Truth and Truth-Adjacent: Excerpt, Review, and Interview with Fluid Prose Writer, Tyrese Coleman
By Nicole Schmidt
Tyrese Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and attorney. She is also the fiction editor for District Lit, and an associated editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a nonfiction scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review‘s 2016 Writer’s Conference, her prose has appeared in several publications, including [PANK], Day One, Buzzfeed, Brevity, The Rumpus, and Hoboart, listed in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (very) short fictions, and forthcoming in The Kenyon Review. Her first memoir, told in stories and essays, How to Sit, was published this month by Mason Jar Press. SFWP contributing editor Nicole Smith reviewed and interviewed Coleman about her work that Jill Talbot calls “a vibrant collection.”
Excerpt from How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman, “Sacrifice”:
The middle of the day, twelve-oh-nine, and I just busted my mama out of jail. Aunt Liza always said that’s where she’d end up. She’s lucky this is her first time.
I inhale deep and let out all the air inside me in one long whoop. The cry is louder than the wind. Much louder than those howling voices that told me I should let her ass rot. Wilder than the thoughts claiming she deserved it, even when I reached Aunt Liza and she begged me, pleaded with me, then rebuked me saying God would punish me if I didn’t use everything I had to get my mother out. And it took everything I had. All twenty-five hundred of it. All twenty-five hundred dollars and eight months working in the English Department for full- time hours and part-time pay. All twenty-five hundred and six months taking double shifts, waitressing in the AM, bartending in the PM, every Saturday and Sunday fighting drunk, sweaty palms off my tits. Twenty-five hundred dollars—storage fees, yes, and tuition for one more class—everything I had, since she never taught me how to hold on to a dollar, or a man, or a job, or a college career. This sigh, my suffocated roar, would be alarming to most. Hell, it scares me.
My mother acts as if she doesn’t hear a thing.
“Ma, you know I came down here for something else.”
“Aunt Liza told you I was in jail and needed to get out. I know.”
“You don’t remember the storage auction?”
The radio DJ smears vinyl, winding one song into the next. And she still has nothing to say.
“Ma, I don’t have money like this.”
“I’ll pay you back. That’s why we going to Ronny’s.”
“What are you going to do if he’s there?”
“Don’t worry about it, it’ll be alright.”
“Oh, my God! How are you going to say, ‘don’t worry about it’?” She raises her thin, overgrown eyebrows at me. I taper the hysteria by gripping the steering wheel tight, twisting my palms around as if it were her neck. Her cigarette is on the edge of newly shined chocolate-glossed lips. A hint of sweetness puffs the wind, blowing hair wild over my forehead. Her mouth is tight around the speckled end so she can’t talk, changing the subject.
I sigh again, less ferocious.
She offers the open end of her soft-pack. I take a cigarette. I need a cigarette.
“We got into it. He told me to leave. I wasn’t going nowhere. So, he called the police. Domestic assault or some shit.”
My mother will be thirty-eight this year. October.
Her tank-top says, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me,” sans question mark.
My friends, my college friends, my Georgetown, black-student-union friends trying to prove they are down, even though they went to private schools and drive BMWs like everyone else not cashing in on affirmative action and financial aid as I am…
well, was, I guess
—those friends and I laugh at women who look like my mother: fake hair, fake nails, and fake eyelashes—“food-stamp fancy.” Us, the Afro-Punk intellectual bourgeoisie, with our naturals from the Black Power Movement, our Back to Africa, A Tribe Called Quest circa 1990 Kente cloth jeans, and our Talented Tenth loafers—The New Black Aesthetic—we’ve stolen our ancestors’ creativity with no real sense of what we’re doing with it other than wearing it on our bodies and pretending we know where it all comes from and what it all means. My friends and I, we laugh at women like my mother who have the misfortune of wearing ill-fitting factory made-in-Meh-he-co clothes and processed hair, because…oh, God bless her, she don’t know no better.
But, I’ve digressed.
My mother’s ass crack smirks at me over her jeans. Her head is between her knees. The rest of the envelope contents are on the floor: A small change purse and a few dollar bills.
She grunts, “You need gas money? I got seventeen dollars. There might be a Walmart gift card in here somewhere. You can buy something for your new place.”
