Writing that single word – the name of her city and now the title of her first novel – was when Tara Stringfellow (Weinberg ’07, School of Professional Studies ’18) said she knew she was writing something Special.
“You were born a poet. It’s a calling,” Stringfellow said. “I knew I wanted to write the most beautiful and moving passages this world has ever seen.”
“Memphis” follows 10-year-old Joan as she, along with her mother and sister, flees her father and finds refuge in Memphis. The book celebrates three generations of black women in Joan’s ancestry and the healing, hope and love she finds through art.
Stringfellow returned to Northwestern on Thursday to perform a reading of “Memphis.” The reading was followed by a discussion with Whitney Frick (Weinberg ’06) and moderated by English teacher Rachel Webster.
“Memphis” was featured on the Today show and was chosen as one of the most anticipated books of 2022 by Oprah Daily, Essence, Glamour, Business Insider, Marie Claire, The Millions, She Reads and Book Riot.
Stringfellow said early in her life that she was quickly drawn to reading poetry as well as the United States Constitution.
“I had never read anything so moving as (the Constitution) and so inapplicable to black people,” Stringfellow said. “We black women in the south know a thing or two about losing and know a thing or two about winning, and how much it costs.”
Stringfellow majored in English Literature and African American Studies and graduated with honors. She continued her studies at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and then worked in the field of law.
“I was really angry at the injustices I saw, even when I was a little girl,” Stringfellow said. “And so I knew I had to become the first lawyer in my family to prove to maybe all white people, even Northwestern, that a black woman could do it. And could do it by itself.
After her law career, Stringfellow returned to NU to complete her Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry and Fiction, summa cum laude. She credited her undergraduate career at NU and her legal training with helping her with the research aspects of the novel like finding land titles, court records, autopsy reports and more.
Many members of Stringfellow’s family attended his reading, as did his former teacher, Tracy Vaughn-Manley.
Vaughn-Manley said she met Stringfellow in 2005 when the latter was in second grade, and she continued to teach him twice a year until she graduated. The former professor praised “Memphis,” calling it a strictly black feminist work. She said Stringfellow’s dedication to her craft was evident even as an undergrad.
“(Stringfellow has) always had a love for literature, a love for the written word,” Vaughn-Manley said. “She takes American writing to another level.”
Frick is the editor of The Dial Press, the Penguin Random House imprint that published “Memphis.” She said Stringfellow’s book was a perfect fit for the publisher’s focus on empowering women’s voices.
“(The Dial Press publishes books) by and about women and gender nonconforming people exploring what it really means to live well,” Frick said. “When we read ‘Memphis’…we knew (how special this book would be).”
Stringfellow’s poetic career began long before “Memphis.” She published her first poem at age 10 and her first book of poetry as a senior at NU.
Stringfellow said “Memphis” is a gift for black women. She wants people who read the book to know that black women have always made this country great.
“I want black women everywhere to know that I wrote something special for them and it will stay on the shelf forever,” Stringfellow said. “That they are now squarely entrenched in the western canon…I wanted to make sure that long after I’m gone, it remains (as) a monument to them.”
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