by Kate Finegan
Tyrese Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and attorney. She is also an associate 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, Hobart, listed in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (very) short fictions, and The Kenyon Review. You can find her at tyresecoleman.com.
We discussed How to Sit – her genre-bending memoir exploring adolescence, identity, grief, and the transition between girlhood and womanhood – over the phone. This transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.
Kate Finegan: How to Sit is a book that teaches the reader how to read it. The title reflects this, as does the author's note. In your author's note, you say that "memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” In interviews, you've spoken quite a bit about the lines between fiction and nonfiction and how our memories complicate and illuminate the truth of a moment. I'd like to hear how you chose the epigraph for the collection, from Gwendolyn Brooks, which notes that "the little moment [...] will not come / Again in this identical guise." Is this a comment on memory, as well? Do these lines reflect how you view the world through a writer's eyes, as you discuss in “How to Mourn”?
Tyrese Coleman: Everyone wants to believe that nonfiction is nonfiction is nonfiction, meaning it's true, it's true, it's true, it's true. But is that even really possible? Is it really possible to say that something is true when every time it gets revisited, it's going to shift? It's going to be different in my memory than it is in your memory or someone else's memory. All that remains are basic facts, like it happened on this day, at this time. You can verify the weather, you can verify the facts, but emotion isn't a verifiable fact. Memoir is interesting when it explores the spaces beyond just the facts. If you want to just read the facts, pick up a newspaper. Read or listen to journalism. That's where the facts are. But in memoir, that's not what's interesting. That's why I chose that particular quote.
"How to Mourn" is in essence a craft essay, and it is all about point of view, and the point of view shifts because I wasn't particularly ready to deal with my point of view towards my grandmother, but I also wasn't equipped with the emotional maturity to say, "Well, these things that I thought about this woman aren't true and I had to work my way through it.” Again, it goes back to that idea that the way that I remember something isn't going to necessarily be the way that someone else remembers it. I would be lying if I said that everything is 100% true, even if it's a straight-up essay because I use a lot of speculation. I think that a lot creative nonfiction writers also do, and they just don't want to admit to it.
KF: I think it's really freeing to kind of step back and say, “This is how I remember it, and the things I don't remember, I'm going to speculate on.” That brings me to a question that came out of reading an interview that you did for Guernica, where you urged writers not to be afraid of admitting when your memory fails you. I found myself thinking about it a lot as I was reading the collection, but especially “Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results.” We have individual memory, but this one speaks to memory that's been stolen from black Americans. How can writing beyond the bounds of what is known and remembered, especially by history, be an act of decolonization? Or maybe liberation? Can it be a way to reclaim what's been taken in any sense?
TC: I personally feel like yes, I want to add a voice for people who have been lost to colonization, racism, and all of that. I want to give them something to say and make them present, not just like apparitions or a collective. I want to speak from an individual perspective. For instance, there are records from people who were enslaved, their stories were recorded, but those are often commonly used to generate a collective kind of story. Textbooks or straight nonfiction books use the research to claim that “Sometimes slaves would do X thing,” and then provide proof. For example, I'm reading a book called They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers. It's about white women and slave owners in the American South and is based on her research into mostly married white women who owned slaves in their own right. She's done a tremendous amount of research and it’s beautiful and amazing, and she'll make a statement and then back it up by citing some particular anecdote that happened in a courtroom, for instance. I love this book, but while it gives voice to the enslaved, it doesn't give emotion to the enslaved in the same way. In these types of stories, you hear about something tragic and you feel an emotion, but it's a very matter of fact way of dealing with the history.
In my work, I want to create a character, create a person and emotions for that individual, and create authority for that person. I want to incorporate Stephanie’s research in making characters fully dimensional and fully fleshed out and allowing the reader to connect with them on a human, more emotional level. A project that I'm working on right now is building a story for one of the slaves who was experimented on by Dr. J. Marion Sims. All we know about her is her name, that she was there with him at his hospital, and what he did to her, and all of it is from his perspective, his point of view, his account, his autobiography, and no one asked her a thing. But she and the other women were at his home and his makeshift hospital for about four years, so at some time during her time she learned how to do this operation and how to assist him. That’s four years of learning from a medical doctor how to be a doctor, how to do operations. I realized that when I first read his autobiography. She must have left knowing so much. That's one of the things that I want to explore with my next book – well, one of my next books.
