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March 2024 Feature: Tameka Cage Conley

Tameka Cage Conley is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and librettos. The opera for which she wrote the libretto, A Gathering of Sons, was awarded the Bronze Medal in the Society and Social Issues category of the New York Festivals TV and Film Awards.

Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a graduate of the fiction program of the Iowa Writers' Workshop where she was awarded the Truman Capote Fellowship and the Provost Postgraduate Visiting Writer Fellowship in Fiction. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Callaloo, The African American Review, and elsewhere. She has received writing fellowships from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the Cave Canem Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and the Vermont Studio Center. The opera for which she wrote the libretto, A Gathering of Sons, was awarded the Bronze Medal in the Society and Social Issues category of the New York Festivals TV and Film Awards. She is at work on her first novel, You, Your Father--an epic family saga that considers the untimely deaths of African American men and boys over six decades beginning in the early 1940s in northern Louisiana. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Oxford College of Emory University where her poem, "Among Us," was unveiled and mounted on the walls of Oxford's Horace J. Johnson Hall.

You, Your Father: A Novel

(an excerpt)

Nancy pulled into the driveway and was cut off by Lucille, who vigorously waved her arms as she ran to her daughter from the left side of the house. Nancy trotted to Lucille but was out of breath when she reached her mother.

“He got that rifle aimed at the door. That’s why,” Lucille started, then took a breath, “that’s why I came out here to meet you. He said whatever stepped foot in our house, he would blow it back to hell.”

“Lord have mercy.”

“I been talking to him. But he act like he don’t hear me. I’m scared he can’t hear me, Nancy Lee. He won’t say nothing.”

Like a drudge, he’d strode to the closet in the spare room, opened the door, removed the rifle he rarely touched, high-stepped to the living room, dropped to the ground, belly-crawled beneath the table, and used his elbows to pull himself forward, all without disturbing the dining chairs.

“He can hear you, Momma. He just ain’t himself.”

Nancy left her mother’s side to tiptoe to the window. She peeked inside the house and saw her father sprawled beneath the table like a boy playing combat. As if not enough to snake a blues from her shoulder blades to her gut, as her father crouched--part veteran, part hunter--he looked like Ananias, her dead brother, the same brother who had spoken to her as she flew from her house and said, Go get Daddy out them trenches.

Nancy stifled a tearful cough into her hand and gagged. Her mouth thrust open in a violence propelled from her abdomen. She heaved thick, clear liquid. Panic seized her, and she could not breathe. Lucille swatted her daughter on the back three times with a hand so firm it shook Nancy’s spine. Her lower back tingled.

Slow, slow was Nancy’s breath as it returned, even slower, the gelid misery that trickled from her throat and wreathed her rib cage where the beating was. Syrupy liquid pooled and slid into her abdomen where it rocked her side to side, side to side. Intelligent water, it was, with its stringent message: Save him. She heaved oozy, clear water that carried the message from her body. She pushed a widened palm against the side of the house, as if it had breath to spare.

Lucille sensed Ananias out there in the yard, though he stood beside his sister. Had one of them asked the other, You feel Ananias out here?, they might have embraced, and he would have held them both, not with human arms but arms of The Spirit, and there would have begun a healing long overdue. Neither said a word, so it was that they turned in loss like soil turned over. Lucille pressed both her palms into her lower back and walked away from her daughter. Nancy put her hand to her mouth and talked to Ananias from inside.

Brother, I’m scared.

Of what?

Losing Daddy, like I lost you.

I ain’t lost. Daddy is.

Nancy tiptoed inside. Lucille walked to the sofa and used the wall as a guide. Nancy slipped off her shoes. Barefoot, she went to him, as if the path was holy. She looked down. Sweat pearled atop her father’s head, and his lips had caked white. At his age, she thought his hands would shake, but they held the rifle steady. She pulled a chair away from the table, so close to her father’s stretched-out position on the floor that she feared he might abruptly turn and without knowing who she was, shoot her.

“We don’t talk about Ananias like we should,” she said.

At the sound of his son’s name, George shifted, belly flat as slate, though he squirmed in the shoulders.

“When I saw Ananias was dying, I came running to tell you and Momma. But Momma told me to go to sleep. She had to get up in the morning and go to work. I crawled into bed with Ananias. The next morning, I thought he was dead until I saw slobber drip down his chin. I wiped his mouth clean and whistled while I did it. Do you remember hearing me whistle that day?

