadn't had this happen and this happen and this happen he never would've done
this. But it was really difficult. I even think he worried about it. And I
think he's so happy and so relieved now that it's not a secret, that the story
is out, that people already know before they ever meet him, so that he doesn't
have to try to, you know, skirt around any details of his life or what he -
when people ask him what do you do or, you know, that kind of thing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet
Natasha Trethewey and her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on
the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

I'm just thinking that at the same time you won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry
in 2007, your brother was arrested for carrying cocaine - carrying it for
somebody else, but carrying it. And it's a kind of thing where like it's so
parallel that you wouldn't write that in a story because it would seem

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Right.

GROSS: I just wonder what you make of the simultaneity or near simultaneity of
that, and what it has to say about your lives.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, oddly enough, before I knew about that, I kept thinking
about another bit of simultaneity, and that was that 10 days shy of my mother's
41st birthday she was murdered. And 10 days shy of my 41st birthday I won the
Pulitzer. So I was very mindful of that strange coincidence that, you know, in
this point in both of our lives this is I what we've come to. So a year later,
when I found out that my brother had gotten arrested, it was in many ways,
another ripple or echo of this family story.

I mean, you know, people think of prison as social death. So whereas my mother
was literally dead, my brother was about to enter into a kind of social death
at the exact moment that I was having a resurrection of sorts. And I am the
kind of person that's always sort of putting these things together and
attaching meaning and extracting things from them, so this was so huge in my
mind because, you know, my name is Natasha, which means, you know, it's the
diminutive in Russian of Natalia, which mean Christmas child but it's also the
diminutive of Anastasia, from the Greek, which means resurrection. And so there
I was seeing myself as the resurrection child and, you know, my mother and my
brother, quite the opposite of that.

You're right when you say, you know, if you were to write it, it would seem too
contrived and yet, indeed, it seems to have been a pattern already in my life.

GROSS: So does it make you guilty that you got the Pulitzer at exactly the time
in your life that your mother was murdered and you got the Pulitzer at the same
time your brother was arrested? Do you feel like it's just, you know, unfair
that like, I'm not even sure...

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I think I do feel a good measure of guilt. I've carried with
me a lot of survivor's guilt, I think, and the coincidence of what happened to
me before my 41st birthday and mother's 41st birthday really highlights that
for me. And with my brother, I think I, I definitely feel that. It seems so
unfair to me that you could come from the same household and yet have such
dramatically different lives.

GROSS: But you didn't quite come from the same household.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: No, it's true. We didn't. I know - that's right. I guess I
feel guilty that I couldn't protect from it. When she died, you know, because I
was seven years older than him, my brother began to look to me as a kind of a
surrogate mother. I was the one that he clung to in that way. And yet, I
couldn't mother him or protect him in the way in which I could have. And when
he was in prison, I think that was really so difficult and yet, you know, I'm
always looking back at the failures. And for me, one of my failures during that
time, was the kind of responses that I gave to him.

I mean my brother was writing to me. He would call and, you know, I would never
miss a phone call. I'd do everything I can - I could to be there for a phone
call, if he needed anything I would send it. You know, along with his
girlfriend Aisha, I worked tirelessly calling and emailing the commissioner of
prisons in the state of Mississippi and other people in the office, you know,
to get my brother released and to have him moved to the facility we wanted him
to be in so that he could be close to family. All that kind of leg work, you
know, I was willing to do. But what I never once did was write him a letter.
And so...

GROSS: That seems so odd. I mean you're a writer.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I know.

GROSS: He started writing when he was in prison. Why didn't you write him?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Terry, I do not know. And once it hit me, it felt like the
worst betrayal ever. And one of the first things I did when he was out was to
sit him down and apologize for it. And he, you know, not once when he was there
did he, you know, ask me to. And I know now that it probably hurt him deeply
and I don't know why it didn't occur to me. It didn't occur to me at all.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won a
Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for poetry. Her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A
Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet
Natasha Trethewey and her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on
the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

You grew up fearing hurricanes. You were three when Hurricane Camille hit the
Gulf Coast and that was a very destructive hurricane, though not as destructive
as Katrina. What are your memories as a three-year-old of Camille?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: What I remember and I think I remember this, you know,
sometimes we have memories that are given to us because the stories have been
told so often in families. But it seems so vivid to me the storm hitting us and
rain pouring in through the roof and my mother and father and grandmother and
uncle running from room to room trying to catch as much water as possible with
pots and the hurricane lamps lit. My mother and grandmother, sort of terrified
and praying out loud as they rain through the hallways. And then I remember
just sort of seeing the house the next day and the destruction at the church
that was across the street.

