Beyond Katrina: a narrative of narratives

For the second writing project, “Multimedia Me,” you will focus on a hybrid quality of autobiographical nonfiction that is evident in our next two texts, Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina and Momaday’s The Names. Both texts use elements other than the verbal prose that would be considered more traditional to autobiography; both incorporate photographs and various elements of poetic or lyrical writing into the autobiographical narrative.

The question you will take up for critical evaluation: do these other elements, these hybrid, multimedia qualities of nonfiction, work in the case of these texts? It may be something we are more familiar with in our multimedia age, but does it make sense for the autobiographical projects of these two authors? Why or why not?

For Trethewey, the initial question might be: is this an autobiography at all? There are elements here of personal narrative, the lyric essay, expository or journalistic reporting, an argument, memoir, biography, documentary, and of course, poetry. All of that might well fit under the larger category of autobiography–if we recognize that more recent work in autobiography has tended to pursue this sort of hybridization of genres and forms. One of the current terms for that is “lyric autobiography” or “lyric essay”: that is, nonfiction that has a personal or autobiographical focus, but also a poetic quality–if not actual poems, if not, as with Trethewey, made by a professional poet. Last year in this course I taught a book that fits this category as well, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine.

So, how to make sense of the lyrical (the poetic) within the autobiographical nonfiction, the more essay-like prose of this text. The subtitle suggests that this text is a “meditation”: to my ears, that suggestively highlights the ambiguity. Meditation suggests to me essayistic reflection and even argument; it also connotes something lyrical, a perspective that we can associate with a first-person poem. The word “narrative” offers another way at this ambiguity: it appears in some form more than 20 times in the text. “Narrative” is clearly a word, a concept, that the author is meditating. That makes it an element, it seems to me, of an argument. Her focus in key moments seems to be rhetorical–focusing our attention on a variety of ‘narratives’ that surround the Mississippi Gulf Coast and its legacy of natural disaster. A critical word I associate with this rhetoric of narrative is revision: this book seems to be written about a need to revise certain narratives. But this book is also a narrative, the making ¬†of its own narrative. The relevant word there is poetic–which means simply making. Trethewey makes or remakes or writes or rewrites the narrative in the process of focusing on the problem of narrative. Her poems, it seems, are part of her narrative of rebuilding. “This too is a story about a story” (11).

But how do you see the relationship between the poems and the prose narrative? Trethewey writes of “competing narratives” of memory and forgetting. Do the rhetorical and poetic narratives, as you read them compete or conflict? One way to think further about this complication of a narrative about narratives, of rhetoric and poetry. Consider this thought from Emerson: “You shall not speak ideal truth in prose uncontradicted; you may in verse” (“Poetry and Imagination”). The Irish poet Yeats has a version of that in a famous definition he offered about the difference between prose and poetry: We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; but out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.

So, does Beyond Katrina make an argument? Does the author make that argument in the prose or in the poetry or in some combination of the two?