“You taught me how to whistle. But I saw the world through Ananias. To tell the truth, I didn’t know it til I saw what they did to those children in Birmingham and thought about my brother. I talked, and Ananias listened. That’s how I learned to listen to God--to what God wanted me to say through the organ.

“We don’t talk enough, Daddy, about things that mean something. Why don’t you put that rifle down? I know Momma got a bone in there. I’ll make us soup.”

With a mouth dry as sun-washed stone, George was unsure of his tongue’s availability and made no attempt at speech. He shuddered, finally, as he lowered the rifle but did not release it. His eerie faceoff with the door and whatever skulked on the other side had fatigued his insides as if he’d been battered by tornado winds. As he breathed from his mouth, heat bounced to the floor from his slightly disjoined lips and returned to the lower region of his face. So unusual was the heat of his breath that he believed even his sighs, if he’d made them, would be foul, fermented. His bladder was full. His temples pulsed. Emptiness flooded him, from his throat to his ankles. He could not recall the last time he had been so starved. The thought of Nancy’s bone soup filled him like steam. No sooner than he became settled on this imagined joy which could soon be at his grasp did another sight enter his consciousness: white men breaking his door down--a rush in legion, perhaps hooded, perhaps not--but with clear intention to tear his house up, along with any memory of familial glee, and reduce his wife, his daughter, himself to bits and bits of what was once three humans. There went the soup; the savory bone in his mouth, too, crushed to bits, by bullets and fire. How did he know they were not planning to kill every man, woman, and child all over the South who sang, cooked, hollered, loved, laughed, and wept within their Black skins? Blink, and Shreveport could be Birmingham. Blink, and Shreveport was Birmingham--just as he had blinked, been drafted, then sent to war with a shovel and a command to dig.

He could not tell Nancy what she began to perceive in the silence that passed through the warm air between them: what if one of those four girls had been her, his last child? And how, in all the years he had known God and called himself God’s servant, could he say to Nancy, Soon as I saw them four little girls, them sweet baby angels, I saw you in them graves, too, down in there with your brother, then me down there, too, and Lucille just standing there crying and shaking her head at me. He made to speak but mumbled instead.

“Daddy?” Nancy called when she heard the sounds that strained up from the floor, as brutal sadness tap danced up and down her father’s spine. Family photographs lined the built-in shelf to her left. She knew the photographs as intimately as she knew the faces that peered from them: her parents’ wedding with Lucille in white lace, almost two heads above her father who looked taller than usual in uniform; a sepia one of her as a little girl with her right hand on a white pillow where Ananias lay as an uncommonly still newborn with his head full of glossy black hair; another of her in a biscuit-tinted boat neck gown with Alonzo next to her in black suit and tie. There was not one photograph of the four of them: her mother, her father, Ananias, and herself.

At the end of the row of framed photographs was George in his military uniform not too long after the draft. An observer might note the soldier’s stance, the slight lean-back on his right leg as if dodging a blow. Skin, the burnish of a penny. A slight waist to consider. Shoulders of medium breadth. His downturned eyes posed the question, What in the world? As a girl, Nancy studied the photograph and addressed it with such intense curiosity about the man--this soldier her father had been--that he’d walk from paper, through glass and stand before her, short as a shrub. He’d bend down on one knee and whisper things like, I survived just for you. He’d speak about the rotten food, how tired he was, the stench of death, and graves. She’d cry, and he’d hum until she went to sleep, clutching the frame. Her actual father who lived and breathed by her side might be out in the yard cutting grass or messing around under the hood of their truck. Nancy realized that though she loved her father, she’d forgotten the soldier who’d walked to her, not on water but no less miraculous, from the picture frame.



(for Nancy Lee Washington Young, 1927-1998)


Twenty-six years gone,

I cover my mouth,

like you taught me,

when I wail.


Once, a bird flew into the house and beat its wings

against the window,

strain against glass,

to set itself free.

My aunt and I were terrified of the small creature:

too out of place, too close to death.

You did not open your mouth.

You walked into the kitchen, returned

with a napkin and clutched

the deranged thing at its middle,

your fingers a pinch.

You opened the door

and tossed the bird

upward as it flew.

How did you do that? How?

Ain’t nothing to be scared of.


One morning, when our neighbor’s daughter

went after the man who’d struck her mother,

you walked down the tar-paved street in Mooretown—

once-upon-a-promised-land for Black folk in Shreveport—

to find the girl as the sun flexed down on all our Black skin.

You walked back with an arm around the girl’s shoulder

and whispered into her ear:

You don’t want to do that, Sugar, naw.

