Pull Up a Chair: A Conversation with Tyrese Coleman

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Tyrese Coleman’s debut memoir, How to Sit, is a genre-blurring collection that takes readers on an unflinching journey through different stages in her life: as a Black girl, woman, mother, and daughter. Along the way, we learn how complicated family history and relationships, trauma, social class, and place have shaped who she is today.

How to Sit was published by Mason Jar Press in September 2018 and is a contender for the 2019 PEN Open Book Award. Coleman describes her collection as “nonfiction and not-quite-fiction,” which means you can’t help but play the guessing game while reading. Did she really let that white boy touch her hair? Did she really spend all her money bailing her mother out of jail? Did she really have Magic Mike fantasies while on bed rest during her pregnancy? By the end of the book, it didn’t seem to matter which was which because the stories were told with power and vulnerability, her life laid bare in pages rich with music, grief, guilt, love, and forgiveness.

In addition to being a writer, Coleman is a lawyer, mother, and reviews editor for an online flash fiction journal, SmokeLong Quarterly. I called her late one Saturday night in December after our kids were asleep or supposed to be asleep. We spoke about the line between fiction and nonfiction, sexuality, Black women, Black music and culture, and staying true to your voice as a writer of color.

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The Rumpus: I loved your book. There’s a note at the beginning that says the memoir and not-quite fiction aren’t identified to make the reader wonder about what is or isn’t true and whether that matters. It was a kind of mysterious and intriguing way to open; I know I made my guesses about the pieces in the collection. Why did you decide not to tell us which were which?

Tyrese Coleman: I didn’t want to write something that felt straightforward. I wanted to interact with people in a different way, especially because regardless of whether or not it was an essay or a short story, they’re all based on some aspect of my life.

Autofiction is something becoming more talked about now; a good chunk of fiction is thinly veiled memoir. I didn’t intentionally set out to do that when I started writing fiction. I think it’s a way for people to try to find a point where they can enter a story and usually it’s easier to find that access point by looking inward at something that happened to you.

Most of the people who are going to read this book are writers, so I wanted to interact with those individuals and confront how they may see what’s real or what isn’t real in their own writing or at least in this book.

Rumpus: When was the first piece written and how long had you been writing the pieces in this collection?

Coleman: The very first piece I ever had published is “I Am Karintha” and I wrote that when I first started grad school in 2012. “I Been Changed,” that’s the most recent one. I wrote that piece in Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash course. I felt like I needed to do something that was going to give me a good inventory of stories to work with and Kathy’s class was perfect, I recommend it highly.

Rumpus: I really liked how your book starts and ends with your grandmother.

Coleman: I told my publisher that was the only rule I had, that the book had to start with “How to Sit” and end with “How to Mourn.”

Rumpus: In that final piece, you talk about the realization you were so upset at your grandmother but also mad at yourself for acting like you weren’t like her and while I was reading, I said out loud, “Ohhhhh.” It was an aha moment.

Coleman: In “How to Sit” she was alive, and I was really mad at her. “How to Mourn” was the trajectory of my feelings. There is something profound that happens in between that time where the person is alive and you are actively dealing with whatever it is that causes your feelings and when that person has passed and you process what happened. I admit in “How to Mourn” that a lot of what I felt in “How to Sit” was due to my own behavior.

Rumpus: When I first got your book, I read it out of order, just picked it up and opened it to “V-day” and I had to stop and restart it because it felt like something I wasn’t supposed to be reading, like I was your little sister sneaking into your room to read your diary. How does it feel to have something out in the world that is so personal?

Coleman: It feels very weird. It’s the truth. I think one of my first instincts was to hide under a rock for a while after the book came out, but then I was like, this is what happened to me, this is what I know. I’m a grown woman and if I can’t speak my own truth, then who will?

I feel like that essay—“V-day”—is only embarrassing to someone who has hang-ups about masturbation. I just think about the way I felt when I wrote that essay. I needed to get it out. Nobody knew except for my husband, Kevin, what truly happened when I went into labor and it was weighing on me because I felt guilty that I had done something so self-indulgent, which resulted in something that could’ve been traumatic. At times it may come across as flippant but that was my attempt to hide the guilt and the anger, which comes out a little later in the piece. I was in the midst of feeling like these people were looking at me and looking at my premature babies and seeing me or us as, “Oh poor them, this is so terrible” and feeling sympathetic. In my mind, it was my fault. There was no way to put that out there and not be real about it.

