Q&A with Tyrese L. Coleman, author of “When They Fight”
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Bix Gabriel: One of my favorite aspects of “When They Fight” is the complexity of the relationship between Keke and her mother — they fight, they love, and they compete. And I’m also so impressed by how effortlessly this relationship is explored in a very short space. What are some of your techniques in developing characters?
Tyrese L. Coleman: These women are people very familiar to me. My mom was a single teen mother, and I remember her attempts to date when I was a young child. We never competed for male attention (or one another’s attention) in the way that Keke and Lynette do. But, at one point in my late twenties, I was dating a guy who was the exact same age as a different guy that my mother was dating. It was a fact that stuck with me for a long time, so that when I originally had an idea to write about a mother and daughter with a toxic relationship spending their Friday nights together watching movies about other mothers and daughters with toxic relationships, I was able to create a tension between them that was apropos to their relationship, but more related to the fact that they are two lonely women searching for a connection other than the one they have together. So, it wasn’t hard for me to conceptualize a mother-daughter relationship that involved resentment, competition, and an intense love, one so strong that you will fight before allowing the other to leave you behind.
BG: Movies appear a couple of times in “When They Fight.” What are movies you love to re-watch and, maybe one or two you cringe at, but can’t help watching?
TLC: One of my favorite movies is Back to the Future. I’ve loved it ever since I was a little girl and I’ve been trying to get my boys to watch it, but I don’t think they are ready to fully appreciate it yet. I actually even like the sequels, which I know have been universally deemed to be terrible but they give me great joy. My one cringeworthy movie that I ABSOLUTELY love is Pootie Tang. It’s so ridiculous, but I die laughing every time I watch it.
BG: Also, if it’s not too personal a question, what’s your Friday night routine like?
TLC: You assume that I have a routine…that’s so sweet.
I’m the mom of twin kindergartners. I work full time and I try to write. By Friday night, I am ready to pass out. Generally, it involves putting my kids to bed around 8pm and trying to stay up (but failing) to watch Avengers: Infinity War with my husband for the umpteenth time.
BG: Your essay in Kenyon Review last year (and listed as Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018) employs fiction in its form, though it is an essay. AND, your first book How to Sit which came out a couple of months ago is described as a “memoir in stories and essays.” Congratulations on the book! But my question is: How do you choose the form you write in? What does a “hybrid form” mean for you?
TLC: Something like “How to Mourn,” which is the essay you are referring to, came out organically in that form because I wanted to convey how real life sometimes feels unreal and more like a story. Most of the time, I know what I want to write. Fights was always intended to be fiction; when I sat down, I knew I wanted to write fiction. Sometimes, however, there are essays that I start and then in the middle I realize the story isn’t as interesting as I thought it would be once I wrote it out, so I jazz it up and turn it into a story. There are a few pieces in How to Sit where I’ve done that. I still consider those pieces as partly memoir because of their autofictional beginnings. But, usually, I have a desire to work on either fiction or nonfiction when I sit down to write.
Hybrid means many things. For me, I am drawn to the art form of creating speculative essays that incorporate poetic devices and elements of fiction along with a nonfiction narrative meant to expand the essay or memoir beyond just “what happened to me.” I’m trying to lean into poetic tendencies in my essay writing and see where it goes. But, I don’t think there is one definition of the term “hybrid.” I think it just means being playful with your work.
BG: In “When They Fight,” you have a character called Nnamdi, who also appears in your story, “Dear Nnamdi.” Are you working on a series, collection, with this character? Or, if not, is there a reason you’re drawn to the name?
TLC: You know, I think of Nnamdi like I think of “John” or “Muhammad,” a common name that many men have. I imagine that most people know more than one John in their life. I know more than one Nnamdi. I guess with fiction, when someone has the same name, it means that they’re the same person or connected in some way. In this case, they aren’t. But, it’s funny, though. Would this be noticeable had I used a more Western name? If there were two Johns in two different stories, I doubt it would’ve caught anyone’s eye.
Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and writing instructor. She is also an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal dedicated to flash fiction. An essayist and fiction writer, her prose has appeared in several publications, including Catapult, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and the Kenyon Review. An alumni of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, her collection, How To Sit, was published in 2018 with Mason Jar Press.