Meet Tara M. Stringfellow, author of the Women’s Prize 2023 longlisted novel Memphis. A book The New York Times called “a rhapsodic hymn to Black women.”
The premise of this book is powerful and unique, so what was the inspiration behind the novel? We grabbed a quick five minutes with each of the authors behind the longlisted books to ask that question and more…
Describe your novel in one sentence as if you were telling a friend.
Memphis is a multi-generational Black Southern coming-of-age story about how one little girl’s love of art and her city changes her family forever.
What inspired you to write Memphis?
I began writing Memphis in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Trump had just won, and frankly, I was afraid of what could and did happen—a wave of racist nationalism, the erosion of women’s reproductive rights, the banning of our Muslim, Mexican and South American brethren from our shores, the further disenfranchisement of my peoples. I wrote Memphis as a direct rebuttal to the phrase “make America great again.” Black Southern women have always made this country great. Since we first arrived in chains as chattel, all we have ever done is make lasting, gorgeous art while simultaneously uplifting entire communities. Memphis is my prayer that our accomplishments, our patriotism, and our civic bravery do not go unnoticed.
Are there any locations that have a special connection for you or your book?
Well, the city of Memphis is her own character in the novel. Historic Black neighbourhoods are the backbone of this city, and the front porch of any Memphis home is an entire world I always want to explore.
Which part of the book was the most fun to write? Which was the most challenging?
I must say that writing Mya, a seven-year-old at the book’s beginning, was the most fun and the most difficult character for me to pen. The voices of children on the page have always been so hard for me–being able to portray the wit, brilliance, and energy of children is a feat I relish.
Which of the characters from the book would you most like to spend a weekend away with and why?
This is tough because my characters are based on my own family members. But because my maternal grandparents have passed away, I’ve always wanted to know them. So I’d spend a weekend with Myron and Hazel, eating Hazel’s biscuits and listening to Myron’s war stories.
What first inspired you to write?
I heard my first narrative poem when I was three years old and have been in love with the written word ever since. My father read me and my sister a poem instead of a story one night. I had never heard something so gorgeous. He recited, “Once upon a midnight dreary.” I knew that I had to do that for the rest of my life. I must tell good stories. And every day, that is what I try to do.
What is the best piece of writing advice you have received?
My Northwestern professor and novelist Dr Juan Martinez once told the class, “have your protagonists make bad decisions and have your villains make good ones.” Meaning, human beings are complex and complicated. Make sure your characters are fully-formed human beings. No one is entirely good or entirely bad. Show that. Make them human.