The Heart and Soul of “Memphis” with Author Tara M. StringfellowEpisode 27
Acclaimed poet and author Tara M. Stringfellow joins Writing Black to give Writing Black listeners a glipse into her new book “Memphis,” which is about 3 generations of a Black family in the city of Memphis and one little girl that realizes she has the power to change the trajectory of her family. Maiysha and Tara discuss her journey from being an attorney, to becoming an poet, to being motivated to step into activism, to deciding to sit down and write her debut novel “Memphis. Tara also talks about her love for Memphis, how she wrote portions of the book in Cuba on the beach and more.
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[00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio is Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified.
Maiysha Kai [00:00:07] Hello and welcome to Writing Black. TheGrio’s podcast about all things Black and literary and wordy. And I am, as always, your host, Maiysha Kai, lifestyle editor of theGrio. Today we have a really special guest with what I consider to be a really special book. Tara M. Stringfellow is with us today with her acclaimed novel Memphis. Very exciting for me to have this conversation. I’m trying not to like, get too fangirl about it. This is Am I wrong? This is your debut, right, Tara?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:00:43] Yes. This is actually the first time I’ve ever written fiction. I’ve never written a short story. This is it. This was like that nice, fun hobby.
Maiysha Kai [00:00:54] A nice, fun hobby, she says, which is amazing to hear because we’re talking about a book that is, to date, a national bestseller. This has been picked as a Jenna book club pick on today. It has been called a rhapsodic hymn to Black women by the New York Times book review. So I would say nice first go out of the gate. Were you were you surprised by that response to this to this novel?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:01:27] Half of me says yes, and I’m still very surprised.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:30] You ain’t got to be modest. I will not judge you.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:01:32] But the other half of me is like I knew. I knew would be a hit. From when I see that I wrote the title.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:40] Okay.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:01:40] I said this is going be so good. Nobody ready for this that that, that I would chuckle like that. Like you laugh and write a paragraph. And I said, Oof.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:54] I love that. I love that. I love that story and I love where it fits in this moment in time, in every moment in time it captures because this is a narrative that spans several generations and 70 years. And, you know, let’s start at the beginning, really. I mean, what was the genesis of Memphis for you?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:02:15] You know, it was the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump had won.
Wolf Blitzer [00:02:21] Donald Trump wins the presidency.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:02:24] It was my birthday. I was devastated. And I honestly thought that us Black Lives Matter poets, as I consider myself, would be jailed for our writing. Would be put cages. Would be censored. And so I knew I felt that night a sense of urgency as an artist to write something that would stand the test of time even if I was killed for it. And so that is that’s what the book is. It’s my. It’s my final declaration of self in a country designed to enslave me.
Excerpt from Memphis [00:03:01] We going to make it, she thought, we going to make it. She locked the ’92 Chevy Astro van with her two children and one husky inside it. “Wait here.” Four brown eyes stared back, eyes that were hungry for an answer, for home. They reminded Mariam of a lost soldiers. She walked slowly toward the Exxon filling station. Hyperaware of her surroundings. The only Black woman for miles, she knew. A mountain ridge crested like a tsunami before her. A blue that would put any ocean to shame, she thought. Almost home, Meer. Almost home.
Maiysha Kai [00:03:49] That is a word and a half. And of course, you know, I think I love that you pointed out that you are also a poet because, I mean, you know, when you talk about writing and and just like the mediums of writing, I mean, one of the reasons I created this podcast is because I’m as a writer myself who writes across genres. I’m always interested in other writers, in their craft and how they arrive, where they arrive, and how they build the stories that they do. You know, Memphis is as much about a time and, you know, and a place, obviously a place as it is about politics and love and family and femaleness, you know, in the world. And I was so taken in by this novel, you know, again, I said, I don’t want to fangirl, but I’m going to have to say this thing. I read a lot of books. Obviously, it’s what I do. All right? And I, Albert, our producer, came back me up on this. I said to him, I said, Albert, this book is really, really like, incredible. Like, this is an incredible book. It’s like one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a while, and that is no shade to any of our other tremendous authors who come on this show. But when I say that it was because it’s very rare that I read a book that not only reminds me of why I first fell in love with fiction, right, but also reminded me of why I fell in love with Black female narratives. Because this is a book that for me reading it and this is the most ringing endorsement I can give to our listeners, that for me, reading it reminded me of the books that I fell in love with in my, I would say, my early adolescence. You know, like when you’re first getting turned on to like a Color Purple or For Colored Girls or, you know, one of my personal favorites, Sula or Women of Brewster Place, like all of these books. And I know I’m not the only one who’s made those comparisons. I’ve seen some of your other endorsements from other writers, and I think that they are very true. Like a lot of times, you know, we see these promo packages and we’re like, sure, you know, to our listeners it is it is worth the hype. And it’s a simple but interwoven tale.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:06:01] I don’t hear a question at all.