I think a lot about my sexual history and I wanted to talk about it. I didn’t want to be shameful about it because that was who I was for a long time and I wasn’t a bad person.

I went to see Michelle Obama on her book tour and she was talking about how she is now talking publicly about her IVF story, infertility, and her miscarriage. She said that people who know her know that she talks about those things freely, but it just wasn’t talked about in public in the greater conversation and that’s how I am. Anyone who knows me knows I will talk about these things, but out in public it may not be so commonly known.

It’s kind of freaky to realize that strangers are reading, not so much my friends reading the book but the strangers. You know, the old lady at the book reading who picks up my book after she hears me read “How to Mourn.” She said, “That was delightful, let me get this book.” And this older white gentleman bought my book and I thought, “Oh my gosh.”

Rumpus: Well, he’s in for a surprise. I enjoyed what you just said about not being shameful about it, that definitely comes across in your writing, from sexual abuse to owning your sexuality. I think it’s powerful to see you telling these stories about all the ways that sex is involved in our lives and not being shameful about it.

Coleman: It wasn’t always like that. Something about confronting it as I’m writing helps to release that shame. It’s almost like a declaration, an admission that these things happened to me and this is how I feel about it.

“How to Mourn” felt difficult for me to write; it’s a really strange essay because I was writing it at the time that these things were happening, not in retrospect. I was literally trying to figure out how I felt about her death as I was writing it out and feeling guilty that I needed to do that. When I talk about releasing the shame it comes through the process of writing. It’s a deliberate thing. A lot of the pieces in the book are just me thinking about something and responding to my feelings about those memories that come up, especially “How to Sit.”

Rumpus: Responding to memories and feelings is a thing your book does well. It brought up memories of my own, especially with all the musical references; it took me back in time. I found myself humming some of the songs you mention while I read. It really helped place me in the scene and in time, especially that piece named after the gospel song.

Coleman: “I Been Changed.”

Rumpus: Yes, you took me to church. How did music inform or inspire your writing?

Coleman: I’ve always been surrounded by music, I listen to music when I write sometimes. This is what happens: I’ll be sitting in my living room writing something and I’ll think about a song. For example, not too long ago I was thinking about Juvenile’s “Ha,” so of course I Googled “Ha” and watched the video, and then I went down the rabbit hole of all the Cash Money songs and somehow ended up at Luther Vandross.

Rumpus: I fall down those YouTube rabbit holes and you start with one video and end up hours later wondering how you got to the most random video that didn’t have to do with your starting point.

Coleman: Music is incorporated because of my procrastination; I’m probably procrastinating working on something by going through video after video of random songs. I know for a fact that “I Been Changed” came from me watching old videos of gospel songs. I don’t even know if I was trying to find something for another piece. Then it just kind of unfolded from there. I feel like that’s usually how pop culture gets incorporated into people’s work.

There’s this woman on Twitter who does music sermons on Sunday, have you seen that? Her name is Naima and every Sunday she’ll do a sermon where it’s like a history lesson on certain R&B artists or rap artists or soul artists. For example, she’ll do a whole thread talking about Heavy D and his influence on pop culture or she’ll do songs about breaking up. I love her music sermons and Sunday night is when I’m sitting in my chair writing and then I look at Twitter and realize I now have spent five hours looking at Heavy D and remembering how he once did a song with Jodeci.

Rumpus: My first concert was Jodeci and Heavy D came out with Soul for Real. That music sermon sounds like it’s right up my alley.

Coleman: You’re on Twitter; you should follow her. If you follow those sermons you’ll be online all night long.

Rumpus: Did you see the Ava DuVernay video going around on Twitter today? It’s a clip where she talks about how she doesn’t want to be seen as a woman filmmaker or a Black filmmaker, she wants to be seen as a Black woman filmmaker because that’s the lens that all these stories are filtering through. And that made me think of how Toni Morrison said she writes for Black people and she won’t apologize for it. In your book you mention that your ideal reader is a Black woman, educated, mature, and not easily offended. When I read that I thought, “This is why I like her writing so much, because she’s writing for me.” When did you realize who your ideal reader was?

