On profound truths and hybridity: PN interviews nonfiction prize judge Tyrese L. Coleman
PN’s associate nonfiction editor Alex Clark chatted up How to Sit author Tyrese L. Coleman, final judge for our Ray Ventre Creative Nonfiction Prize, open for your submissions until April 15. Read on to find out what might make her pull an essay out of the queue and select it for publication.
Passages North: When you’re reading an essay, what about the work’s form and voice draws you to keep reading?
Tyrese L. Coleman: I am drawn to voices that feel authentic. A writer’s voice, especially for nonfiction, should feel or sound natural. It’s easier for me to say what I do not look for. I do not look for voices that sound pretentious, superfluous, or needlessly verbose. I am very impressed when someone can articulate a profound truth while still using language economy. A voice in nonfiction that I greatly admire is Kiese Laymon. Everything he writes makes me say, “goddamn,” and shake my head. Its that good.
PN: What essayists would you recommend to writers who are interested in exploring the possibilities of fiction-nonfiction hybridity?
TC: In terms of content, I would say Alexander Chee. Definitely read How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I think it's important to consider the intersection between memoir and fiction off your own page. This is a good book for that. I love Renee Gladman and her style that feels like the goal of each sentence is a higher elevation instead of an attempt to remain chained to one particular kind of writing or genre. My absolute favorite book is Cane by Jean Toomer. If you know me, you know this. This book is the reason why I wanted explore the line between genres. It includes fiction, music, poetry, a play, spirituals, all in one space and is an exceptional piece of art. Lastly, I would read Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Not because she explores the line between fiction and nonfiction, but rather, the space between nonfiction and poetry.
PN: What is the most important consideration to make when bending genre?
TC: I think, regardless of what genre you choose to write, there has to be truth and honesty. You can show or support what is and what is not true or honest with coded language. Use “I believe” or “Maybe it happened” or “I imagine” to signal to the reader that what we are about to read may not be the exact truth. In addition to that, though, write from the depth of your emotions, memory and heart. The most important thing is to be fearless and worry about the eventual embarrassment until after its been published.