The radio mixes another long zip of pulled wax.
In her (debut) memoir, How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman commands the line between fiction and nonfiction, using the transformative fluidity of genre to fuel her prose with passion, honesty, and detailed emotionality. Coleman denies readers the knowledge of which-is-which, presenting a unified force of writing. Regardless of genre, each piece exposes a woman of color’s evolving familial, romantic, and platonic relationships, for better or worse, through moments of trauma and triumph in our narrators’ lives.
A repeat narrator T brings us into her home throughout the collection, a home where she’s told to stay in her room as to not interrupt Grandma’s parties with alcohol, loud music, and married men. Later, to a near-empty bar, where a black woman tempts a college-aged white boy to touch her hair and she feels the control and cruelty that both parties flash through in the moment. We sit in the car of a girl forced to bail her mother out of jail. Feel the grief, guilt, and joy of a mother who gives birth to severely premature twins, and walk up to the bedside that Grandma died in hours earlier. We learn of a DNA test that reveals generations of a family tree rooted in ownership and abuse. Coleman weaves through narrators, stories, and settings, threading them all together in emotion, tone, and unbelievably precise detail.
The narrators in How to Sit dare readers to pass judgment before turning the page, making sure we read the entire collection before choosing what characters toward which to feel sympathy, resentment, kinship, or anger. Each life on the page develops in incredible unpredictability; they stand autonomously while making us wonder if we saw them a few pages back, and force readers to ask themselves, “I wonder if …?” time and again.
Coleman masterfully mixes stories and essays in How to Sit, complementing the raw emotionality of nonfiction with the imaginative freedom of fiction. Each piece builds an exposé-like experience for readers through a woman of color’s understanding of herself, her family, and her heritage and ultimately builds a fierce and unforgettable collection.
I interviewed Tyrese Coleman about this collection, asking especially about her relationship with what she defines as true.
Nicole Schmidt: At what point did you realize your writing required movement outside of classic genre borders? What changes in your process, if any, have you noticed since then?
Tyrese Coleman: Generally, I start from an event or emotion that is based on my real life. If I want to continue to pursue that event and/or emotion as it affects me, then I will continue on with the piece as an essay. That essay could incorporate many different genres and styles. I could include elements of poetry, or it could be a speculative essay that includes fictional elements. Depending on the subject matter, an essay may require speculation. For example, “Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results” is about my feelings on seeing my Ancestry.com DNA results. Those thoughts included speculation about my ancestors, who, because of I’m a Black American, I have no concrete information about. In order to really show what I felt and how I imagined these people, I had to incorporate elements of fiction using historical facts.
Sometimes, I want to create an autobiographical narrative but find that my own experience isn’t completely sufficient to represent the theme or shore up a “plot.” In those instances, I write a short story and allow myself the freedom to create whatever aspects of the narrative I feel are missing from the true-life story. Not everything needs to be an essay.
NS: Do you have any advice for writers who are unsure of what genre their work “should” fall under, and how to best serve the stories they’re trying to tell?
TC: My advice is to remember that you can include speculation and fiction in essays as long as you signal to the reader that what they are about to read or what they are currently reading is not a depiction of what happened in real life. Creative nonfiction is not journalism, so some aspect of projection is all right. Being a lawyer, it was hard for me to shake the feeling that I had to back up every statement I made with concrete evidence or facts. I realized though, through reading other writers, that I could play with what I say and how I say it as long as I make it clear that I am not representing the truth, but rather an interpretation of the truth. If you find that there is more interpretation than real life in one particular piece, maybe consider that you need to not submit it as an essay but as fiction or a narrative poem.
NS: With fulfilling so many incredible roles in your life, how do you navigate falling into the trap of “too busy” and still carve out time for your craft? What does your writing practice look like?
TC: I’ve realized that I must allow myself to lean into being tired or worn out when I feel that way. I try not to beat myself up about not writing when I am not writing, but that is harder said than done. I do, however, pay attention to myself. If I need to zone out and binge-watch something on Netflix instead of writing in the evenings, then I will do it. I spent a significant portion of this year doing exactly that. Mainly, because I was struggling with depression and a general feeling of sadness and unmotivation that had been lingering ever since my full-time job changed and my children’s crazy school schedule (and the election, to be honest). I am now in a place where I can pick up and start writing again.
