Tyrese Coleman can’t pinpoint exactly when she decided she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her how to be. Was it when she was a young girl, and her grandmother slapped her foot to chastise her for crossing her legs like a grown woman? Or was it later, after she allowed herself to mourn that same grandmother’s death in a way even she worried might not be acceptable?
Just like there is no one way to live, there is no one way to write a memoir. Coleman’s debut collection, How to Sit, a memoir in essays and stories, declines to fit into any one traditional genre. Published by Mason Jar Press in September, the book leaves us wondering where the author’s life ends and her fiction begins—and whether that distinction matters, so long as her emotional truths are faithfully rendered.
In her author’s note, Coleman describes the work as a combination of “nonfiction and not-quite-nonfiction” about living between fantasy and reality. At its heart, How to Sit is a multi-generational story of black girlhood, womanhood, trauma, and triumph. It reminds us that when fact is inaccessible—whether physically or emotionally—we carry the truth in other ways.
Born and raised in Ashland, Virginia by her mother, great-aunt, and grandmother, Coleman shared a house with a rotating cast of male occupants until she was thirteen. There, she learned how to escape into fiction: to “open a book, press the scratchy paper to her face, harder, so she was almost inside it.” Eventually, she began writing in her own diary, creating “a new page, a new place, where he doesn’t exist, never existed.”
After college, Coleman pursued a law degree. But once she passed the Maryland Bar Exam, she returned to her craft, and has since published stories, essays, and criticism in Black Warrior Review, Buzzfeed, The Kenyon Review, Lithub, Pank, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She’s now a writing instructor at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, and the reviews editor at the flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly.
I called Coleman on a crisp fall day to discuss her mixed-genre collection. We spoke about the fiction inherent in memory, breaking the rules of writing, and getting to the heart of the truth—no matter the genre.
—Sarah Kasbeer for Guernica
Guernica: In How to Sit, you write that memory is not static. How does the fluidity of memory affect personal writing?
Tyrese Coleman: I think memory is heavily influenced by emotion, and the emotions that result from a particular memory. For example, I’m writing an essay right now about the first time I went back to a NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] after my sons were born there; it was almost five years later. The things I remembered about this hospital are tainted by the emotions I felt at the time. I recall feeling that the hospital reminded me of a church. There were a lot of gothic influences within the interior structure and design of the hospital, and Catholic imagery throughout.
I had a panic attack when I was there, and so when I think of this facility now, I imagine a place run by crazy nuns who lock up women because they’re hysterical. Because I felt hysterical. But I know that that’s not what the place looked like. I know if I go back today and see it in reality, it would look just like a normal-ass hospital with a bunch of crosses on the wall. So that’s what I mean by “memory isn’t static.” It changes. It’s the way it was in reality, and then—as you age and think on past events—how you feel taints the way the images come up in your mind.
As a writer, your emotions then impact how you put that memory on the page. You have a responsibility to make clear that this is how you see it in your head, based on these emotions. You can do that through poetic language; you can do that through speculative language; you can do that by saying, “This is how I remember it,” or “This is how I see it.” You’re not writing a journalistic fact. You’re not telling a story as if you were in your car dictating to yourself: “Well, the trees are green and the sky is blue.” Those are definable facts. You’re writing using lyrical language to convey certain emotions that are also a part of that memory, and that memory is not going to be true to the exact reality. But the memory is true to yourself, to your feelings.
Guernica: How do you know if a work of personal writing should become fiction or nonfiction?
Coleman: I decide once the piece is done, as long as there aren’t any signifiers that some parts are true and some parts are not. “Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results” has elements of speculative essay-writing: elements of me creating a fiction around who I envision my ancestors to be. I don’t know who my ancestors are. Being a Black person in America, I really have no way of knowing who my ancestors are past a certain date. So I can only speculate. I can only envision or make up who they are, based on what I know about my ancestry and where I’ve come from. That piece is an essay because mixed in with speculative stories is my personal true-to-life experiences, like meeting my grandfather for the first time, and how I pretended to be adopted because my father was dark-skinned and my mother was light-skinned and I was in the middle. I’ve alerted the reader that the other things are speculative, like whether or not my ancestor arrived in Jamestown.
The story “Prom Night” started off as something I was going to write as creative nonfiction. There is a nonfiction version of that story, but as I was writing it, I thought, This is kind of boring. The real-life version of what happened isn’t as interesting as the way I put it together in the story. And there are no indicators; there’s nothing that says to the reader, “This isn’t true,” or, “This isn’t real.” It feels like a story.
Guernica: In that story, “Prom Night,” you wrote about a sexual encounter between the teenage character “T” and two boys. I assumed it was a short story, and yet it felt truer than I imagine it might as a personal essay. In what ways does genre limit or expand the expression of truth?