GROSS: You know, you describe in your book what it was like as a child every
year to see, to turn on the TV and see footage of Hurricane Camille and how
frightening it was to you. And it made me think about all the children growing
up now in the Gulf, who for the last five years, you know, first they witness
Katrina and then every year they watch it again on television.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And how disturbing that must be to relive it every year.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yeah. You know, it's as if that what is supposed to keep you
safe is this imagery that you have to look at again and again. And what I've
been wondering is, if the children of Katrina will respond differently to the
threat of natural disaster than those of us who were the children of Camille. I
mean so many people who managed to ride out Camille and with their homes, for
the most part, intact, had a kind of fearlessness when Katrina was bearing
down. You know, my grandmother was one of them, thinking that Camille was the
worst thing that could've happened to us, so why be afraid of this hurricane
that's coming? And yet, it was worse.

GROSS: You know, in your book, "Beyond Katrina," you write that, you know, your
grandmother was a God-fearing woman and when Hurricane Camille destroyed the
church across the street but only partially destroyed your grandmother's home,
she took that as a message - what was the message from God that she

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, she felt that she had been spared and having been
spared, had a greater call to duty. And so began to do as much as she could for
the church. For example, making the draperies, these huge red velvet draperies
for the baptismal font. She also allowed the church to park its bus in her
driveway. The church didn't have its own driveway. She became even more devoted
because she thought she had been spared.

GROSS: Is that the church she was buried in?


GROSS: You describe yourself as not a religious person. But do you ever wish
that you could have religion like your grandmother did and therefore, find some
kind of holy meaning in the most horrible things that have happened?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I think, you know, she had such a faith and I understood it as
a great comfort to her. And there are times that I think that I wish I had such
a comfort.

I remember when she was being remembered at her service, the preacher looking
directly at me and saying, grieve not as others grieve. He was sermonizing
about how the faithful don't have the same kind of grief, because they know
that there is something else. And so I felt indicted as he looked at me and
said grieve not as others grieve, as if he was pointing to me and saying, I
know that you are not the faithful and because of that you have a different
kind of grief, the wrong kind.

GROSS: And were you changed by that at all?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Oh, I was angry.

GROSS: Angry at him for making you feel that way when you were grieving.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes. I...

GROSS: As if there were a wrong kind of grief.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I think I wanted remembrance of her and I wanted comfort. I
mean, I think funeral services are for the living in some ways. They are to
remember the dead, but in the face of the living, beloved. And so I didn't feel

GROSS: Not to make things too pat, but I think by writing poetry you're kind of
extracting meaning from things.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Oh, I think so. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TRETHEWEY: ...there's a poem in which I even talk about something that's
a kind of faith. I think poetry is always a kind of faith. It is the kind that
I have. It is what can offer solace, meaning, but also makes sense of even this
liturgical language in a secular way that allows me to understand these events.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey, I really wish the best to you and to your brother.
And thank you very much for speaking to us and for reading some of your poetry.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Thank you, Terry. It was good to talk to you.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey's new book of prose and poetry is called "Beyond
Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

You can hear her read another poem and you can read an excerpt of her book on
our website,

Coming up, the movies made this character one of the most recognizable
detectives of all times.

(Soundbite of movie, "Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo")

Mr. WARNER OLAND (Actor): (as Charlie Chan) In future remember, tongue often
hang men quicker than rope.

GROSS: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new cultural history of Charlie
Chan. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Giving 'Charlie Chan' A Second Chance


Like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Sam Spade, Charlie Chan is one of the
immortal detectives in fiction. But unlike those other investigators, Chan,
especially in recent decades, is a figure who stirred up discomfort, even anger
among audiences. A new book about Charlie Chan explores the tangled history and
meaning of the Chinese super sleuth.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Depending on your cultural politics, you'll find the
following film clip either charming or wince-making. It's a scene from the 1934
film "Charlie Chan in London." Our venerable detective is being congratulated
by a British official for his cleverness in discovering the true identity of a
dastardly criminal.