That evening, when you learned the girl had flown

to where you’d attempted

to rescue her

from the unnamed fate

of attacking a grown man,

you threw up your hand:

I’m through with it.

Done all I could do.


You whupped me good,

as you would say,


and later learned I was innocent.

Well, if I didn’t get you for that,

I got you

for something else.


This interview was conducted between Jae Nichelle and Tameka Cage Conley on March 1, 2024.

This excerpt from You, Your Father is truly stunning. Could you say a bit about what inspires you to tell this family saga, what draws you to these characters?


Thank you so much for the kind words about You, Your Father. I was raised in a household where the “other world” of the supernatural was acknowledged, respected, and revered alongside the everyday of buying groceries, making the bed, getting my hair braided or pressed with a hot comb by my aunt or cousin, and going to church. My great-grandmother (who helped to raise me and is an inspiration for Nancy in the novel) would often say, “The dead do not know what the living are doing.” But she’d also speak about how her deceased daughter—my grandmother who died before I was born—would “visit” her.” My mother and aunt have shared a similar story about my grandmother who died when they were teenagers. I suppose I became enthralled by love so powerful that it pushes beyond the grave and returns to the family where there was love. I was curious about how the spirit realm was threaded into the routine of life in a way that often felt seamless and alive. I was curious about how such love would manifest over time in a family, especially a family in Jim Crow Louisiana where all they had, often, were each other and the love generated as part of community. I was also curious about how blood family and family that is not blood but feels like blood—what we might call today, “chosen family”—would enact love amidst trauma. I also was interested in how families and communities responded to mental unwellness, PTSD, mental distress, and mental illness during a time when there was no language, no idea, no concept, no remedy for such pain. How does one heal the broken spirit, soul, and mind in such a world? How, I wondered, frankly, did my people—my ancestors—survive? How? I struck out to discover something close to an answer, I hope, in this novel.

I am drawn to the characters for their majesty, plainness, dynamism, might, and belief. They do awe-inspiring, dangerous, playful, and beguiling things. Sometimes, they are bad actors, and I write a scene thinking, “How could you?” But I am also extremely taken by their pursuit of self and how viscously and completely they love or mistake their fieriness for love. They seem strong to me but also vulnerable in so many seen and unseen ways, which is to say they are human. Certainly, I am building a world that is fictional, but I am seeking the human pulse of these characters. I would love for readers to think of them as someone they know, have known, or would like or love to know. Probably, in ways I could only have known from being asked this question, I want these characters to feel like family—even the most unlovable among them, mainly because someone always loves even the worst humans on the planet. Then again, perhaps I’m wrong about that. Maybe the worst humans become worst because they are unloved. 


Both of these pieces are rooted in Shreveport, LA, where you were born. Do you have a favorite memory of your time there? What is it?


I had a play-filled childhood with delightful, wonderfully celebrated Christmases and Easters. My mother was intentional about new outfits for the holidays, and our cousin, who was a hair stylist, would put our hair in thick, dangling curls. There’s a photo of my sister and me forcing the Cabbage Patch dolls we’d gotten for Christmas into our uncle’s arms. The photo is one of my favorites because he’s extremely tall, and here he is as a full, grown man holding two bald, chocolate baby dolls. He looks miserable yet so willing to abide me and my sister’s wishes. I was nine years old—the same age my son is now—and my sister was five. When I was four years old, I wore a yellow dress as the flower girl in my great uncle’s wedding. Some of my fondest memories were spent with my great-grandmother, whom the community graciously and respectfully called Miss Nancy, in the kitchen. I loved to watch her cook. She made excellent biscuits from scratch; I can still taste them. I grew up in Black neighborhoods, so seeing white people in my community was like an alien sighting: the postal worker delivering mail and the school bus driver, these professions that required transit, which literally meant they were in and out. Once, my mother’s white boss came to our house, and I ran outside as if a carnival act had come to town; that’s how rare it was. I remember feeling that I grew up in segregation, which I did. The signage of Jim Crow and the most visibly and socially terrifying aspects of it were gone in the 80s and 90s, but the structure and vileness of it were firmly in place in Shreveport. It seeped into my bones at an early age, and I questioned and criticized it internally, and once I could, in my classrooms. I remember once posing a question in fifth grade: what if the roles were reversed, and it was not Black people who’d been enslaved but instead, the slavers? My white, male teacher shook his head no, which was morally accurate, but I didn’t hear him say that slavery was wrong, villainous, and should never have happened. He would not allow an imagined world where white people were enslaved, but he did not declare vehemently that it was wrong for Black people to be. I wanted him to explore with me—to imagine with me— what a world would look like where four hundred years of subjugation were ethnically reversed because I made early connections that aspects of my young life, which were fruitful and joyful, yet also working class and stressful because of that class distinction, were due to the rippling effects of slavery, and that people who looked like me had been enslaved because they looked like me, which is to say because they were Black people. But he wouldn’t do it. 


