The Lightning Room with Tyrese Coleman

Tyrese Coleman’s compact, powerful story “How to Sit,” from the March/April issue, contains three generations of women, explosive in their anger and love. Below, Tyrese talks pride, beauty, and the stories we carry in our bodies, our bodies carry into the world.


–interview by Diana Clarke


1. The narrative voice in “How to Sit” is so raw, furious and vulnerable, in particular where you describe how the grandmother’s “toenails are close to my leg. They are daggers. And if they were attached to her fingers, and if she were forty-seven and not sixty-seven, she would use them to scratch my face for pitying her.” How did you write into that place of anger and imminent violence?

I was mad, spitting mad, about a situation that I could not control when I wrote this. And in trying to understand who and what I was mad about, I considered the idea of being so frustrated that physical violence, down right fighting, is the only possible release in some cases.

But, what brings a person to that level? I personally feel it’s the failure to meet your own expectations. A woman like the grandmother in “How to Sit” is not a person used to being suffered. She was a star! And the worst thing that could happen to a woman so fiercely independent, to the extent of debilitating selfishness, is to be caged or told there is anything at all she cannot do. Pride causes that. Pride and having certain expectations out of life. And when the realization happens that, despite the visceral desire to change the situation, you are trapped and now, indeed, you are someone to be pitied, well, there is nothing left to do with your arms and legs and nails, but to scratch and fight, to show whoever it is that thinks they know you better than you know yourself, enough so that they have the audacity to pity you, that you are still someone to be reckoned with.

girls in sao paolo2. In “How to Sit,” bodies carry guilt, accuse, and are full of power. They symbolize and stand (or sit!) in for what happens around them, and to them. I especially loved your description of the grandmother’s stump, covered with a “little white stocking cap at the end as if it were the head of a newborn baby.” That image unites aging with birth in a strange, lovely way I’ve not seen before. What’s your own relationship to aging like? To bodies?

I come from a family of people who have lost limbs because of diabetes, poverty, addiction, and poor genes. For example, my grandmother is one out of ten children. Out of those ten, at least six suffered from diabetes and, as a result of complications, lost at least one leg, my grandmother included. My great-uncle, lost both his legs in his thirties before he died at the age of 45. They lived hard lives. They smoked, they drank, they ate good and terrible food. There was no such thing as exercise. The only exercise was walking to work. But they were poor, uneducated blacks in a rural southern town, these issues are not uncommon or unique to just my family.

When I think about aging, I see their bodies and it terrifies me. I’ve seen what happens when you live a certain way. Our bodies take on the brunt of our decisions. So, I have to think that although this is what I was born into, its not necessarily the way I have to go. And that can be said for anything, really. Its funny you mention guilt because that is how I feel knowing this. Because, I think they just didn’t know, or rather, didn’t consider the consequences of living hard. They didn’t know that they would be guilty of killing themselves in this way. And the fact that I can now look at their mistakes while alive and healthy, makes me feel guilty.

3. Even as your narrator describes her grandmother’s cruelty, there’s a great deal of tenderness in the attention to detail, and the story’s complicity in grandma’s myth—she partied with Marvin Gaye! Smokes a “Virginia Slim Ultra fierce against burgundy lips.” How do love and loathing intersect?

That’s the complexity of family, right? You can love the person and loathe what they do at the same time. As much as the grandmother in “How to Sit” is a selfish narcissist, there is something about her that was enigmatic, reckless, and free to the extent that others, even those that may have been wronged by her, still wanted to be around and experience.

And also, you have to love someone to pity them. Otherwise, you are just being judgmental.

4. Your narrator brings a light, pointed touch to the intersections of race, power and sex—describing how her grandmother’s eyes “slanted towards an afroed man” with desire, but later “still saw the married white man…the one who looked at me funny, like the men who touched me at her parties.” How did you come to this, handle it?

I think, if harnessed, sex has a power that transcends race. The grandmother in “How to Sit” is, in a way, teaching that lesson to her granddaughter. The narrator is witnessing the power her grandmother has, that with the slant of an eye and even with half of her leg missing, she can still control something in her life.

But when you live in the same house with the younger, taller, bustier version of yourself, you are forced to consider mental self-preservation in the face of becoming obsolete. Jealousy is the only rational emotion. So, in some ways the grandmother’s harassment of the narrator is done out of love. But, mostly, it is done out of just wanting to hurt her granddaughter for being what she wishes she could still be.

5. The instruction and shame in your story—”You think you grown? Sitting in my house with your legs crossed like you a damn woman”—especially as it relates to sexuality and womanhood, reminded me of Jamaica Kincaid’s story “Girl.” Do you know it? Outside your writing life, what knowledge about bodies and womanhood do you think it’s important to inherit?

Yes! Thank you for the compliment!

And those instructions on how to be a woman, it is all wrapped in guilt too. This time differently though. Guilt-y rather than guilt: if you do not behave in this way—wash the clothes, close your legs, avoid eye contact—whatever happens to you…slut and spinster alike…well, then you asked for it. You are guilty.

Maybe its because I have children, but I wish I could tell every single thirteen-year-old girl I see to wait, just wait. There will be a time where you can wear heels and cross your legs, but its not right now and, trust me, you don’t want it to be. I sympathize in a way with the grandmother in this piece (at least on this topic). In her eyes, here is this child with a body more like a “woman” than her own, a body less like a child and more like someone who could bear children. The narrator is sexual because someone else, a man, a boy, a relative, a friend, society, says so in reaction to her developed body.

When I see a girl like this in real life, I get anxious. I want to cover her and protect her from everything that she doesn’t know, maybe with a naïve wish that in doing so, she will never know what the world really thinks of women and our bodies. That’s the knowledge that should be inherited. You cannot send a girl off into the world without telling her the truth—you will be looked at, you will be objectified, you will be harassed, you will be stereotyped, you will make less money, you will be marginalized, you will be judged. But here are the “new” instructions: enjoy childhood, enjoy wearing jeans you can get dirty, enjoy wearing shoes that don’t hurt, enjoy not wearing makeup, find yourself, enjoy who you are, enjoy being yourself regardless of what’s between your legs and whether you cross them, and then enjoy being a grown-ass woman when you get there.

Alright, I’m going to stop there cause I could go on and on about this.

6. This story is so interested in relationships between women, both what’s hard and what’s beautiful. What have been some of the most important relationships with women in your life?

My mother has recently taught me that it is possible to change your life for the better. She is actively working on herself, and I would say that my relationship with her is one of the most important in my life right now.

But, I was raised by a group of dominant and fierce women. My great-aunts on my mother’s side and my father’s sisters. They all knew how to love, knew how to take care of you, of one another, of themselves, knew how to let loose. Out of all of them, my relationship with my Aunts Bee Bee and Denise were the two most important. They literally taught me about unconditional love. My Aunt Bee Bee was ornery! She smoked like a chimney and would cuss, not curse, but cuss you out for no reason at all, just for breathing the wrong way. But, she would give me the last penny in her pocket, and the last crumb on the table if I needed it. My Aunt Denise taught me what it means to have faith in God and in another person. She was my champion. I miss them dearly.

7. What makes a grown-ass woman?

A grown-ass woman knows what’s shes doing when she carries herself in a certain way and is alright with how she is perceived.

A grown-ass woman does as she pleases.

A grown-ass woman can do as she pleases because she doesn’t have to answer to no one else but herself.

A grown-ass woman isn’t afraid to fight when necessary.

A grown-ass woman may use a lover to get what she wants, but she doesn’t need that lover to give her goddamn thing.



photo attribution: Some rights reserved by Leonardo Veras1