Shared experience: Poet Irène Mathieu explores identity and liberation in Grand Marronage

Irène Mathieu will read from her latest poetry book, Grand Marronage, at New Dominion Bookshop on Friday. Publicity Photo. Irène Mathieu will read from her latest poetry book, Grand Marronage, at New Dominion Bookshop on Friday. Publicity Photo.

Local poet and pediatrician Irène Mathieu has been a storyteller for as long as she can remember. Before she learned to write, she would observe her mother and narrate everything she did. “She found it super annoying,” Mathieu says with a laugh.

Mathieu, who lived in Charlottesville for parts of her childhood, returned last July to begin work at the University of Virginia Health System. Already a published poet with two books, this spring she published her third collection, Grand Marronage, with Switchback Books. The title comes from the name given to communities formed by newly free, formerly enslaved peoples in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean—a name she came across while reading about the history of Louisiana. The term “metaphorically and perfectly captured,” Mathieu says, the question of “how you can be fully free when you’re still living in a society that is built on inequity, racism, capitalism, and the patriarchy.”

In the poem “maron (circa 1735),” Mathieu employs magical realism to turn a girl who is fleeing enslavement into a fig tree to escape the men with guns and dogs that pursue her, as Daphne evaded Apollo in Greek mythology. “I was really interested in that idea of transformation,” Mathieu says, “and how can we as families or society or community transform into a more liberated form of ourselves? That includes not only our personal liberation but also the liberation of others.”

The book is composed of four sections and three voices: that of her grandmother, herself, and Harlem Renaissance writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Deeply grounded in the body, many of the poems explore how family history can manifest physically at the cellular level—not only in the case of trauma, but in strength, joy, love, and liberation, too.

While writing poems in her grandmother’s voice, Mathieu was hyper aware of the fact that she couldn’t write them without filtering her grandmother’s experience through her 21st-century lens. Those poems “are the marriage of my grandmother’s stories and my interpretation of them. I’m taking a huge poetic license,” she says. Writing poetry, rather than memoir, allowed her to get to the root of “the emotional truths of the stories my grandmother was telling me, or not telling me,” she says.

In imagining the life of Harlem renaissance writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson—who, like Mathieu’s family, also moved from New Orleans to the mid-Atlantic—Mathieu positions her in conversation with her family, their shared experience of race, gender, and capitalism paralleling each other. And through her own voice, Mathieu provides a contemporary perspective on the experience of a Black Creole American woman while exploring her ambivalence about those identifying terms, particularly the term American.

“In the United States, we look at things literally and figuratively in a very black and white way,” she says, “but reality and history are much more complicated than that.”

After our in-person interview, she reflects more on the experience of passing and colorism that she explores in Grand Marronage and writes in an email, “I am interested in how race is a slippery concept, yet so materially consequential.” She describes her grandmother as “a very light-skinned Creole woman” often mistaken for being “foreign” or European, while Mathieu herself is usually perceived as black. “I have siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles who are routinely assumed to be a wide variety of races, ethnicities, and nationalities. This reality is not special, though; in fact it’s a pretty common result of (North & South) American colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade,” she writes. 

“In Grand Marronage I focused on colorism and passing because so much of our experiences are defined by how others perceive us, and yet that perception is entirely subjective and a function of time, place, and culture.”

Another perception she challenges in the book is one generated by the myth of meritocracy, something she’s encountered in her own experience in higher education. She says people assume “you’re black and you made it, so everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” But, she says, “This is a capitalist country that is based on racialized capitalism. We have to have a nuance to understand the forces that create the circumstances of our lives and the lives of those we perceive as other.”

In this present moment in our culture, Mathieu sees writing and reading “as a way to get more clarity for a step toward action” that will contribute to a more equitable future. Through her writing, she asks her readers the same question she asks herself every day in her work, both as a poet, and as a pediatrician: “How can we take what we know about the past and present and then commit ourselves to greater action?”

What that action looks like is giving time, money, resources, “or some other material part of your life to the struggle for greater equity.” But, she adds, it’s also about learning the practice of taking up less space and time “if you belong to a group that has historically taken up most of the space and time.”

Through her own voice, Mathieu provides a contemporary perspective on the experience of a Black Creole American woman while exploring her ambivalence about those identifying terms, particularly the term American.