Maiysha Kai [00:06:01] There is no question, because I needed to declare I needed to declare my adoration for this book first. And I wanted to set that up that way. Because when people make those comparisons between this, your debut novel and some of those books that I just mentioned, do you still have that sense that that half of surprise, that half of, you know, yeah, I knew it. Or I mean, what was your aim when you when you set out to do it?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:06:32] I set out to write. You know, I wrote it with my dad, really, over COVID. He’s my first reader. He’s my first editor. I send him everything I write before I send it to my agent or my editor at Penguin Random House. Katie Nishimoto a brilliant woman, but he taught me everything I know about writing. And so it was very humbling to me to write it, to rewrite it, to edit it at a time in which I thought we might all die. Like, there was no vaccine. And and so I wrote it with all of me not knowing that the world would ever see it, or we would survive enough to get to read it. And so I’m very grateful and humbled by all of the acclaim and the attention it’s gotten. But it is so surreal still for me, because I wrote it in my daddy’s basement with like two pennies to rub together. And all of ya’ll keep talking about it.
Maiysha Kai [00:07:41] It’s on a mug. You know, I you know, listen, I love that. I love that that that origin story, because, you know, it really drives home the fact that when it comes to the writer and the page, whether, you know, the people who are listening right now, whether you’re aspiring to write or whether you just want to know how the sausage is made, you know, when it comes to like putting out these books, it is just is it can be just that simple. I also love that your father was a part of the crafting of this book because it’s such a female driven narrative. I mean, it really is. This is a firm in many ways a women’s story. And one of the questions I found myself wanting, you know, to ask while I was reading is I was like, wow, you know, is is the world more ready to read this book now than they were, say, when like The Color Purple came out? You know, like when Alice Walker got all that beef about this, like this man bashing, you know, this Black man bashing book. And, you know, men are not the heroes here in Memphis. I mean, you know, they’re not nobody is entirely a hero or a villain. And I love that, too. These are nuanced characters, but.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:08:47] I have to disagree with that.
Maiysha Kai [00:08:49] Well, please, please do. State your case, ma’am. This is your book.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:08:54] Myron is one hell of a hero.
Maiysha Kai [00:08:55] Okay.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:08:56] All he has ever done, and all Jax has ever really done to is to strive their best, to put their life on the line for a country and to provide for their families.
Maiysha Kai [00:09:12] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:09:13] And though in the most heroic of ways, they served overseas in wars that took and took and took from people all to come back and to build a life for their Black children. I don’t know greater love than that. So I’m going to have to disagree that there aren’t.
Maiysha Kai [00:09:32] I welcome it.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:09:33] Stanley is a male hero.
Maiysha Kai [00:09:36] Stanley is a male hero. He is. I will give you that. Yes. Yes, Myron. Myron, too. I would definitely say, Myron, too, you know, just, you know, we’re running out of characters. There’s a family tree here. But, yes.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:09:47] And of course, they’re villains in every story, but. I feel for Derek and or Uncle Bird and for Jax. And I don’t want folks to hate them. I want folks to hate the lack of opportunities that this country afforded those characters.
Maiysha Kai [00:10:09] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:10:10] That is why they are who they are. Because nobody gave a damn about that. Because they were Black boys into men. So it was a satirical characterization of the oppressive systems against Black men in this country.
Maiysha Kai [00:10:29] I can hear that. I can hear that.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:10:31] That’s why I like my male characters. I fight for them.
Maiysha Kai [00:10:34] Listen, I you know, I love hearing that. I love it. But, I mean, I think that actually you just kind of proved my point because, again, like, I don’t think Alice Walker hated her male characters either. Like, I don’t I don’t think she did. I think, you know, you write them with a tenderness and you also write them with a real lens on like what that does to a person’s psyche and the and the horror that we can exact on each other when we’ve been through a certain amount of brutality. So that that’s what’s real. We’re going to get into this a little bit more when we come right back with more Tara Stringfellow and more of Memphis when Writing Black returns.
