Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and attorney. She is also the fiction editor for District Lit, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. She is a 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and was a Nonfiction Scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review’s 2016 Writer’s Conference. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Brevity, Rumpus, Hobart, Tahoma Literary Review, and listed in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions. A graduate of the writing program at Johns Hopkins University, she lives in the Washington, DC, metro area, and can be reached at tyresecoleman.com. An excerpt from her essay “How to Mourn” can be found here. It appears in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What first struck you—the act of breaking the fourth wall, or the scene from Fight Club you reference at the end of the piece?
It was a combo of both. I started writing this piece the night my grandmother passed away, in pretty much the way its laid out in the essay because I really couldn’t process how I was feeling at the time. It just made sense to put myself in a story because the world around me felt so fictionalized. I didn’t know if that was just me dealing with grief or if I was being overdramatic (sometimes artists, especially writers, I think, can get stuck in our heads). I knew that if I was going to pull this off as an essay, I had to address the point of view somehow. I then came across Fight Club while folding laundry. That moment in the movie when Ed Norton speaks to the camera is so complex. You don’t realize that he is speaking about himself, or rather, his split personality, until the end. But if you’ve seen the movie already, you know that he is talking about himself as someone else, that “copy of a copy” theme played out on screen. It seemed to help shape this piece for me. Because I essentially wanted to speak about myself, copy myself, and reveal myself as writer, reader, and subject all at the same time.
On the second page of this piece, talking about the smell of the hospital, you write, “It’s cliché for a reason. Real life is a cliché.” Can you talk about how you chose to address familiar images and senses in your work? In your mind, what’s the best way for a writer to deal with cliché?
Honestly, I decided to indulge myself. These things were true: the hospital smell was suffocating, I actually thought “beyond the veil” while standing there watching my mother; I saw the comparison between my grandmother’s death and my great-aunt’s death and shook my head at the fact that if this were fiction, it would totally be some type of narrative construct due to my relationship with both women. I’ve been in so many fiction workshops where the one part of the story based on real life was the only part of the story picked apart as unrealistic, which always blows my mind. I decided that I would let all of that go and call a cliché a cliché. But my understanding of literature and writing would not allow me to just leave it at that. And since the piece is ultimately a craft essay, I felt it necessary to point these things out explicitly, call out these hypocrisies as arbitrary. It was one of the most freeing parts about writing this piece.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Well, I am still starting out. However, I think the biggest change for me is that I feel more confident in knowing when something I write is good and when it isn’t working. Before, I needed validation that my writing was good enough to be published, that I was writing about things people wanted to read, that I wasn’t writing the same story over and over. I think many writers of color, especially black writers, go through this. Everything about my voice had been critiqued and misunderstood, especially when I deviated from standard grammar and chose to write the way the people around me actually spoke. I felt policed. It wasn’t until I went to Kimbilio and was in a space where I didn’t have to explain anything and people could hear the words the way they were supposed to sound that I realized I could write about whatever I want, however I want. A friend I met there told me in one of those “I’m about you drop some knowledge on you that you may think is mean, but is for your own good” kind of way that I need to stop “fishing for compliments” and realize that I would not be there if I didn’t have what it takes. I remember this when I start to doubt myself. I thank God for her.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The best writing advice I ever received was from my friend and former teacher, Leslie Pietrzyk. She said to think about the stories you have inside that scare you. Those are the stories you should be writing. She calls it writing from the “dark place.” Our humiliations, secrets fears, deepest anxieties, those times where we were at our worst is the best material.
The worst piece of writing advice isn’t so much advice but rather a belief that writing, whether it be stories or essays or whatever, have to be done in a specific kind of way. Part of “How To Mourn” was a mockery of craft, or at least a recognition of its arbitrariness when it comes to what they say not to include in writing. If I cannot write the words the way my aunt would say them, or if I am required to present narrative narrative narrative and not reflect or meander, then how is writing a reflection of reality?
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I have a chapbook coming out with Mason Jar Press in 2018. It’s a small collection of short stories and essays called How to Sit.
I am in the beginning stages of a book-length project about the history of the speculum and the treatment of black women by doctors and the medical profession. It combines historical fiction, memoir, and reporting, and seeks to create a story for the voiceless while connecting the history of this subject to our present lives. Right now I am calling it Speculum, Spectacle.