DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The novel "Go Set A Watchman" is just hitting bookstores, and reviewers tell us some readers might never forgive the author, Harper Lee. She wrote the classic, "To Kill A Mockingbird." Both books have the same characters, but "Watchman" takes place later in the 1950s with the civil rights movement gaining steam. Atticus Finch, the Alabama lawyer from "Mockingbird," is older now, and his views on race are more complicated. Same goes for his daughter Scout, who's now grown up and goes by Jean Louise. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey read an advanced copy of "Go Set A Watchman."
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Scout and Atticus both believe in a kind of limitation of African-Americans, that they are and were at that time a people in their infancy, the idea that we had to go slow because these people weren't really ready for it. They weren't really ready to vote. They weren't really ready to go to school with white children.
GREENE: Natasha Trethewey knows about life in the South. She grew up there at a time when her white father's marriage to her black mother was still illegal.
So what was your reaction when you put down the book and finished reading "Go Set A Watchman?"
TRETHEWEY: I feel like I had a swirl of emotions going on after putting it down. I was slightly disillusioned with the things I learned about Atticus because he'd come to represent a noble ideal. And I think that I had made of him, as did Scout, a kind of god, a kind of hero. After I walked away from it and got over, you know, my initial disillusionment with Atticus, I began to see him more as a flawed human being - not a god but someone who was nuanced. I think that when people want to simply say that he's a racist - really it's an easy way to just dismiss it - oh, we don't have to like him anymore because he's a racist - when the truth is it is quite possible for someone to believe in the letter of the law and to believe that everyone deserves a shot at justice, a fair trial, but also to hold some deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference. They do go hand in hand often.
GREENE: You say that this novel is compelling in its timeliness. What are you saying about society today?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I am saying that we still have to contend with those deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference. I mean, my most recent book of poems tries to deal with that and deal with it historically but also within my relationship with my white father - the idea that his white blood somehow improved me. And there's just subtle ways that this would be revealed even in a deeply loving relationship.
GREENE: But do you forgive your father for thinking something like that he's improving you because of his white blood?
TRETHEWEY: I don't know that I have to forgive him. I think what I do is understand the complexities that, you know, people are raised to think certain things, to believe. And it's hard to sort of shrug off the things that you learned the way you breathed.
GREENE: Natasha Trethewey, thanks so much for talking to us. We really appreciate it.
TRETHEWEY: Thank you.
GREENE: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.
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