In addition to your creative work, you also teach literature and creative writing. How do you balance your roles as a writer and educator, and how does each inform the other?


I’m not sure I balance this dynamic well, although I do attempt to balance intentionally, which means I share my writing practice, disappointments, and triumphs with my students. I’m transparent about where I am in my work. If I’m struggling with a scene, I bring that struggle to my students and share what I think is happening and why. By being intentional about exploring craft—times when I feel I’ve gotten it right and experienced the bliss of that as well as times when I’ve fallen short—I feel I am not only teaching but modeling what a writing life looks like. I also share details about my professional development journey and how I’ve been able to build my writing career for the past fourteen years or so, as well as how deeply my writing practice has been part of my life since elementary school, which began as a love and devotion to reading, as it does with most writers. When I assign in-class writing assignments, like an erasure inspired by students’ favorite songs in my Creative Writing seminar last semester, I wrote along with my students and shared what I’d written as they did. I thought it’d be fun, which it was, but I was also so proud of the work the class was doing that I wanted to be part of it. I also hoped to model that I am constantly learning, too, just as they are, and that we are learning together. I centralize my pedagogy much in the same way I do my life, which is being intentional about building community and collaboration as an artistic practice. I frequently say to my students that a decade from now what will matter is not the grade they earned but how they apply what they learn to how they think, critically and socially, and how they use the humanity-centric dynamics of literary art to understand and participate in the world with genuine investment in change-making.


What regular rituals, if any, keep you grounded?


I spend time with people who are kind, generous, thoughtful, smart, and creative, most particularly my brilliant son who already identifies as an artist at nine years old. I try to populate his life with as much engagement with the artistic world as possible and follow his lead on what interests him as an artist. I read poetry constantly. I read the work of Toni Morrison, Rita Dove, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde over and over again. I study the work of James Baldwin, which keeps me company. I’ve kept a journal since the mid-nineties. I have several at a time for different purposes, and they are all very beautiful. I’m extremely particular about my journals, pens, and pencils. I have a friend who owns a stationery store in Iowa City where I used to live who still ships journals, pencils, and stationery to me in Georgia. I love the Blackwing pencil, and I even have the companion Blackwing sharpener. I love them so much that I give them away sometimes to friends, old and new, which is a ritual of sharing and community I enjoy. Lately, I’ve fallen in love with aromatherapy pens. I have an essential oil diffuser in my bedroom and bathroom. I love incorporating tea tree, lavender, peppermint, lemon, bergamot, frankincense, and more into my space and life. I also burn incense and light candles. I find that it’s not only the experience of aroma but the actual lighting of the candle, the actual act of setting fire to the end of an incense stick. These offer quick, quiet moments of settling in, of warmth. When I do these small things as an act of grace towards myself, I am reminded that I deserve those small moments of time and how important it is to take them.

I’ve drastically changed my life over the past twenty months. I work out six days a week, and I typically don’t allow disruptions to this routine, even when I travel. I have a personal trainer, which helps tremendously with accountability. Adhering to a regular schedule of giving my body what it needs—cardio, weights, yoga—helps me to stay engaged and channels negative energy from my bones and provides peace and calm as I move through the day. There is also something phenomenal about what regular exercise teaches me about my own body. I find it to be curiously linked to my writing life as well. I can go into the gym with a writing question and often during my workout, an answer comes to me. There is a way that exercise, even when grueling and strenuous, enables me to tap into stillness and inner peace so that I can hear what the work needs. I pray, always. Always. 

I also cook as a matter of practice to nourish the soul and to enter into a space of being dazzled by possibility. I grew up in North Louisiana but am also deeply influenced by Creole cuisine and New Orleans foodways because I went to college there. I cook with love, the way my great-grandmother did, with a mind towards deliciousness and wonder, and of course, the pleasure of the first bite. Even if it’s a scrambled egg, I do it with care. I love attempting new recipes, and my son is the best person to cook for because he’s honest, loves my cooking, and will be precise about what he likes and why.

