'Memphis' book review: Resilient resurrection written in poetic prose on Black Sisterhood in America

Written in poetic prose, the novel tells the inter-generational story of Black sisterhood in America 
Tara M Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, was on this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
Tara M Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, was on this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

Tara M Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, was on this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Spanning over six decades, the book tells a multi-generational story of the North family in Memphis, a city in Tennessee, USA. Divided into three parts and 32 short chapters, it’s a deeply moving and acutely observed portrait of Black people, who are invisibilised and ghettoised by the erasure of their histories. But most importantly, it’s a radical celebration of Black womanhood and sisterhood, as it allows the three generations of women—Hazel, her daughters Miriam and August, and the former’s daughters, Joan and Mya—to narrate the story. From their varied experiences and motivations, all these characters share their hardships, joys and ambitions, which are quite telling of the idiosyncrasies and complexities the author renders them.

True to the epigraph featuring a quote by literary icon Toni Morrison, who establishes the “profound desolation of (a Black woman’s) reality she may very well have invented herself”, Stringfellow constructs a Memphis undergoing several transformations—most crucially, under the civil rights movement—and helps its women with the agency they were unfairly robbed of.

Sometimes they joke about their oppression. Then there are ample occasions where these women put up 
a good fight against their abusers and oppressors. It can be witnessed when Hazel spits at the white officer who comes to deliver the news that her husband has died, who was, in fact, lynched by his white colleagues. Or be it Miriam, who after falling head-over-heels in love with the “most beautiful Black man” she had ever seen, Jaxson, escapes the vicious cycle of domestic violence by fleeing from his house, and begins school at the age of 40 to provide for her girls.

In the wake of such events, it’s the children’s viewpoints that are striking. Here’s what Joan notes of the domestic violence: “But I had never before seen my father hit my mother. I did not think that kind of chaos was possible. The truth shocked me, but I couldn’t deny it.” Yet, she misses her father “like a limb”. It is fitting to conclude that all these women are traversing a continuum of loss and experiencing, not expressing, grief as only women of colour could.

But it’s August—who runs a salon, and shelters Miriam and her daughters—that emerges as the favourite. A single parent, chain-smoker and a stoic at heart, she carries the most immeasurable hurt a son could inflict on a mother, and yet finds an opportunity to help Joan become an artist—a profession Miriam thinks wouldn’t help their family situation. But, Joan is pushed by her aunt and a gay professor, and it is the pursuit of this dream that drives the novel forward.

Besides peculiar character details and historical elements in the book, the community gossip, discussions about hairstyles, and the music that forms an indelible part of the narrative are quite intriguing. All this makes Memphis a story so humane and utterly real that it almost seems autobiographical.

Stringfellow is a poet and former attorney, whose family is rooted in Memphis. In an interview, she says 
the book honours the memory of her ancestors, in particular her grandfather, whose real and professional life she leveraged to model the character of Hazel’s husband, Myron, and the city of Memphis itself, which she can’t help but fondly write of throughout the book. Sample the following sentence: “All colours were unable to compete with the blue glory of these Tennessee mountains.”

The best part about the book is that, unlike several narratives whose principal propeller is inter-generational trauma, Memphis celebrates resilience by showing how, even in the direst of circumstances, tethering onto hope can turn one’s life around. And in Stringfellow’s poetic-prose, “a cacophony of Black female joy in language private to them” is also well-documented and makes for an interesting read.

‘Stringfellow constructs a Memphis undergoing several transformations, and helps its women 
with the agency they were unfairly robbed of’

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The New Indian Express