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How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays

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“How do you pick your mom up from jail? How do you mourn the death of your grandmother, who was both a powerfully seductive and vital force in your life, but at the same time, awful and tragic? How do you wait three months for your premature twin babies to get out of the NICU without going mad from fear and guilt? With a strong voice that is at times sparse and direct, at “How do you pick your mom up from jail? How do you mourn the death of your grandmother, who was both a powerfully seductive and vital force in your life, but at the same time, awful and tragic? How do you wait three months for your premature twin babies to get out of the NICU without going mad from fear and guilt? With a strong voice that is at times sparse and direct, at other times poetic and knowing, Tyrese Coleman confronts these and other questions in this beautiful debut collection, How to Sit. In these stories and essays, she uncovers a paradoxical truth: that sometimes it’s the more difficult things that you can face with surprising bravery and it’s the things that are supposed to come “easy” that are the hardest to learn. How to Sit is, at root, a reflection on how to live. How to both accept and transcend your past. Coleman excavates her personal history, sometimes in stories handed down from past generations, sometimes in DNA results, and she discovers that it’s the act of writing itself that can free her from her family, her guilt, maybe even herself. For Coleman, there is ‘no way to escape except to live her own fiction.’” —David Olimpio, author of This Is Not a Confession


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“How do you pick your mom up from jail? How do you mourn the death of your grandmother, who was both a powerfully seductive and vital force in your life, but at the same time, awful and tragic? How do you wait three months for your premature twin babies to get out of the NICU without going mad from fear and guilt? With a strong voice that is at times sparse and direct, at “How do you pick your mom up from jail? How do you mourn the death of your grandmother, who was both a powerfully seductive and vital force in your life, but at the same time, awful and tragic? How do you wait three months for your premature twin babies to get out of the NICU without going mad from fear and guilt? With a strong voice that is at times sparse and direct, at other times poetic and knowing, Tyrese Coleman confronts these and other questions in this beautiful debut collection, How to Sit. In these stories and essays, she uncovers a paradoxical truth: that sometimes it’s the more difficult things that you can face with surprising bravery and it’s the things that are supposed to come “easy” that are the hardest to learn. How to Sit is, at root, a reflection on how to live. How to both accept and transcend your past. Coleman excavates her personal history, sometimes in stories handed down from past generations, sometimes in DNA results, and she discovers that it’s the act of writing itself that can free her from her family, her guilt, maybe even herself. For Coleman, there is ‘no way to escape except to live her own fiction.’” —David Olimpio, author of This Is Not a Confession

30 review for How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jerrie

    This collection of short stories about the author’s life work together to create a loose memoir. While I did not like the way the stories jumped back and forth between childhood and adult life (I would have rather it be more chronological), there is some pretty stunning prose in this book. Most of the stories deal with her relationship with the women in her family, particularly her mother, grandmother, and a great aunt.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    "How to Sit" by Tyrese Coleman is a memoir of uncommon candor and emotional resonance. Given to us in stories and essays, her words burn indelibly into the heart and mind of the intelligent, empathetic reader. Reading this collection, I hardly moved, hardly even breathed. Such is the power of the truths spoken here in Coleman's precise and beautiful, startling prose. A must read. "How to Sit" by Tyrese Coleman is a memoir of uncommon candor and emotional resonance. Given to us in stories and essays, her words burn indelibly into the heart and mind of the intelligent, empathetic reader. Reading this collection, I hardly moved, hardly even breathed. Such is the power of the truths spoken here in Coleman's precise and beautiful, startling prose. A must read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Vonetta

    I read this in one gulp on a flight because—brace yourself for a cliche—I couldn’t put it down. I loved that Coleman teased with the possibility that what I felt was fact could have been fiction. I haven’t read a more eloquent, thought-provoking, soul-touching narrative about family, grief, and Black womanhood in a long time, maybe ever. Coleman’s prose is approachable, but definitely leaves you saying, “Damn, how did she do that?” Maybe even out loud.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Gayle Pritchard

    I really loved this interesting and well-written book. Interesting because of the way she tells her story through a series of essays. Her writing is real and compelling, honest and sometimes brutally honest. Each essay can stand on its own, but together, How to Sit is a breakthrough in memoir. I especially admire the various literary devices Coleman uses to get her words on the page. I really appreciate her "take no prisoners" style, as well. She tells is like it is in a beautiful way, and makes I really loved this interesting and well-written book. Interesting because of the way she tells her story through a series of essays. Her writing is real and compelling, honest and sometimes brutally honest. Each essay can stand on its own, but together, How to Sit is a breakthrough in memoir. I especially admire the various literary devices Coleman uses to get her words on the page. I really appreciate her "take no prisoners" style, as well. She tells is like it is in a beautiful way, and makes you cry while she does it. One of my personal favorite passages, on the tail end of a story about giving birth to premature babies: "Whoever came up with the cliche, 'time heals all wounds' is an asshole. ... Time doesn't heal all wounds. It may dull the pain of some of them; help make the scabbing, the healing process, more tolerable. It may make you forget that you were even injured for a moment, but time doesn't heal everything. Time--waiting, anticipating, wondering, hoping--can make things worse, and when those unhealed wounds inevitably reopen, you feel all the pain again." Amen, sister.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Julia Tagliere