Maiysha Kai [00:11:16] Okay. We are back with more Writing Black and our guest today, Tara M. Stringfellow, and this incredible book, Memphis, which I’ve already named one of my favorites of the year. You know, no shade to anybody else. This was just such a great narrative for me. I just really loved it. I sunk my teeth into it. I wanted to read it again and again. I cried and it was really the writing of it. And I don’t think that there’s any coincidence here that you are a poet. You said this is your first time writing fiction. So let’s talk about that approach to doing this. I mean, that’s really ambitious. And how was it similar and dissimilar from what you were used to doing on the page?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:11:55] I have fun with it, You know, it’s because I’m not a fiction writer and this was my first time, I said well I can do whatever I like, there are no rules. And so I feel very liberated in this genre because I’m new to it. So I can make mistakes, I can crumble and it’s still I’ll still patch it up and make it look a kind of way. But, you know, I just wanted to have a lot of fun writing. I always have fun writing, but sometimes it can be a torment. And I didn’t want this to be I knew I was going to dedicate four to, you know, six years of my life on this. It better be fun to write. And and I wanted to be in that world and in the world of the characters and get to know them more. And I don’t know, it was a joy. It was such a joy and a blessing to write. I had the time of my life.
Maiysha Kai [00:12:46] Well, I mean, ditto for reading it. But you know, specifically, I mean, I think building characters is a thing. And, you know, so many of the writers that we talked to who write fiction and, you know, I asked them about this process and, you know, had and one of our writers recently talked about how, you know, she really had to live with them for a really long time. Others say, no, I knew these people, all these people in my life, you know, So I just kind of had to move some things around. And but I had a composite for who this person was based on somebody already knew. How did that play out for you?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:13:20] I guess a little bit of both. You know, I definitely lived with the characters. But also I could just remember things about my own family, about my own aunties, something that was said, sister said, a tone of voice, a shape of a woman in an old photo. So I had a lot of great primary sources to work with. It was a treasure trove, really, of ancestral memories and family folklore. So it was, again, rather easy. I wish I could say.
Maiysha Kai [00:13:53] Listen, every you know what I would like to dispel then I would love to dispel the narrative that everything for us has to be anguish. I love hearing that this was a joyful for you. I love hearing that like it was easy for you, because I do think that so much of what we think of as producing work in general, let alone something that people are calling great, is supposed to be mired in some sort of like, you know, trauma and torture and anguish. And I love the fact that this was a joyful exercise for you, particularly at these two really pivotal and terrifying junctures in in recent history that we all have lived through. I think that like this idea of a novelist’s reprieve from that is gorgeous. You know, I’m here for it. I’m like, yeah, I love this like that. A novel is therapy, I think is is another one to explore.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:14:43] I would save up all my pennies and go write on a beach in Cuba with somebody Cuban son, you know what I mean? Piña Colada and cococut and a lit menthol he rolled himself. I lived this kind of life writing this book. In Florence overlooking like, vinyards. It was ridiculous.
Maiysha Kai [00:15:11] It sounds idyllic. Yeah.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:15:13] Chocolaty poor Black soul from North Memphis in Italy finishing a book. It was a time, let me tell you.
Maiysha Kai [00:15:23] Well, that’s how the magic happens. I want to hear more about the time, and we are going to hear more about the time. I’m going to take a quick break and we’re going to come right back with more Tara Stringfellow and more writing Black. All right. Miss Ma’am. Miss Tara Armstrong, fellow with this incredible book, Memphis. So you were just talking about sitting in Florence, finishing this book, looking out on the vineyards. And it sounds like, you know, you know, eat, pray, love, you know, some glory from scratch. The whole thing, you know, we’re we’re there. We’re we’re living it. And you’ve lived all over the world, including here in my home city of Chicago. You know, you you are a worldly person. You are an attorney as well. So there’s that part of your history, as well as coming in here, you know, and you’re bringing all of this back home, Right. All of this experience back home. I want to talk about Memphis. You know, this is a place that, as you illustrate in the novel, as you bring very real life events to for in this fictional piece. Memphis continues to be to this very day, a just like just like Chicago, a place that is very rich in history, very rich in Black influence, Black culture, Black success, also Black trauma, Black, you know, struggle in many ways in terms of the disenfranchisement of large swaths of the population in each of these major cities, the major historic cities. Tell me what Memphis means to you.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:17:02] Music. Yeah. It’s a musical place here.
Maiysha Kai [00:17:08] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:17:09] And, uh, you know, gospel music is a big thing that we’ve been leaning on, especially in the wake of Tyree Nichols death. I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel records at home at night. And, you know, my mom says when something horrible, something tragic happens, we praise him. And when something beautiful happens, we praise him. So that’s what I think about when I think about Chi and when I think about Memphis, I consider myself half and half from both my daddy from the South side of Chicago, from the Chicago Heights.
