March 31, 2008
Pulitzer winners’ stories part of
By Stacey jones
When Natasha Trethewey’s father gave her a copy of Rita Dove’s book of poems, “Thomas and Beulah,” shortly after her college graduation, she remembers thinking, “You can tell a story like this about your black parents and win a Pulitzer?” She dreamed of winning the Pulitzer Prize then, and eventually did, in 2007 for her book of poetry, “Native Guard.”
A New York Times reporter, Isabel Wilkerson received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for stories on a Chicago fourth-grader and the 1993 floods that devastated the Midwest. “You’re so busy doing the work, you can’t possibly stop to think of what it could mean,” she said. Wilkerson became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer in individual journalism.
The two Emory faculty sat down together for a special Women’s History Month “Telling Our Stories” program, sponsored by the Center for Women at Emory on March 20.
Wilkerson is now working on a book on the Great Migration, without which, she says, she would not have been born. Her father, a Virginia native, met her Rome, Ga.-bred mother when she left the Deep South to move to Washington, D.C. Besides the stories her mother told her, Wilkerson’s inspiration was John Steinbeck, who wrote about “the trek of people from one part of the country where they were not wanted to another part,” she said.
Wilkerson views the South from the point of view of an exile’s daughter, her fondness for the region no doubt formed by her mother’s longing for and memories of home. Trethewey, who affectionately called Wilkerson a “Southerner once removed,” expressed her own ambivalence about her birthplace, saying she feels in “psychological exile” here. “I’ve felt my whole life not fully a part of this place. There are still things all over the place that tell me it’s not fully mine,” she said.
Trethewey said she had an audience for her writing early on: Her stepfather read her diary. She then began addressing him directly through it — a bold dare.
It was the poetry that later won her acclaim that she held onto tightly. “As a freshman, I wrote poetry in response to my mother’s death,” she said. “For a long time poetry wasn’t something I was writing for the public.”
Wilkerson started writing short stories as a third-grader and kept them hidden so no one would read them, even carrying them around with her. She still holds onto her news stories until the last minute, she said, much to her editors’ chagrin. She admitted to finding herself drawn to “bigger picture, more enduring stories.” In researching her book on the Great Migration, she conducted some 1,500 interviews.
Both see their stories as part of the larger American fabric. Trethewey said that she’s motivated by the idea that “someday a little girl who’s not black is moved to tell a story because of something she read about black Americans.”
“It’s very important that the writing I’m doing isn’t seen as black history,” Wilkerson added, “but as a national phenomenon.” Appropriately enough, a white audience member mused afterwards that her father also formed part of the Great Migration. He moved from Tennessee to Detroit to find work, and there met and married her mother.