Memphis, the debut novel from Tara M. Stringfellow celebrates Black female joy, grace, humour and grit. Read on for an exclusive extract from the book.

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Inspired by her own rich family heritage, Tara’s grandfather was the first Black homicide officer in Memphis who was murdered by his own police squad; her grandmother was an activist and marched with Martin Luther King; Memphis tells the story of Hazel, Miriam, August and Joan: three generations of women in a southern family.

Describing her highly anticipated book, Tara said: “Quite simply, [Memphis] is an ode to my city and the Black women living here in it. She is my proof that a great people reside in the South. That the women here are full of mystery and magic and humour and grit. That Memphis women can gut catfish and fry green tomatoes and lead revolutions and do hair and tuck their children in at night and sing all the while. Memphis is my proof that our lives – our beautiful, rich, full Black lives – matter so much.”

 

How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones: An extract

 

Read on for an exclusive sneak peak on Tara M. Stringfellow’s Memphis.


 

The house looked living. Mama squeezed my hand as the three of us gazed up at it, our bleary exhaustion no match for the animated brightness before us.

“Papa Myron selected and placed each stone of the house’s foundation himself,” she whispered to me and Mya. “With the patience and diligence of a man deep in love.”

The low house was a cat napping in the shade of plum trees, not at all like the three-story Victorian fortress we had just left. This house seemed somehow large and small at once—it sat on many different split levels that spanned out in all directions in a wild, Southern maze. A long driveway traversed the length of the yard, cut in half by a folding wooden barn gate. But what made the house breathe, what gave the house its lungs, was its front porch. Wide stone steps led to a front porch covered in heavy green ivy and honeysuckle and morning glory. Above the porch, my grandfather had erected a wooden pergola. Sunlight streaked through green vines and wooden planks that turned the porch into an unkempt greenhouse. The honeysuckle drew hummingbirds the size of baseballs; they fluttered atop the canopy in shades of indigo and emerald and burgundy. I could see cats on the porch—a dozen of them, maybe, an impossible number except for what a quick count told me. Some slept in heaps that looked softer than down, while others sat atop the green canopy, paws swiping at the birds. Bees as big as hands buzzed about, pollinating the morning glories, giving the yard a feeling that the green expanse itself was alive and humming and moving. The butterflies are what solidified my fascination. Small and periwinkle-blue, they danced within the canopy. The butterflies were African violets come alive. It was the finishing touch to a Southern symphony all conducted on a quarter-acre plot.

“Quite simply, [Memphis] is an ode to my city and the Black women living here in it.”

“Not now, Joan,” Mama said, sighing.

I had out my pocket sketchbook, was already fumbling for the piece of charcoal somewhere in the many pockets of my Levi overalls. My larger sketchbook, my blank canvases the size of teacups, my brushes and inks and oils were all packed tight in the car. But my smaller sketchbook, I kept on me. At all times. Everywhere I went.

I wanted to capture the life of the front porch, imprint it in my notebook and in my memory. A quick landscape. Should’ve only taken a few minutes, but Mama was right. We were all dog tired. Even Wolf, who had slept most of the journey. Mya’s face was drained of its usual spark, and as I slipped my sketchbook into my back pocket, slightly defeated, her hand felt hot and limp as I took it in my own.

Tara Stringfellow
Image credit: Matthew Thomas

Mya, Mama, and I walked up the wide stone front steps hand in hand. My memories of staying here felt vague and far away— I’d been only three years old, and it felt like a lifetime ago—but now I remembered sitting on the porch and pouring milk for the cats. I remembered Mama cautioning me not to spill, though I usually did anyway. Her laughter, too—the sound of it like the seashell chimes coming from inside the house while I played with the cats echoed in my mind from years ago. And the door, I remembered that. It was a massive beast. A gilded lion’s head with a gold hoop in its snout was mounted on a wood door painted corn yellow. I had to paint a picture of this door, even if I had to spend months, years, finding the perfect hues. It was as magnificent as it was terrifying. By knocking, by opening the door, I knew we’d be letting out a whole host of ghosts.

 

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Memphis by Tara M Stringfellow is published 7 April in hardback by John Murray Press.

Buy the book here.

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