Maiysha Kai [00:17:49] I, I know it well. I know it well, yes.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:17:51] Yes. shout out to Miss Vivian and Markham who would do my hair for years.
Maiysha Kai [00:17:55] I love it.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:17:57] What was that on, like, 167th and Dixie Highway.
Maiysha Kai [00:18:05] Yes. If you knew how close I grew up to Dixie Highway, you would fall out right now. That’s so funny.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:18:10] Dobson. Stoney and Dobson. love Chicago and I also love Memphis. I love beautiful Black spaces in this country. Like it’s something where you can walk around the neighborhood and know like everybody knows you. They’ve known your family for generations. You know where to go to get the best food, the best place your hair did. I don’t know. Being in the south side of Chicago, the south suburbs, and being in North Memphis, I feel so authentically, beautifully Black. And so I just wanted to write a novel that praised these spaces. Every time I would turn on the TV or see a television show or a movie. It was always showing so much death. And destruction in our neighborhoods. And yeah, we do have a lot of that, but we also have the most beautiful people, I think, ever walked the face of this earth. Mm hmm. And so I really just wanted to write a novel that acknowledged that duality, you know, is.
Maiysha Kai [00:19:17] Yes, that is very present and clear, I guess.
Excerpt from Memphis [00:19:21] The night before Miriam and Jax got married, August decided that her wedding present to her sister would be the gift of song. Jax’s recent First Lieutenant rank had come with orders to be in North Carolina, his new wife by her side, by the start of fall. The two sisters were sitting in their bedroom, hair wrapped in rollers when Miriam said, “Sing for me tomorrow, will you?” There was a catch in her voice, and August could see desperation in her older sisters eyes. In all their years together, this was the only favor Miriam had ever asked of August.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:20:00] Always think about this quote, and I’ll recite it real quick. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual, dark skinned selves without fear or shame. If white folks are pleased, we’re glad. If not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful and ugly too. The tom. Tom laughs. So the Tom Tom cries. If Black folk are pleased, we are glad. If not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand upon the mountain free within ourselves.” End quote, Langston Hughes wrote that in 1925. And I still feel as if it’s very much applicable today. Memphis is my individual, dark skinned expression of self.
Maiysha Kai [00:20:55] I love that. You know, I love that you just said that because you also so you start your book with an incredible quote as well that I had never read before, even though I’m a huge Toni Morrison fan and follower for many years. And you talk about, you know, I’m not going to read the whole thing because I want people to read. And I think that the what a gorgeous quote excerpt to be opening this book with. But basically, you know, you talk about Black women having had nothing to fall back on that maleness, not whiteness, not lady hood, not anything. And out of the profound isolation of her reality, she may very well have invented herself. And, you know, it’s it’s only a slight coincidence. It’s perfect coincidence to me. I believe in kismet. And here we are is Women’s History Month. And, you know, you have written this work that, you know, easily falls in the historical fiction as much as anything else, because we’re really reaching back in time that for these narratives that I think so many of us, you know, like I saw my great grandparents in this, I saw my aunties, I saw my myself and my, you know, cousins and that turmoil I love I love the way you talk about beauty in this book. Not just physical beauty. You know, visual art is really big in this book, which you don’t always see in a in a written work. What was the inspiration behind having your protagonist be a visual artist?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:22:28] My prom date to Von Bullet from Greg, my class of oh three. Was it hard? Yes. It is a very well known muralist throughout the city of Memphis. He does beautiful murals. He did the Isaac Hayes Roseville mural. Our Memphis listeners will know that mural very well. So I just kind of wanted to shout out him. I love it. That’s it. Like, I know I use, like, the my life sometimes.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:00] I know. But, you know, the reason I ask this is you’re so detailed in the way that you talk about the process of creating visual art. I mean, it’s as if you are there in the studio with the charcoals and the oils and the watercolors and the, you know, So I was I was really curious to know if that was part of your own background.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:23:17] I grew up yeah, I grew up drawing and painting, and I draw a little bit, but not like, you know, professionally. I just loved doing it. But no, I just I wanted to kind of shout out all the Memphis artists. We have so many visual artists here in the city who really paint the town. And I just wanted to acknowledge their efforts to make this city beautiful. That’s it.