Coleman: I think you can manipulate fiction more to expand truth. You can be more deliberate. Obviously, you don’t want your story to feel contrived, but I don’t necessarily believe in this “the character made me do it” thing that I hear from a lot of people who write fiction. You don’t want to go outside of what you’ve already established about a character, but at the same time, you have to be deliberate about what you’re writing.
If you want your writing to reveal a certain level of truth, that’s where the skill of being a competent storyteller comes into play. Fiction is able to express a universal truth in more ways than nonfiction can, in some respects. I think that’s why they say that the more specific a detail, the more universal a story feels. And that’s true across genre. When it comes to nonfiction, readers are going to relate to the essence of what you’re trying to get at, but they may not necessarily relate to the story itself. I do think it’s more possible to get to the truth, to the heart of the matter, in fiction.
Guernica: In the essay, “Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results,” you are forced to speculate about your ancestors in order to fill in the gaps. Do you think fiction can act as a counterweight to cultural erasure?
Coleman: I have no choice but to speculate. I don’t have any archival evidence to go after, to look at and prove beyond a doubt that my ancestors were part of this boat coming to America. I don’t have any family trees. There are no family crests. I just have whatever publicly available records there are. But at the same time, creating this family mythology gives me a little bit of comfort. The fact that I don’t have this family ancestry is actually something I’m really angry about.
Fiction allows me to imagine who these people were. I have no other way of feeling that anchor. I’m only speaking for myself, because there may be people who aren’t looking for that, who don’t want that, who don’t necessarily need that in their lives. But for me, I really want to know where I come from, and I can’t, and it’s frustrating. So being able to incorporate this into a piece about how I have interacted with these sort of missing folks—who shouldn’t necessarily be missing from my life—is something that I really wanted to do.
Guernica: Race is woven into the fiber of your stories, but it’s not necessarily the focus. Was that a deliberate choice?
Coleman: I wasn’t intentionally trying to write a book about race. But the book is about identity, and race is a part of my identity, so there’s no way to separate a discussion about who I am in my life without incorporating race into that in some way. And I think that’s probably the way I think about who I am in general. It’s always something that’s in the back of my mind, but I don’t constantly focus on it.
Guernica: I guess what I’m asking is, there are a lot of people who are writing specifically about race, and rightly so. Do you believe that having issues related to race embedded in a character’s identity is the future of Black literature?
Coleman: I think that there’s always going to be a place for discourse around race, as long as we are Americans and this is our history and our culture. I don’t necessarily think there will ever be a time when we’re not going to need some explicit discussion about race. But I think that when it comes to storytelling and modern contemporary writing from Black authors specifically, race is a part of their character’s identity, but it’s not the sole discussion of that person’s life. It’s not necessarily what drives the plot, or what makes the characters act, or a catalyst for their interaction with others.
When you think about Black literature from the 20th century, race drives the characters’ actions in a different way than what you would see in literature created now. Our lives aren’t defined as much by our race as they used to be. I think it’s consistent with who we are, how we live our lives. I don’t go around, you know, feeling like I can’t interact with white people because I’m Black. But I’m pretty certain if this were a hundred years ago, that would be the case. So a character wouldn’t necessarily be hindered by the fact that she’s a Black woman in the same way that she would have been in a different era, and the writing is going to reflect that.
I just read collections by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Heads of The Colored People) and Jamel Brinkley (A Lucky Man), and they really epitomize this. I’m certain that if you look at other writers from other cultures who are talking about marginalized communities, you’ll find that their stories are going to be about marginalization being part of their characters’ identities, but not what defines them in the way it would have in previous years—especially if these are contemporary characters. I think we’re moving ahead with different ways to express being a part of a marginalized group, past “I’m Black,” or “I’m gay,” or “I’m an immigrant,” or “I’m disabled.” It’s going to be “Yes, I’m Black,” or “Yes, I’m a lesbian, but I have another issue I need to deal with that may or may not have anything to do with that.” That’s just progression of time, in my opinion.
Guernica: In “V-Day,” you write about the feeling of guilt after a difficult pregnancy and premature birth. It’s often said that trauma lives in the body. Is there a relationship between the body and guilt?
Coleman: A lot of the things that we indulge in, and that I was taught were sinful, involve making your body feel a certain sense of pleasure. If you were brought up that way, you might conclude that indulging in certain things associated with the body—and making your body feel a certain sense of pleasure—is, in and of itself, sinful. If you do those things with a mindset like the one I was brought up with, then you’re gonna feel guilty about that bodily sense of pleasure. So yes, I do think that you can carry guilt inside your body and also associate that with trauma, for sure.
