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.
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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.