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:45] Well, you did. So we’re going to talk a little bit more about the process of bringing Memphis to the page when we come back with more writing Black They are back with writing Black. And Tara and Stringfellow, whose book Memphis has garnered so much acclaim and rightfully so. I again, I swooned over this. Listen, I like it. Can we talk about your acknowledgments section? Actually, I’ve never ever in my whole entire life in the. I can’t even I mean, countless books I’ve read have seen in an acknowledgment section that became its own, like short story. And I was like, weeping at the acknowledgments, like, because it was so beautifully, I was like, This is so beautifully written. Oh, my gosh. Like, you know, it really it was like another scene from the book, but. And there’s so many people who are obviously such a huge part of this that just part of their immediate family. But listen, I’m not I don’t I don’t I don’t you know, I don’t give praise that’s undue. But you can ask. You can ask my writers. I’m a very exacting editor, but I was, you know, really struck by that. I mean, it’s just such a rarity. You know, most people just kind of go, okay, thank you to did it at all for making this happen. And you really I think as much as, you know, quilts are another motif in this book. It felt very much like that this tree of life that you were kind of creating for us in this acknowledgments. I wanted to just talk about, like words like like being in love with words and the use of words and how we how we use words because you’re obviously in love with words like it’s you can tell when somebody is in love with language. Why was that? Why was that a deliberate choice for you? Or was it? Maybe it was. Maybe you just write in love letters. I don’t know. But it was. It came across like another scene. Oh.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:25:42] I want in. I wanted folk to know that I didn’t get here alone. You know, it took a village to get me here. It took God and lots of miracles and folk taking chances on me. Like my agent Mia signed with me when I only had 22 pages of the novel written. Or my brilliant editor, Katie Nishimoto, who worked with me through COVID when we didn’t think there was a cure, we’d survive. And. You know, my father, my mother, I, my friends, you know, all the drunk brunches that.
Speaker 3 [00:26:25] Which they.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:26:27] Show together. You better write something, girl. You know, I think I just into to say a heartfelt thank you. To those people who brought me here and who still carry me in so many ways. I’m very. I’m very blessed and I’m still trying to figure out why that is. But I like this.
Maiysha Kai [00:26:55] Maybe. So you could do this?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:26:56] Well, right then, it has been something else. Sometimes at night, I just have to sit back and say, Wow.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:03] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:27:03] Folk really loved me.
Excerpt from Memphis [00:27:06] So thank you Pops, because when I was all of four, you gave me a gift that would shape the rest of my life. That poets can tell stories, too. Oorah.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:21] We’re going to talk more about that. And I want to talk a little bit more about these incredible professors, because there’s quite a few of them there that are some well-known names there that you’ve you’ve studied with. When we come back with more Writing Black.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:37] All right. Writing Black returns with our guest today, Tara Stringfellow, and her incredible debut novel, Memphis. If you have not heard about this book yet, you will, because it’s good stuff. It’s good stuff. It’s really hitting on all levels. You are a poet. You are an attorney. You are now a novelist. You have had some incredible teachers along this path. Who made it into that list of acknowledgment that I was so moved by. You know, people will be prone to tell you when it comes to the creative arts that you either have it or you don’t. Obviously, there are still shepherds who guide us. There are people who help cultivate the craft. What did your teachers do for you in terms of giving you the confidence to even feel like you can embark on something like this?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:28:31] And you’ve been trying to make me cry this whole damn interview.
Maiysha Kai [00:28:34] I am not. No, no. Just because you made me cry does not mean I would make you cry.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:28:40] It’s true.
Maiysha Kai [00:28:43] I’m sorry.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:28:45] Yeah.
Maiysha Kai [00:28:46] Barbara Walters. I’m just like, Give it to me.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:28:48] It’s what my teacher done for me. Oh, my God. What haven’t they done for me? You know, I think about Mr. Cook. This, you know, white man in North Memphis teaching all these Black kids. And one day he brought in persimmons from his garden to teach Greek mythology because we had never eaten a persimmon. None of us knew or would probably ever know what that would taste like. And the fact that he fed these Black children from his own garden to.
Maiysha Kai [00:29:29] That’s so moving.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:29:32] What teachers means to me. I wouldn’t be here without my teachers. My primary teachers. God, I remember Miss Pillow back in Okinawa. She was my first grade teacher. You know. Professors of mine who pushed me, Reginald Gibbons out at Northwestern, created an entire degree for me. No one else has ever graduated with a track in both poetry and fiction with a master’s degree from that university. I’m the only graduate. You know, I. Sure I got a talent. Yes, I guess so, But. I worked hard at. It perfected and I listened to my teachers, to Dr. Tracy Vaughan Manley, you know, who taught me how to quilt. Uh, yes. You won. You made me cry.
