Who Says Memoir Has to Be Nonfiction? The Millions Interviews Tyrese Coleman

May 9, 2019 | 4 books mentioned 1 9 min read

Tyrese Coleman’s debut, How to Sit, defies easy categorization. It’s a slim book—about 120 pages—that blends essay and fiction. A finalist for the PEN Open Book Award, How to Sit is an unforgettable meditation on family and home—how our families both damage us and make us who we are; how we form our own families and how we find our place in the world.

Coleman and I recently discussed the book’s unusual blend of fact and fiction, as well as the process of publishing with a very small press.

The Millions: From the beginning, this collection plays with the line between memoir and fiction. Often memoirists will include a caveat that their memories are fallible, but they strive to present events as accurately as possible. In your opening author’s note and throughout the book, you actively embrace and explore the blurry line between what happened, how you remember it, and how you’d prefer to remember it. Why did that structure work so well for telling these stories? Do you think more writers should try playing in that space?

Tyrese Coleman: There was something freeing about being able to lean into the way my memories presented themselves in my head rather than shading them with research or other factual evidence. There is a poetry in memory and emotion that I did not want to lose. So, it would’ve been dishonest for me to make a claim that everything was as accurate as it could be. But I will say that it depends on the piece. Not every piece was drafted with the intent to blur lines; it was more to create a particular voice. So, there are definitely essays in this collection that are factual, yet because they incorporate some memory or emotion, the language is going to be more fluid.

I can’t say what other writers should and should not do, but I do think they should consider eschewing the concept that memoir has to be nonfiction. This is the kind of statement someone could read and say, “That’s bullshit.” But often, when someone makes up a part of their memoir, they’re afraid to admit it’s been fictionalized or to explore why they feel like they need to make shit up. Instead, they should admit that it’s not-quite-fiction or not-quite-nonfiction but that the emotion you feel coming from the page is completely true.

TM: The idea that memoir doesn’t always have to be 100 percent true (to the best of the writer’s ability) and that’s okay—whew! That’s a little hard for me to process. But you’re not saying that we should all be like James Frey. Quite the contrary, you’re careful to label your work at that intersection of truth and fiction, rather than calling it a memoir when it’s not quite a memoir. Would you say it’s all right, even encouraged, to explore that space—but to call it what it is?

coverTC: No, I’m saying memoir doesn’t have to be nonfiction and that you can call it whatever you want. I think the best example of this is Wendy Ortiz’s dreamoir Bruja, which is a memoir that includes incantations and dreams interspersed with events and her personal narrative. Is a dream nonfiction? I would say a dream is on par with a memory, in some respects. Does the fact that they both occur in your head, your subconsciousness, mean that they aren’t true? That memory and that dream are true for me and true for Wendy. Does that then mean that we aren’t sharing a part of our life story?

coverBut this isn’t only about memoir. I am currently reading The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. It is a novel-in-poems. So where do we put this book? On the young adult fiction shelf? On the poetry shelf? What makes it one thing over the other? The fact that her publisher has put the words “a novel” on the book jacket because novels sell more than poetry? All of these labels feel arbitrary to me. The book is amazing, regardless of its genre.

The thing that connects all of these examples, though, is that, from the jump, you know what it’s about. James Frey put forth fiction and lied and said it was 100 percent true. Ultimately, you should let the reader know, “Hey, some of this is true and some of this isn’t, but all of it is based on my life and the way I interpret my memories.” If you want to call it memoir or fiction after that declaration or not, that’s on you.

TM: Did fictionalizing some parts make it easier to write about events that may have been traumatic to recall? Did it help protect some identities?

TC: No. It helped with plot, with creating a better story. Writing about traumatic events or hurtful things from my past is not an issue for me. Those things happened and I cannot avoid them. Identities… well, I didn’t do a whole lot of not revealing identities. In the pieces that are not-quite-nonfiction, it is parts of the plot or aspects of the story that I made up. In some instances, it’s just a short story. In other instances, it’s a small line here and there.

TM: I’d read several of these stories when they were published previously. But all together, they create a powerful narrative—the sum is greater than its parts. How did you choose the stories for this collection? What was the revision process like?

TC: At some point, I realized I was writing the same story, or writing about the same thing but in different (or even not-so-different) ways. I kept returning to aspects of my childhood, even when I was writing about a situation as an adult. So, I put them together and, like you, realized that they were even more powerful when put together. When I revised, I had to find a way to make everything feel more than tangentially linked. That meant changing any made-up names, removing redundancies, and coming up with a structure that demonstrated growth.

TM: You manage to build an entire world in one slim book, and it’s almost like poetry; some sections left me breathless with how you wasted not a single word. I know that flash (fiction and memoir) is your wheelhouse. Why do you like it for telling stories like these?

TC: Flash is the stepchild of the literary world and it breaks my heart. People assume it’s easy to do because the stories are short. Most people really have no idea what it is exactly. Is it a scene, a character sketch? Is it a poem? (It is definitely none of those things, by the way.) The proliferation of terrible online flash fiction has not helped opinions of it. Even when flash does get some recognition, it’s disappointing. For example, when The New Yorker decided to highlight flash fiction, they chose writers who don’t write flash fiction instead of people who have made careers of it. The majority of my book is flash writing from a flash writer who works for a prominent flash journal. That’s what I love so much about my book being nominated for a PEN award, despite the fact that it was published with small indie press. I really hope that helps legitimize the form in some way.

