This book review is written by Raima Larter, a Little Patuxent Review fiction reader.
Local publisher Mason Jar Press of Baltimore has just published the debut collection, How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, by Tyrese Coleman, a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Coleman has a strong engaging voice with important things to say. Her collection of stories and essays is unique in the way it combines fiction and non-fiction to create a true memoir. I was struck by the way the story builds from chapter to chapter, some fictional, others not, showing us how one young girl became a woman while growing up in a world that might have broken a weaker soul.
The book takes its title from the opening story in which the character we later come to know as “T” is taught by her grandmother how a young lady is supposed to sit in Grandma’s house, a home filled with a constant parade of older men, most fueled by alcohol. We follow T to prom night, to college, to motherhood and beyond, at one point exploring her family roots through a DNA analysis that reveals more than a few surprises. The memoir returns us to Grandma’s death bed where T must finally confront what is real and what is fiction. She says, “If this were fiction, we would’ve gotten to this part by now. The part where T pulls back the curtain and sees her dead grandmother’s body…”
All through this book, it is never clear what is truth and what is fiction. I thought this might be a problem, but that was before I read the book and found that it is actually one of its great strengths; Coleman shows us how the truth about one’s own life is sometimes revealed more fully when we take a step outside ourselves and look at our life the way someone else might see it.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Coleman about the experience of writing this book. My questions (RL) and her answers (TC) follow.
* * *
RL: The structure of your book is one I haven’t seen anywhere else—a mosaic of fictional and non-fictional components that add up to a memoir. How did you get the idea to use this structure?
TC: Honestly, it was not a *completely* deliberate thing. At some point, I looked back at my work and realized that I was writing about the same topics and about my childhood, parenting, or grief and that there was a through line that existed with several pieces of my work. I’d tried and considered different formats of how to do a collection. One iteration was a chapbook of flash creative nonfiction and another was a collection of short stories. I was afraid to put the fiction in with the nonfiction until I realized that other writers had done this. For example, David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever combines some of his stories and some of his essays. That is a completely different sort of collection from mine, but knowing that a book could contain both stories and essays opened my mind up to the possibility that putting these two seemingly different types of writing in the same book wasn’t actually too crazy of an idea. When I first discussed this with Mason Jar Press, we had thought to say which stories were fiction and which were nonfiction, but ultimately decided to leave it a mystery for the reader.
RL: In one of the essays, you describe your ideal reader as a black woman who is educated, understands your cultural references, is mature and not easily offended, etc. As a sixty-three year old white woman who grew up on a cattle ranch in the west, I’m probably not your ideal reader, but I identified, in a deeply personal way, with much of what you write about. In other words, you’ve hit on some universal truths in this book. How do you accomplish this, as a writer?
TC: I recall hearing back in graduate school the saying, “the more specific the detail, the more universal it is.” I take this to heart and believe that the closer we get to our own truth and experiences, the more relatable our stories become. I believe in the power of the concrete: concrete images, concrete sentences, and concrete structures that may relate to abstract ideas but clearly show the intent of the writer. It takes a long time to craft sentences that I feel show exactly what I want them to and I think that makes all the difference in being able to get my point across to as many people as possible.
RL: As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s an ongoing conversation in the writing community about the need for, and value of, an MFA or equivalent degree. You and I met in a graduate program like this, and I wonder what your feelings are now about how useful it was for your writing career. Many (or most) of our readers on this blog are writers themselves, so will be interested in your take on this.
TC: I think going to Hopkins was exactly what I needed and it inevitably changed my life. I mean this. I do not think that I would be where I am now or would’ve even known this position existed without having attended our writing program. Are there things that I would’ve changed or have liked to have seen that wasn’t available when I attended? Of course. But ultimately, what I needed was (1) a community of people who were in similar positions in their lives and careers, (2) information on where to start after I made the declaration, “I want to write,” and (3) access to professionals who were approachable and encouraging. I got all of this and more.
I also think that there is value in knowing what kind of graduate program works for you. I was an older student (in my early 30s at the time I started) with a full-time job, a mortgage, and, very soon after I started, two small children. There was no way I was going to upend my life to go to a MFA program that would require me to quit my job to attend classes and teach, or even a low-residency program that would require me to leave my family for a period of time. The Writing Program at Johns Hopkins gave me the opportunity to learn how to be a better writer while maintaining my life. Attending the program was training for what it would take to be a writer while maintaining my life. In the program, I had to learn how to balance my job and home life while reading and writing and finishing assignments. The skills I learned in being able to maintain that level of responsibility and accountability have helped me transition past graduation and into writing and teaching as part of my professional life. There is no way I would have become this disciplined without going through the program first.
I think anyone who is in a position where they are just starting out at something, should take stock of what they want to achieve. If graduate school fits in with that, then they should think about how they see their lives once they are done with that program, and then try to find one that helps them accomplish that goal.
RL: Will we see more books from Tyrese Coleman? (I hope so!) Are you working on anything now?
TC: Well, I am working on a book that discusses the experience of black women and the medical profession. Personal stories about being a medical slave that also include the fictional stories of medical slaves.
“How to Sit” is available now from Mason Jar Press and can be ordered here.