Maiysha Kai [00:30:39] I did not intend to. And that might be a first for this podcast, actually. So I’m just going to say I listened. The book. The book is remarkable. So are you. So there you go. There’s a first for everything. Just like that degree. I’m also going to shout out Dr. Haki Madhubuti, who I know you studied with,.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:30:57] Dr. Haki Madhubuti.
Maiysha Kai [00:30:57] You know is the founder of Third World Press.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:31:02] He published my first collection of poetry.
Maiysha Kai [00:31:05] I love it. I love it. I love it. So, yeah, and I’m always I’m always shouting him out because I think he’s incredible and he’s such a living legend at this point. We are going to be right back with more time and Stringfellow and more Writing Black.
[00:31:24] So, Tara, we were just talking about teachers, and I want to turn the lens to something else, which is and this is at the risk of, you know, making you cry again. Like, you know, we talked about writing history. We talk about we talked about writing plays, We talked about building characters. We’ve talked about, you know, the importance of our teacher. I’m sitting there listening to your story about, you know, Mr. Cook, who brought you all the persimmons. I was like, And I feel him in Stanley, you know, I see. I see these like, correlations, right? But I do want to talk about as much as, you know, this book is about this book is about so many things. But obviously, as joyful as this book was for you to write, you were also you also tasked yourself with writing trauma. And that is, I think, another that’s a that’s a muscle. That’s a that’s a skill set. Yes. I don’t think trauma is easy to I mean, it’s not easy to to experience, obviously, but to recreate and recreate in a visceral way, I think is really challenging. And how did you kind of like hold your place within that as you were writing it?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:32:37] I, I left. I went to the Outer Banks. I rented a house on a beach, and I went on vacation because I was writing the Myron chapter of his murder chapter on the anniversary of my own grandfather’s lynching here in the city of Memphis, May 30th, 1960. And that was 60 years before the death of George Floyd, that same May 30th. So it was Memorial Day. And I was writing a chapter about Myron, thinking about my grandfather, watching a man, George Floyd, being, you know, lynched on national television.
Maiysha Kai [00:33:17] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:33:18] So I needed a vacation. You know I am only human. Yeah. I’m only. Yeah. I’m not made out of, you know, Stone. And sometimes I get sad and stuff, and I need to go away. And I just needed. I needed to go away. I need to relax. I need to eat good food like softshell crab and just look at the stars and remind myself why we’re all still human.
Maiysha Kai [00:33:48] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:33:49] So, yeah, it was incredibly hard.
Maiysha Kai [00:33:51] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:33:52] Like, these are people who are dying in the streets. And for what? Over some counterfeit $20 bill. It’s ridiculous. Yeah. I went away. I was angry.
Maiysha Kai [00:34:06] Did you find that the act of writing about trauma and anger and revenge, you know, vengeance, as it were, and restitution in other ways. Was that cathartic for you at all?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:34:27] Sometimes, like all the racists in my book, I made a list of names of all the racist coworkers I’ve ever had, and they just crisscross. And that’s how I came up with the characters. So that felt nice.
Maiysha Kai [00:34:42] That’s amazing. That was like an exorcism. I love it.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:34:50] I crisscrossed, like, angry. But everybody who know me, like, if we went to school together or we work together and you see your name and that. You know why. But then I thought, Well, but these white folk are still racist.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:08] Mm hmm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:35:10] In the real world. They’re still out there at positions of corporate, you know, America. There’s attorneys who I know are deeply racist and working in the justice system in Chicago.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:22] Mhm.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:35:23] So. You know.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:27] Yeah. We take our power back where we can, I guess.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:35:30] Right. Right. So it’s kind of like a double edged sword. So some parts. Yeah, I guess I felt a little revenge, but then I thought, well, I’m still I still even if I’m in a Benz, I’m still in a coupe, you know, not saying it.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:47] Fair.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:48] No, that’s absolutely fair.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:53] I was like, I can’t really argue with that. That is what it is.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:55] Right.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:35:57] Like, I still have to deal with with being a Black female body in this society. So. Yes and no, it felt.
Maiysha Kai [00:36:08] Being a Black female writer myself. I think you’re right. I mean, the power, whatever power trip you may get there is it’s temporary. I mean, we still live in the world of live and we still need the things that we need. We still need the change that we need. Yeah, all those kind of things before for a few pages you get to. Imagine things another way, I suppose. I want to talk about what else you’re imagining. But we’re going to take one final break and we’ll be back with more Writing Black.