(Soundbite of movie, "Charlie Chan in London")

Mr. DAVID TORRENCE (Actor): (as Sir Lionel Bashford) The British government,
Mr. Chan, is therefore, very deeply indebted to you.

Mr. OLAND: (as Charlie Chan) Much honored to be of humble servant to British

Mr. TORRENCE: (as Sir Lionel Bashford) It's remarkable, Mr. Chan, how you ever
suspected Barstow. He puts up an excellent front.

Mr. OLAND: (as Charlie Chan) The front seldom tell truth. To know occupants of
house, always look in backyard.

Mr. TORRENCE: (as Sir Lionel Bashford) Provided there is one.

Mr. OLAND: (as Charlie Chan) Excuse. Every front has back and little things
tell big story.

CORRIGAN: The actor who played Charlie Chan in that and 40 other films was
Warner Oland. Like Sidney Toler, the actor who succeeded him in the role, Oland
was Caucasian — Swedish, in fact. But, to Hollywood, Oland looked vaguely
Asiatic. To play Chan, Oland merely brushed his eyebrows up and had a few
drinks to make his speech more halting and to put a grin on his face — like the
perpetually congenial Chinese sleuth. Offensive, right?

But, before we condemn Oland's yellowface incarnation of Charlie Chan, consider
this next curious bit of film history: In 1933, Oland made a trip to Shanghai,
where he was celebrated by movie audiences there for bringing to life the first
positive Chinese character in American film. After all, compared to the venal
Dr. Fu Manchu, whom Oland had also played in the movies, Chan was a hero. The
nascent Chinese film industry then got busy making a series of homegrown
Charlie Chan movies. According to contemporary accounts, the Chinese actor who
played Chan scrupulously copied the white Oland's screen Chinese mannerisms and
speech. Cultural cross-pollination at work at its most endearing — or

That film anecdote appears in Yunte Huang's fascinating and sometimes maddening
new work of cultural history called, simply, "Charlie Chan." Huang was born in
China and is now a professor of English here. This is his first book intended
to appeal to a popular audience. It reads as though it were composed by Charlie
Chan's number one son, frenetically dashing off in a hundred directions all at
once - some illuminating, some just plain gee pop loony.

Setting out to investigate the vexed meaning and legacy of the figure of
Charlie Chan, Huang also explores, among other subjects, the history of Chinese
immigration to America, the career of Clarence Darrow, sandalwood and sugar
cane production in the Hawaiian Islands, the history of aphorisms in English
beginning with Benjamin Franklin, and, finally, his own immigration saga from
student in Beijing, to owner of a Chinese takeout joint in Alabama, to

But Charlie Chan is such a marvelous and controversial figure that the subject
alone more than makes up for any infelicities in Huang's style. One of the real
finds this book presents is the tale of Chan's real-life counterpart, Chang
Apana, the heretofore forgotten Chinese-American detective who was the
inspiration for the six Charlie Chan novels that first began appearing in 1925,
written by yet another white guy, Earl Derr Biggers.

Apana joined the Honolulu Police Force in 1898. Standing all of a wiry five
feet tall, Apana arrested gamblers, opium addicts and escaped lepers, using a
leather bullwhip that he made himself. As Huang chronicles, though, Apana's
famous bullwhip was useless against the anti-Asian racism that prevailed within
the police force and society of his time.

The suspicion that Charlie Chan himself is nothing but a racist stereotype has
led many contemporary Asian-American critics to dismiss him as a yellow Uncle
Tom and helped precipitate the great Chan ban of the old movies from TV network
schedules. Huang, however, loves Charlie Chan and sees in him something more
empowering: a Chinese incarnation of the American trickster or con artist
figure. Huang says, he reminds me of Monkey King. In Chinese folk myth, Monkey
King is an invisible trickster who hides his weapon in his ear.

Charlie Chan is that Monkey King, concealing his aphoristic barbs inside his
tummy. Huang's mishmash book, with its profusion of Chan material, will
certainly complicate, not quell, the debate over Chan's legacy. But, as the
great detective himself said: Mind, like parachute, only function when open.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His
Rendezvous with American History" by Yunte Huang.

You can read an excerpt on our website,, where you can also
download podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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