Memphis: Honours the strength, creativity and resilience of black women

Book review: Tara M Stringfellow exposes the legacy of racial violence through three generations

Memphis
Memphis
Author: Tara M Stringfellow
ISBN-13: 978-1529339239
Publisher: John Murray
Guideline Price: £14.99

Tara M Stringfellow prefaces this ferocious and compassionate debut with a dedication to George Floyd’s daughter Gianna, who was six when her father was killed by a police officer on a Minneapolis street in 2020. “i wrote you a black fairy tale,” it begins. “i understand if you not ready to read it yet […] this book gon be right here whenever you want it.”

Stringfellow has reason to identify with Gianna. Her own grandfather was killed by white police officers when her mother was five years old. He was the first black homicide detective in Memphis, Tennessee and had served in an all-black army unit that helped liberate the children’s camp in Buchenwald.

In Memphis, Stringfellow deftly weaves the voices of four women over three generations. Her women are vivid, formidable and funny, exposing the legacy of racial violence not just within the microcosm of family or the titular city, but nationally. Their men are gone: murdered, incarcerated or too damaged and violent to live with. The women push on, working, making ends meet, laughing, storytelling.

The novel opens with a journey to Memphis. Ten-year-old Joan, her sister and mother leave their father and drive to their mother’s ancestral home to live with their Aunt August. The city shimmers under Stringfellow’s assured prose. “The house looked living,” and the thick scent of honeysuckle, summer heat and hummingbirds in the garden are set against the reality of gangs in 1990s urban America.

This novel is, in many respects, a Künstlerroman, a portrait of an artist as a young black woman

Joan and her sister sleep in the quilting room, where women in their family have done piecework for generations. Wrapped in these stories, Joan develops her own artistic sensibility, sketching and painting the women in her life, their hands, their labour, their resilience. Assaulted as a very young child, Joan’s sketches ultimately become a potential way to forgive. This novel is, in many respects, a Künstlerroman, a portrait of an artist as a young black woman.

After the dedication to Gianna Floyd, Stringfellow quotes Toni Morrison. The black woman, Morrison writes, “had nothing to fall back on: not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of that profound desolation of her reality she may very well have invented herself.” Memphis reaches back to literary mothers and towards potential daughters, honouring the strength, creativity and resilience of black women.

Una Mannion

Una Mannion is a writer and teacher. Her first novel, A Crooked Tree, was published by Faber & Faber in 2021

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