Maiysha Kai [00:36:43] All right. We’ve got Tara M. Stringfellow with us today on Writing Black. And we’ve been talking about her incredible novel, Memphis. Mainly, I think we’ve actually just kind of been kee, keeing about it almost, because I think, like, it’s it’s so relatable.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:36:56] I feel like this wasn’t an interview at all.
Maiysha Kai [00:37:01] And that’s how I want it to feel like, you know, Writing Black as a podcast, we’re really just here to have conversations about this incredible thing that we get to do, right? And it is an incredible gift that you have. I think it’s an incredible book. I want to know what’s next for Memphis and what’s next for you if you are at liberty to share.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:37:22] Yeah. I’m editing a poetry collection that’ll be out in 2024 with Dial. And I am. Last summer. As of last summer, I went to Italy, a summer every year in Italy, and I started my second novel there. Hmm. Yet. And so I can’t wait to go back this summer to finish that second. But I’m always going to write. Like writing is so much. It’s. It’s it’s a joy for me. I don’t know what else to do. I’m not really good at it. Either. So I write and I and I am so, you know, I’m so honored and humbled by all of the press, the media attention that Memphis has gotten. But my dad, we were on the phone and he said to me, he said, you know, Memphis is just one of your books. You’re going to have a whole, you know, a whole legacy of literature under the Stringfellow name, and that really inspires me to keep going, to keep writing. I’m so excited. As a writer, I’m always more excited for the next book.
Maiysha Kai [00:38:34] Thats okay. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s okay. I love that you’re already looking to the next thing. You know, I asked every single one of our guests because I think it’s, you know, important. Just as much as we talked about how vital teachers are to, you know, developing one’s craft, no matter how much innate talent they have. Also, you know, I often find that the best writers are also great readers. Who do you, who inspires you as a writer? Maybe. Maybe it’s not a book. It could be. You know, it could be music. I know. You know, because you come from medical musical city and music is a huge part of Memphis as well. Yeah. Who are your favorite writers?
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:39:12] I love well, for poets. Can we do poets first?
Maiysha Kai [00:39:15] Absolutely.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:39:16] All right. Poets. Sonia Sanchez.
Maiysha Kai [00:39:18] Yes.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:39:20] Is god. She is the standard. She is who you beat in poetry. She can just. She’s the most amazing writer ever. I love Lucille Clifton. Nikki Giovanni. Carolyn Rodger. Haki Madhubuti, of course. Natasha Trethewey. Aracelis Girmay. Ross Gay. Claudia Rankine.
Maiysha Kai [00:39:49] Love Claudia Rankine. I do.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:39:51] Right, right, Right. Yeah. So those are. Those are my favorite. For the poetry.
Maiysha Kai [00:39:57] I dig it.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:39:59] In fiction. Oh, I don’t know. Like, I love Alice Walker, of course. And Toni Morrison. Oh, but she’s hard. I can’t read her. I mean, like, I have three degrees, and sometimes I don’t know.
Maiysha Kai [00:40:13] I’m glad that you’re admitting that.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:40:16] No, I’m not smart enough.
Maiysha Kai [00:40:17] I wish more people would admit that. Yes.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:40:20] No. And then I had to teach it one year. The Bluest Eye. I said, how? Lord Jesus, I’m not. I don’t know what she talking about. Lord. How am I going to ask these 10th graders? They shouldn’t even have to pick up the book. I still don’t know what’s going on in this damn book. But I love her. I love her, but I’m like, woof, You know, you read her sober in the morning and then you track it with the notebook and you try and figure it out. Jacqueline Woodson is one hell of a writer.
Maiysha Kai [00:40:56] Yes. Yes.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:40:57] She can move mountains.
Maiysha Kai [00:40:59] Yes.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:41:00] With her writing. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t. I don’t know how she does it. One paragraph of her is this like, wow.
Maiysha Kai [00:41:10] Well, I appreciate you giving us a glimpse into a little bit of how you do it. You know, I am I don’t know if we’re all going to be able to get away to Italy this summer, but I am looking forward to what comes next from you. And again, congratulations on an incredible debut. This is a fantastic book. I think this Women’s History Month, you know, even those people who don’t consider themselves readers will find a piece themselves in Memphis. So I highly, highly recommend. And Tara, thank you so much for making time for us today and sharing some craft with us here on writing Black.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:41:45] Thank you all so much for having me. This was a delight.