KF: Your work often speaks to the acts of writing and reading. For instance, in “How to Mourn,” you discuss the emotional distance that can sometimes happen with writers. This direct address reminded me of your piece in the recent Split Lip print issue, “What Happened to the Phillips?” That also has a bit of a wink to the audience where the narrator says, “No, truly. This isn't some piece about a lonely near-middle-aged woman with unfulfilled dreams – you and I know that shit's cliché.” I loved what you said in an interview with Kenyon Review where you said you give yourself permission to call a cliché, cliché. In your development as a writer, did these direct nods to the reader come naturally, as you were starting to write? Or is it something that you developed and became more comfortable with over time?
TC: It's definitely something I've become more comfortable with over time, but honestly, we all like to believe that there are people in the world outside of our literary circles reading our books and our essays and whatever, but it's all writers. So why not just talk to them? Why not engage with them as a colleague? I would love for random Joe Schmo in North Dakota, who has nothing to do with a bookstore or a literary magazine, to read my book, but in these small press circles, our audience is fellow writers. So, at some point, I decided to tell you it's cliché because you know its cliché because you are a writer.
KF: I find it very fresh. And then at the same time, it almost kind of harkens back to books like Jane Eyre, when it says, “Dear reader, I married him.” But a lot of people aren't doing it now, and you're doing it with this awareness of, “Hey, you're a writer that's reading this.” Did anyone ever question it in workshop?
TC: I workshopped “How to Mourn,” but the whole purpose of that story is the nod wink kind of thing to the reader, so no one questioned it there. I work for SmokeLong, and we have an editors' workshop, so they read “What Happened to the Phillips?” They didn't really comment on that either, so I guess people just accept it as part of the piece.
KF: That's amazing because sometimes workshops can crush the things that are creative and innovative.
TC: At least for right now, I don't want people reading the things that I'm working on. I don't know if this is a controversial thing or not. But I'm working on another novel, and I started letting people read it before I finished a full draft and knew exactly what I wanted it to be about. Their feedback created more questions in my head than was necessary, so I decided that I don't know if workshopping works for me right now. In the future I might let people that I know and trust read my work.
KF: I don't think that's controversial at all. I'm at the same place. I actually just, after much hemming and hawing, quit my writers group, because I'm starting something new, and I don't want to get confused by other people's views. I need to get my vision for it and then get other people's ideas. I think everyone has to find a process that works in terms of getting feedback.
My first introduction to your work was hearing you read at the Barrelhouse Conversations and Connections Conference in Pittsburgh. It was a phenomenal reading, so I'm wondering how you go about crafting a good reading. What are your strategies for picking material, preparing, and delivering?
TC: I have several pieces that are my reading pieces. I usually go with an idea of what I may read based on what people have given me in terms of length. I am of the opinion that if you're going to read something, read shorter sections, or read something that is already broken down into shorter sections because standing up and reading the same piece for fifteen minutes is not that interesting for the reader or the audience. That's what I've learned over time. And so that's one rule that I'm trying to follow.
Another rule is to look at the audience. As I read more and more and more, I'm starting to memorize things, so my goal is to one day be able to be like one of those amazing poets who know their work inside and out.I'm trying to read the same things over and over so that I can start to memorize. I don't necessarily make eye contact with any one individual in the room, but I try to scan the room, so I raise my head during those moments that I have memorized.
Another thing that I try to do is if there is a person in the story that speaks a particular way, then I'm going to put on that person's voice. Or if they're singing, I'm going to sing. I want to make it more interesting.
And then lastly, I am not afraid to hold the microphone. I prefer to actually hold the microphone than have it on a stand. A lot of people are afraid of the mic and there is something empowering in holding a microphone. It can give you energy. It helps you. It's your friend.
KH: Okay, last question, because this is Barrelhouse…what is your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
TC: Dirty Dancing, of course. I'm a sucker for romance (and young Swayze *chef's kiss*) and I pretty much know the whole movie by heart.
Kate Finegan has had work published in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, Prism International, Phoebe Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, The Size of Texas, is available from Penrose Press. She is Assistant Fiction Editor at Longleaf Review. You can find her at katefinegan.ink and twitter.com/@kehfinegan.