Music is an everyday part of my life, but for whom is this not true, I wonder? I make playlists when I’m in a mood or to capture a moment. I’ve made playlists for friends, and I love doing it. If I feel bluesy one day or low energy, I will often create a playlist that speaks to the mood I’m in. I find that curating the experience—choosing the songs, their order, and number—provides healing and clarity, so by the time I listen to the playlist from beginning to end, my mood and my energy have shifted. And don’t let me start dancing, too. Then, I am in a state of joy, bliss, peace. The playlist, in this way, is therapeutic and a conduit for self-love. I create my own haven through the music. 

I also listen to the great lyric soprano Leontyne Price when I’m writing, especially if I feel stuck in a scene or line. The absolute majesty of her voice—the absolute impossibility of her range, her daring, and the way I hear God in her voice and every wonder of the world because her voice is a wonder of the world—reminds me that all is possible in art.


If your novel was going to be adapted into a movie, who would you want to cast as the leads?


Can I just say this is the kindest question? Thank you for asking. Viola Davis (Lucille);

Mahershala Ali (George); Aunjunue Ellis-Taylor (Nancy); Colman Domingo (Nate); Regina King (Vassiola); Trevante Rhodes (Brown); Niecy Nash (Annette); Letitia Wright (Magdalena, youthful); Angela Bassette (Magdalena, mature); Carey Mulligan (Linda Mayfair, youthful); Kate Winslett (Linda Mayfair, mature). Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been divine as James T. Guidry, and I mourn him all over again; what a giant he was, what a meticulous artist who cherished each role and made us feel all the language of possibility and defeat and hunger and love. But Matthew McConaughey comes to mind, too, as Guidry. I’d love to see an emerging, child star cast as Brown as a boy.


What have you been most surprised by in your journey as a writer thus far?


I’ve been met with a generous world. In every city I’ve lived, I’ve found an audience, friends, and supporters, not only interested in current work but future ideas and work, too. I’ve been fortunate that doors have opened to me, and that I’ve been met with the most devoted mentors any woman could ask for at every stage of my life from the time I was a freshman in college until now.


If you were on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, what fictional character would you have on standby as your one “phone a friend” call?


Pilate, of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, because she went everywhere and knew so much about our world and the next. She straddled holy, sacred spaces as well as dead, ancient, living ones. Anyone who can time a perfectly soft-boiled egg and also knows the secret of how to keep a soul alive before it knows it is even a soul is definitely the person I want on standby.


What would you say about Georgia, where you live currently, to someone who has never been?


Georgia is a map of mystery. I live outside Atlanta, so I’m in a more rural part of the state, though I can reach the city in 35 minutes without traffic. There are a few places I’ve traveled and lived where I’ve felt my ancestors deeply: New Orleans, the Gullah Region (Beaufort/St. Helena), Ghana, and Harlem, particularly the rhythms, sounds, and life that is so abundant on 125th Street, specifically pre-gentrification. I also feel my ancestors deeply in the part of Georgia where I live. Emory University, where I teach as part of Oxford College—one of Emory’s nine colleges—was built by enslaved persons. Whenever I walk into my classrooms, I’m keenly aware that the historical script for the space of academia did not include me or anyone who looks like me. But here I am. Where I live, I see at least one Confederate decal or flag every two weeks. MAGA country abounds in my part of Georgia. Yet, there are representations of Blackness and Black community all around me. Georgia is a microcosm of the social ills of America, as well as the possibilities that come from being abundantly alive in spite of those who wished you were not there or that their attempts at dominance could dictate the world. I live in defiance of that, and my residence in Georgia is a testament to that.


How can people support you?


What a beautiful question. I believe in faith, manifestation, and what happens when we believe in anything good as a collective, as a community. If people read my work and feel an impact, then I am grateful when they share that experience with their circle, their family, their colleagues and coworkers; this is significant. The world can catch fire in a good way, and why shouldn’t language be at the center? Given the aggressive assault on books that teach us to be more human by seeking to ban them, the fight has begun; it has long been waged. Let language, then, guide us into that next place of liberation, wholeness, and power. If my work can be on the tongues of folk, I am grateful for that. I love meeting new people; giving readings and taking part in public conversations are a part of that. Invite me to come sit with you and yours—whether your team, organization, school, or bookstore. I feel fortunate to be in a position to bring people together through language, stories, and giving specificity to emotions, circumstances, and dynamics that people have experienced but do not have the words for. How many times do we hear that? I don’t have the words. I’m grateful that as a writer, I can find them—and then share them.


Name another Black woman writer people should follow.


Since I write across genres, is it okay to name more than one? Alexia Arthurs and Dana Johnson (fiction), Nikia Chaney (poetry), and Cassandra Lane (creative nonfiction)


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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