“How to Mourn,” by Tyrese L. Coleman, appears in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes, “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance . . . the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” There is a difference between merely reporting the facts—the raw material—and telling a story that engages the reader. Events gain meaning and become a story only as they are shaped by the narrator.
The narrator in Tyrese L. Coleman’s essay “How to Mourn” announces her problem immediately. “If you read my fiction, you will find a character named Grandma. In real life, she is dead. This is the story of her death. A story this writer, the main character—T—began drafting the moment she knew Grandma was not long for this earth. A story more like a performance—the sensation of watching yourself from outside your own body, when everything feels unreal, like living in a dream.”
Most writers will recognize this moment when the need to narrate overrides the lived experience, so that the writer is performing life rather than living it. T’s grandmother may be dead, but T can’t shed one single tear for her. As “she chugs at the end of a grief train behind her mother” and other relatives in the hospital, T wonders if something is wrong with her, the writer who began narrating the story of her grandmother’s death as she drove from Maryland to Virginia, if feeling the desire to write instead of empathy means she’s selfish.
The reader wonders, though, how she can cry for the woman who filled her house with strange men and partied late into the night while young T hid in the back room, reading books to escape. After the party ended, the fear remained, a presence, “an amalgamation of those men . . . who drank and waited for her to leave the back room and come out front so they could grab her wrist with hard, dry hands grinding the tender flesh of her forearm.”
Coleman is after something more interesting than placing blame, however. After all, she has created this persona of the fiction writer who is wary of clichés and cheap sentiment. T understands that a blank page is the only place where this child might gain some sense of control. In telling the story about her grandmother, she’s also writing about herself, and it’s this struggle between narrator and subject that engages the reader.
On returning to her family’s neighborhood, T feels conflicted as she drives by her grandmother’s old house. This house where she felt fear is also the house where she became a writer. This grandmother who exposed her to a man who “told T he would tie her to a tree” is also the woman with a smile that “once dripped of cognac and music and heavy eyelids, of being fabulous and young and adored and all the things that T had felt inside herself at one point or another.” As she drives by the house, T “fights the familiar comfort . . . especially the joy wanting to creep inside her, wanting to attack the anger she desperately will not let go.” She’s on her way to her grandmother’s funeral, and still she hasn’t cried.
Towards the end of the essay, Coleman finally breaks the fourth wall. “It bothered me,” she writes, “truly saddened me how I was more concerned about writing about my grandmother dying than I was about her actual death. And when I sat to write the story, an unrealized grief over my lack of empathy drew me to the third person.”
This is the thing Coleman has come to say. “How to Mourn” is an essay about grief, and it’s also an essay about writing. It’s not the details of her grandmother’s neglect but rather Coleman’s struggle to tell the story of mourning an imperfect and difficult woman that gives the essay momentum and takes the reader on an emotionally satisfying journey.