Okay, now I’ve gotten that off my chest.

covercovercoverI love flash because when I was learning how to write, and to write what I felt was from my unique voice, I was reading black writers from back in the day who were doing amazing things with as few words as possible. I was reading Cane by Jean Toomer, I was reading Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I was reading short stories like “The Flowers” by Alice Walker and “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. I was reading Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and I was learning the art of concluding every paragraph as if it is the end of a chapter and forming mini-chapters within paragraphs, within sentences, as if a whole story could be its own book. And though her stories are notoriously long, I was reading Alice Munro and learning how to make every single word work, as if building a railroad with a sledgehammer.

When I sat down to write those short pieces, I never said, “This is going to be flash.” Rather, I wrote until I was done. Sometimes that meant it was short and sometimes it was much longer. But those short pieces mean much more in terms of technical editing and precision than my longer pieces. My biggest pet peeve with flash is when people think it’s as simple as letting everything pour onto a blank piece of paper, and they don’t take the time to edit it or to learn that flash is not just a scene from something longer. Flash isn’t poetry, but I think it requires the same level of attention to language. I love that.

TM: One section in particular spoke to me: the premature birth of your boys. I’d read an earlier version of this story back when we were in grad school together. But now, after my own son was born early, the piece has taken on new meaning for me. You write so well about the guilt that all preemie parents, I think, feel—that sense of failing to stay pregnant. And you feel particularly guilty about putting your own pleasure above the possibility of going into early labor—which ended up happening. What was it like to put such an intimate moment out in the world?

TC: It is scary yet freeing in some ways. I always felt like an imposter or that I didn’t deserve the sympathy others had for us and our situation. And yes, the boys deserved their prayers and my husband was not to blame, but I felt convinced that it was my fault. I needed to get this off my chest.

But, you know, motherhood is a series of events resulting in guilt, it feels like. There is nothing you can do right all of the time. Like, right now, I feel some kind of way because my son is in our bed sleeping in the shirt he wore to school. We should’ve put him in his pajamas before he fell asleep and now no one wants to risk waking him up to change his clothes. It doesn’t stop me from thinking, “Oh, he’s going to get so hot when he sleeps,” and “Oh, his bed sheets are going to get dirty.” It’s guilt on a smaller level, but it’s still guilt, and I’m really just waiting for the day these feelings go away. I need some wise and mature mama out there to tell me that one day, the guilt will go away (please).

TM: From one guilty mama to another, I hope it does. Stories like yours help us process events like these, though. It reminded me that my son’s premature birth wasn’t because of something I’d done. And even if it were, that’s still okay. It’s okay to be less than perfect.

I loved how many of the stories in your collection aren’t tied up neatly. Like life, nothing really has a happy or at least resolved ending. But there are some really beautiful moments you pull from, like the character T walking home from prom in an imagined fairyland. How much of writing this book was an attempt to find, or in some cases create, closure? (I’m also thinking of that powerful final essay, where T narrates the time after her grandmother’s death as it is happening.)

TC: Sometimes things have to be resolved; there has to be a change by the end. I am a proponent of the happy ending. I’m not talking about trite, sentimental endings that almost mean nothing. I mean endings where the character is in a better place than where she started, and I think that there are many instances of that in my book. The two pieces you mention and also “Sacrifice.” I believe not all things Literature have to be sad even if they are about topics that are sad. And I also think that a character can change for the good and that a good story or essay doesn’t have to end with some esoteric and nebulous statement about the emptiness of the human existence. Fuck that. I want to be happy.

“How to Mourn” was indeed a way for me to find closure. I needed to examine my feelings about my grandmother, about her death, but also about myself and why I had to write about her death. But the other pieces? I don’t know if they were an exercise in finding closure. I think they represent the way I left the situation or the way I felt my character left the situation.

TM: Switching gears a little bit: Why did you want to work with an indie press, and what was that process like?

TC: I knew this was not the kind of book a big publisher would take. Its sole purpose is to question “the shelf.”

TM: By its very nature, it defies categorization.

TC: That’s why I knew large publishers would not be into it. I knew that I could do more with a small press. The people who run small presses, or at least the guys who run Mason Jar, are writers themselves and they are more interested in the art of writing and creating beautiful books—not whether or not the book is going to be sold in Barnes & Noble. Not to say that we don’t want to make money, but that’s not the main thing for them. The main thing is putting out art and interesting stories and beautiful poetry and enriching this world with books that push boundaries and that do not subscribe to any rules. I liked that.

TM: Did becoming a PEN award finalist change anything?

TC: I feel honored and, honestly, I think of this as a win for small presses and the flash community, as I mentioned above. It didn’t change my relationship with my press. At this point, they are learning along with me, I think. Initially, I got some emails from a few agents, but that’s about it. I am still unrepresented. Which is what it is.

TM: What’s next for you? Will you continue to play in this space between fiction and memoir, or would you rather commit (at least for the time being) to one or the other?

TC: Right now, I am about halfway through the shitty first draft of a novel that may or may not be a romance novel, but there is a love story and lots of sex. Actually, I’m probably less than halfway done, since I plan to rewrite the shitty first draft into (hopefully) a less shitty second draft. I am over writing about myself for the time being. I am not blending genres or blurring lines. I am writing straight up fiction and loving it. I need an escape and I love these characters. I can’t wait to finish so that I can start rewriting and then editing and then… I’m obsessed with this book!

TM: That’s when you know a project has promise—when you get excited for revisions!

is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She is at work on an anthology of essays about premature birth. Follow her on Twitter @m_scribe.