When I have a reasonable schedule, I am a part of the “5 AM Writer’s Club.” I get up around 4:45 or 5am and write in our study for about two hours before everyone else in my house wakes up. I also try to write or read on my lunch breaks. If I have energy, I will read or write in the evenings after the kids go to bed. If I don’t make my early morning start, I will write in the evening to make up the time.
NS: How did you first become involved with writing? Has your educational or professional life encouraged or discouraged your pursuits in writing?
TC: I’ve always been a writer. I started at five and won a national book award when I was in kindergarten. I wrote the most terrible poetry throughout high school, worked on the school newspaper and wrote for the local newspaper, and then became an English literature major in undergrad. I entered college thinking I would go into journalism. However, I had a creative writing professor who was so discouraging that I stopped writing. I decided to pursue a legal career instead. I stopped writing for a very long time. After I passed the bar, I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do but work and that was just…ugh… I needed more fulfillment beyond my family and marriage, something that was just for me.
I started reading young adult novels that summer. All the Harry Potter books, The Hunger Games, the Divergent series–and I realized that none of the popular books had black girls as main characters. I decided to write my own book at that point. It will probably never see the light of day, but it was instrumental in reigniting the writing spark inside of me. I quickly realized that I still loved writing and that I wanted to do more than sit in my office and entertain myself. I took a class at the Writers Center in Bethesda, MD, and then went to the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins in the evenings for my masters. Haven’t stopped since.
NS: What does your crafting and revision process look like? What are some disciplines you would urge aspiring writers to adopt, or some vices you’d encourage them to drop?
TC: I am addicted to social media and doing unnecessary research. I can go down an Internet rabbit hole in a second and spend hours watching videos about all kinds of unrelated stuff. I swear by the Freedom app, which restricts internet access on your laptop or phone for a specific period of time. It forces me to focus only on what I am writing and not drift off doing things that I don’t need to be doing.
Most of my other process-related activities are done during editing. Generally, my editing rituals are to reduce word count, search for redundancies and flow. I read everything I write out loud to myself in order to make sure it moves and sounds right as well as to hear for any misplaced words.
NS: Did any of the plots or subjects in the stories and essays of How to Sit take you by surprise? Were there any you discovered needed different arrivals than originally planned?
TC: Not really. I think through the editing and workshopping process, you discover where you can improve on a piece, but I generally know where I want to go and what I want to do after I have the first draft written. I guess the surprise comes in when I first sit down to write and decide what I want to write about and what I want to say — at least when it comes to stories. However, I almost always outline or jot down points and ideas before any essay I write. I may not determine the style of an essay until I start writing it, but I pretty much know what I want to say beforehand. When it comes to stories, I just let the piece come out and then shape it up as I draft it and edit.
NS: How do you navigate audiences or peers who are uncomfortable with the ambiguity of genre in your work?
TC: Hmm…that is a good question. I haven’t had anyone really challenge me on it. I think I would ask them if they truly thought that a certain statement made in a piece was factual or speculation. I would want to know why they felt the way they did in order to improve my writing and find ways to make myself clearer.
NS: There are many emotional themes in this collection. How did you organize so many heavy subjects without letting them become truly unruly and overpower the collection?
TC: Any good piece of writing has to be balanced. I try not to overwrite scenes or sections that involve a lot of emotion because the emotion itself is strong enough. So, I’d say the organization comes in, not so much in the collection as a whole, but within each piece itself.
Pick up a copy of Tyrese Coleman’s memoir collection, How to Sit, online now. Look out for her at the Conversations and Connections Writers Conference on October 20 at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. Keep up with her publications and appearances on her website and follow her on Twitter.
Nicole Schmidt received her B.A. in Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction from Susquehanna University, earning departmental honors for her manuscript, The Long Way Home. She was the junior and senior fiction editor for Rivercraft, and served on council for Kappa Delta Sorority, of which she’s been an active member since 2015. She is a contributing editor for the Santa Fe Writers Project and an avid coffee drinker. Follow her on Twitter.