Maiysha Kai [00:41:48] Oh, I love I love it. That’s a pleasure. And when you’re in Chicago, please look me up so we can hang out. Talk words.
Tara M. Stringfellow [00:41:55] Come out to Memphis, you know? But, yeah, let’s. I would love to meet in person one day. Thank you. You’ve done me and my city a great honor by having me today, so I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Maiysha Kai [00:42:10] I think that interview is just as great a ride with Tara Stringfellow in Memphis. And you know what’s so special about letting a place take center stage in narrative is that it becomes a character in and of itself. Similarly, I really, you know, I love to recommend a book every week that is based on our interviews, and it is a little segment we like to call Mai Favorites. And this week I’m going to recommend In Every Mirror She’s Black. This is another debut novel. This one is by Lola Akinmade Åkerström. And if you if the name didn’t tip you off, this is a book that spans cultures and continents. And this is about Black women who are navigating life in America and in Sweden. And it is so. It’s so striking and it’s so just like Memphis is such a nuanced take on Black women’s lives and survival mechanisms and the myriad issues that we deal with just by virtue of identity. And it’s also a really striking piece of fiction that I really think people enjoy. So in Every mirror, She’s Black is a my favorite for this week. That and of course, Memphis. I also get into these and we will see you next week on another episode of Writing Black. Thanks so much for joining us for this week’s episode of Writing Black. As always, you can find us on theGrio app or wherever you find your podcasts.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:44:15] I’m political scientist, author and professor Dr. Christina Greer, and I’m host of The Blackest Questions on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. This person invented ranch dressing around 1950. Who are they?
Marc Lamont Hill [00:44:28] I have no idea.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:44:29] This all began as an exclusive Black history trivia party at my home in Harlem with family and friends. And they got so popular it seemed only right to share the fun with our Grio listeners. Each week we invite a familiar face on the podcast to play. What was the name of the person who was an enslaved chief cook for George Washington and later ran away to freedom? In 1868, this university was the first in the country to open a medical school that welcomed medical students of all races, genders and social classes. What university was?
Roy Wood, Jr [00:45:03] This is why I like doing stuff with you, because I leave educated. I was not taught this in Alabama Public Schools.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:45:09] Question three. Are you ready?
Eboni K. Williams [00:45:10] Yes. I want to redeem myself.
Amanda Seales [00:45:12] How do we go from Kwanzaa to like these obscure.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:45:18] Diaspora, darling, Diaspora.
Amanda Seales [00:45:18] This is like the New York Times crossword from Monday to Saturday?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:45:23] Right or wrong. All we care about is the journey and having some fun while we do it.
Kalen Allen [00:45:27] I’m excited and also a little nervous.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:45:30] Oh, listen, no need to be nervous. And as I tell all of my guests, this is an opportunity for us to educate ourselves because Black history is American history. So we’re just gonna have some fun. Listen, some people get zero out of five. Some people get five out of five. It doesn’t matter. We’re just going to be on a little intellectual journey together.
Eboni K. Williams [00:45:46] Latoya Cantrell.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:45:48] That’s right. Mayor Latoya Cantrell.
Michael W. Twitty [00:45:50] Hercules Posey.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:45:52] Hmm. Born in 1754, and he was a member of the Mount Vernon slave community. Widely admired for his culinary skills.
Kalen Allen [00:45:58] I’m going to guess Afro Punk.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:46:02] Close. It’s Afro Nation. According to my research, it’s Samuel Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon.
Jason Johnson [00:46:12] Wrong. Wrong. I am disputing this.
Latosha Brown [00:46:15] Very, very, very, very 99.9999 I’m sure that it is Representative John Lewis, who is also from the state of Alabama. And that let you know, Christina, we got some good this come out of Alabama.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:46:27] There’s something in the water in Alabama. And you are absolutely correct.
Diallo Riddle [00:46:29] The harder they come?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:46:32] Close.
Diallo Riddle [00:46:33] Wait, the harder they fall?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:46:35] That’s right. I’m one of those people that just changes one word. I mean.
Roy Wood, Jr [00:46:39] I just don’t know nothing today. I’m going to pour myself a little water while you tell me the answer.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:46:44] The answer is Seneca Village, which began in 1825 with the purchase of land by a trustee of the A.M.E. Zion Church.
Roy Wood, Jr [00:46:51] You know why games like this make me nervous? I don’t know if I know enough Black. Do I know enough? How Black am I? Oh, my Lord. We going to find out in public.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:46:59] So give us a follow. Subscribe and join us on the Blackest Questions.