Guernica: You’ve written about sexual abuse in a very matter-of-fact way, without shame or apology. I found your approach refreshing, especially given the current cultural conversation around this topic. Did you think about how you would address it when you were writing the book?
Coleman: We talked earlier about bodies and how feelings of guilt and trauma are stored within the body. I feel like within my body, within Tyrese, there are a lot of things stored. There’s the exterior presentation of a black woman in her late thirties, and everything that’s stored just within that identity. But also stored within this body is a history of pleasure and displeasure, that provides a layer of complexity and emotion. And if I were to give in to how deep those emotions are every time I went to write about them, I would never get anything significant on the page. I would always be, you know, in a ball crying.
At some point I decided that if I was going to speak about all the things that are trapped or experienced in this body, I had to be able to just put it out there. I can’t tiptoe around it. I can’t be subtle about it. I can’t be afraid of it. I think that a lot of women who have experienced the things I’ve experienced, and are angry about it, are at the point where they no longer want to tiptoe around the subject, or be coy about it, or act as if they’re ashamed of it—as if it is their fault. Recognizing that feeling, and the emotions around what happened, is a part of a process. It’s part of how you store those things within you.
I personally feel like it’s a matter of fact: this happened to me. It’s something that took place. I can’t change that. I try to be as honest as I can, and I think part of that honesty comes across in the tone of my writing as well.
Guernica: In “How to Mourn,” the narrator lets us in on her writing process, almost as if by accident. Did you start with the idea of writing a craft essay, or did the subject matter naturally lead you there?
Coleman: I started writing that essay when my grandmother died. I felt a sense of alarm at the fact that the first thing that came to mind was writing about it, instead of talking to my mother or my uncle to see how I could be helpful in this time of grieving. No, my thought was, Look at these trees. How could I write about this? How could I write about how nice a day this is? How am I gonna express this? And it was this weird feeling of being outside of myself in that moment. It was a meta upon meta upon meta situation. I was writing the essay because I couldn’t really wrap my mind around what I felt should have been a normal thing: how someone else would have dealt with the death of their grandmother. But I didn’t need to write an essay about the day my grandmother died. I needed to write an essay about why I wanted to write an essay about the day my grandmother died.
Because, ultimately, that is why I write. I write because I’m not able to process certain emotions or feelings in the moment, the way they should be processed, and I’d much rather allow myself to float above them and not connect with what’s happening. I give the outward impression that I am connecting, when really, in my mind, I’m doing something completely different. It’s funny because now, when I’m doing that, I’m less able to hide it. I don’t know if that’s just a part of aging. I used to be a much better actress.
Guernica: What informs your sense of how and when to break the rules of writing?
Coleman: In that particular piece, I broke rules because it was an essay about craft. When I think about the rules of grieving, or how someone is supposed to mourn, those rules don’t include being fixated on writing an essay about your grandmother dying. If you were to talk to someone who isn’t a writer, and they tell you about their grandmother passing away, they’re probably not going to say, “I was thinking about how I was going to phrase the fact that it was a beautiful day.”
In writing that piece, I wanted to explore some of the ways rules are broken: how to break the rules of writing, the rules of grieving, the rules of how to be a part of a family, the rules about how to be a grandmother, the rules about how to be a granddaughter, or the rules about how to have a funeral. And the ways we break these rules without even knowing. As for the rules about point-of-view, there are obviously essays written in the third person, but they’re few and far between, and can be hard to read. So when I wrote this essay in the third person, I made it a trick—it was actually in the first person. It was me wanting to tell a story, because I felt like I was in a story, but it was real life.
Guernica: Is that why you made this book a memoir in stories and essays?
Coleman: I think it makes people uncomfortable to talk about fiction and nonfiction coexisting. There are people out there who want to be very strict, and have a clear definition of fiction versus nonfiction. But if we’re really honest with ourselves about memoir, we realize we’re going to speculate more often than we thought, because we’re writing from memory. We’re not going out and doing investigative journalism; that’s totally different.
I think some memoirists—and now I’m totally preaching—feel uncomfortable admitting to themselves that their memories aren’t infallible, and that sometimes they are fictionalizing some aspects of what they’re writing. What I’m saying is: embrace it. You have to use whatever toolkit you have as a writer to create a voice and a feeling of imagination and poetry in your work, rather than feel like you’re illegitimate because you don’t have it a hundred percent right.
Guernica: I think that’s good advice for anyone writing about their personal history.
Coleman: Just lean into it. I mean, lean into it, and make it known that you’re leaning into it. But don’t be afraid of admitting when your memory fails you.