By Alexe van Beuren
Born in the Black Forest region of Germany, Annette Trefzer grew up in Munich knowing that she wanted to be a teacher.
“That was always my goal,” said Trefzer, a slight woman with warm brown eyes and impeccable English. But it wasn’t until her studies at the University of Hamburg that Trefzer realized that her interest in American contemporary culture would lead her overseas– and eventually, to Water Valley.
During a Southern literature course at her German university, Trefzer says, “I read Faulkner and he was difficult. I thought if I can figure out what this guy is talking about, and how he’s doing it, I will know something.”
That desire to understand Faulkner’s South led Trefzer to apply for a fellowship to study abroad. Trefzer applied to the schools she thought might aid her in understanding Faulkner, such as Vanderbilt, Tulane, and naturally, Ole Miss. Acceptance letter after acceptance letter rolled in, but Ole Miss rejected her application.
Disappointed but undeterred, Trefzer enrolled at Tulane University and spent the next seven years in New Orleans, earning a master’s degree, a doctorate, and meeting her husband, New Orleans native Mickey Howley.
“I loved New Orleans,” she tells me. “It was a very easy adjustment for someone from Europe.” But when Trefzer emerged from Tulane with her doctorate in 1992, she found herself in one of “the tightest academic job markets” in years. The couple accepted jobs in the capital of Turkey, where Trefzer spent a year teaching American literature – about as far away from Faulkner as she could get.
In 1994, Trefzer and Howley returned to the United States. After another year in their beloved New Orleans, Trefzer took a job in Durant, Okla., a place neither Trefzer or Howley had ever thought of living. But after years creating homes in different places, the two had come up with some creative ways to entertain themselves.
“They had a peanut memorial in the downtown,” Trefzer tells me. I nod, but I’m not sure where she’s heading. It turns out that when Trefzer and Howley talk about making their own fun, they’re quite literal: inspired by the peanut history of Durant, they collaborated on turning a Delta 1988 into a peanut car. They glued real peanuts onto the car, had peanut headrests, and peanut fins that lit up – and it was street-worthy.
“It was a major thing in town,” Trefzer smiles (because it was made of organic materials, the peanut car is no more).
Besides discovering an affinity for art with legumes, Trefzer also found that Durant is the capital of the Choctaw Nation – native Americans originally from Mississippi. It turns out that both the Chickasaws, who lived in this part of Mississippi, and the Choctaw, who were from farther south, ended up in south-central Oklahoma. While teaching at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Trefzer worked to strengthen the connection of the Native American students with the University and hosted three years of Native American Symposiums – all the while conscious of the Native Americans’ connection to Mississippi.
In 1999, over fifteen years after first wanting to come to Mississippi, Trefzer became a professor of contemporary American literature at Ole Miss. But rather than residing in Oxford, Trefzer and Howley were drawn to Water Valley because of the small-town atmosphere “and the community life that it promised.”
They haven’t been disappointed.
“Water Valley has an open community to people who are not from here,” Trefzer says. “That’s what I sensed, that’s what I experienced, and that’s what I like about it.”
In the seven years since she moved here, Trefzer began and just published a book called “Disturbing Indians: the Archeology of Southern Fiction.” It’s a book she could not have written without being a foreigner with a love of southern literature, along with what she learned about Native Americans during her time in Oklahoma – yet another example of Trefzer using the places she’s ended up to create something she would have never otherwise thought of.
Annette Trefzer has traveled a long and winding road to end up in this part of Mississippi. And now that she’s here, maybe – just maybe – she’ll begin working on a watermelon car.