Coleman: When I wrote that, I was talking about myself, but also for my Grandma and for you, and for other Black women, that’s who I feel is my audience, that’s who I write for. Like Ava DuVernay said that’s where I’m coming from, that’s my lens and my point of view, and I also won’t apologize for it. I have never thought about writing any other way. I never even contemplated writing for anyone else but myself and other women who look like me and if other people relate to it, that’s cool. I’m happy that they do, and I want them to continue to relate to it because there are more people than Black women in the world, obviously. But I don’t care about whether or not they understand what I’m saying. I mean, if you get my references, LaToya, then I’m happy.

Rumpus: And you have a lot of Black American cultural references. All the music, the family member nicknames, calling somebody stuck-up a “white girl,” the hair, the colorism. This book would resonate with someone who is not a Black woman, but as a Black woman when I read it, it made me think of how I felt about Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, like, this is for us.

Coleman: That’s very true. When I was in my writing program I felt some kind of way. There were two factions: there was an instructor I had who was very complimentary in the fact that I didn’t compromise my voice but then there were some people, like this guy—I wrote a story, “Tuna,” and I had one dude say, “Well, I don’t speak Ebonics, but I feel like this is authentic.”

I had a lot of people in my class who kept trying to fix my grammar and I would get so mad because those things were not unintentional. It wasn’t like I didn’t realize that you’re not supposed to have a double negative or whatever it is they would try to correct. I was writing from my dialect, from the way that I speak, the way that I hear other people in my community speak. They wanted me to change these things so that it became easier for them to understand and I was not having it. I have refused to make those changes because that’s just not real to me.

A lot of writers of color feel pressure to make those grammatical changes and make those sentences go a certain way to make their work more universal and I’m just not interested in that. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but there’s enough of that. I am so tired of picking up something and knowing that it was not meant for my point of view or even consideration. I’m still going to read it, I’m still going to watch it and enjoy it, but I want to, at some point, feel like there is somebody out there doing something for me.

Rumpus: Well, that’s how I feel about your work. I love your “Speculum” piece that was in the latest issue of Black Warrior Review. I feel like that piece goes back to the note at the beginning of your book again, about whether it matters that a piece is memoir or fiction or a combination of the two. “Speculum” does what your book is doing in one hybrid piece, your experience and bringing in the history of gynecology and the story of Lucy, an enslaved woman. Are you working on more writing like this? What are you working on now?

Coleman: I’m kind of worn out about talking about myself. I will tell you this. I am not going to be doing a lot of memoir in the near future. If I write a personal essay, then okay, it will be a personal essay. I don’t think I’m going to mix my emotions and history to the same degree that I did with this book. I haven’t written fiction in a long time, so I’m looking forward to not being in my own life for a while. That will be my focus for 2019. I think I need that more than anything else because of all the stuff that’s being going with 45 and the caravan and the kids, and Kavanaugh. I realize I’ve been trying to escape all this drama by Netflix bingeing.

Rumpus: Yes, I have noticed all your Netflix-binge tweeting.

Coleman: I actually started a romance novel in response to my binge watching. It’s giving me life right now. It started off as me resurrecting an old novel that I started several years ago and thinking it was going to be this cute, mental candy thing. But, of course, I cannot write anything that doesn’t involve race, or identity, or class, or grief. So, right now, I don’t know if it’s still a “romance,” but it’s definitely a love story, and I am really enjoying writing it, and I am excited for people to read it!

I was working on the follow up to “Speculum,” but had to take a break. I have to work my way back into heavier topics. I want to write a novel based on Lucy, the slave that Dr. Sims experimented on.

Rumpus: Did I tell you that they moved the statue of him near where I live? If you need me to go spit on it or take a picture, let me know.

Coleman: Maybe just take a picture of it.


LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, Thick-Skinned Sugar (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016. Her writing has appeared in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Mom Egg Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and more. Visit her at latoyajordan.com. More from this author →