    When I read the author's note at the beginning of this book (with its deceptively simple title) explaining that her collection is somewhat of a hybrid--including nonfiction and some "not-quite-nonfiction" alike, I wasn't sure what to expect. But as I worked my way through each individual piece, the question of whether what I was reading was fiction or nonfiction became increasingly irrelevant; each of her pieces speaks wholly and with great fidelity to a deeper Truth, the capital 'T' kind. Throu When I read the author's note at the beginning of this book (with its deceptively simple title) explaining that her collection is somewhat of a hybrid--including nonfiction and some "not-quite-nonfiction" alike, I wasn't sure what to expect. But as I worked my way through each individual piece, the question of whether what I was reading was fiction or nonfiction became increasingly irrelevant; each of her pieces speaks wholly and with great fidelity to a deeper Truth, the capital 'T' kind. Through Ms. Coleman's steady, powerful craft these pieces as a whole transcend whether something happened in fact or not. Instead, they expand and enlarge beyond the mere factual, pressing our faces without respite into the kinds of Truth it's often easier for us to turn away from, to reject or ignore, to deny or forget. Ms. Coleman does none of these; never once does she shy away from the difficult or the harsh, the painful or the painfully beautiful. She does not avert her eyes, nor does she let the reader do so. This is a beautifully written collection, designed to make us all sit, for a while, with those Truths. Really well done.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Marian

    So good. I love these blurred-line story/essays so much. Voice, perfect control, understated, powerful emotion. Being a woman, being a black woman, the terrors of girlhood and motherhood. The ineffable contradictions of family. How you save yourself. I think when we hear lauded "an important new voice," what's being hinted at is the clarity and power and singularity with which the prose conveys a humanity at once very specific and encompassing many in its generosity. Tyrese Coleman's voice is ju So good. I love these blurred-line story/essays so much. Voice, perfect control, understated, powerful emotion. Being a woman, being a black woman, the terrors of girlhood and motherhood. The ineffable contradictions of family. How you save yourself. I think when we hear lauded "an important new voice," what's being hinted at is the clarity and power and singularity with which the prose conveys a humanity at once very specific and encompassing many in its generosity. Tyrese Coleman's voice is just this kind of voice.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    Coleman’s work is on the cusp of a new and controversial “genre,” which mixes memoir and fiction in order to tell story. The narrative arc of this novella centers around “T’s” childhood and adulthood, and largely three women who shaped it: her grandmother, great-aunt and mother. There are other fiction/essays as well (and frankly I couldn’t always tell the difference between the two.) I can’t say for sure, not being the author, why Coleman chose to write in this style. I do think it leant a viscer Coleman’s work is on the cusp of a new and controversial “genre,” which mixes memoir and fiction in order to tell story. The narrative arc of this novella centers around “T’s” childhood and adulthood, and largely three women who shaped it: her grandmother, great-aunt and mother. There are other fiction/essays as well (and frankly I couldn’t always tell the difference between the two.) I can’t say for sure, not being the author, why Coleman chose to write in this style. I do think it leant a visceral nature to this work, which one can’t find in an all-encompassing manner in traditional story narratives. It’s coming more into style now with the advent of flash fiction (and creative nonfiction.) Arguably, one doesn’t have to be autobiographical when using these forms, but for such a quick, dashed off piece meant to pack an insular punch, it makes sense. Coleman’s works tread over what it means to grow up as an impoverished Black southern girl (who later breaks away and enters into higher education.) The visceral and dashed off nature may be her way to try and render characters like her mother and her grandmother more honestly. Intellectually, we may understand trends of early motherhood and fast-food diets leading to health complications and shortened lives. Coleman even directly addresses those points sometimes. But through her pointed characterizations of these women, and repeated recollections of what it felt like to grow up under their care, Coleman renders them individual, too. Her adult stories are slightly more of a mish mash—she returns to the visceral nature while trying to recount the feeling of watching over her premature twin sons in the NICU in “V-Day,” named ironically for a pregnancy term that signifies confidence that one’s babies can be born healthy. Then there’s “Thoughts on my Ancestry.com DNA Results,” which are more rambly, more unfocused, and technically less personal reactions to her stated racial percentages. I got more out of her personal stories, though to be honest these dashed off, “lines blurred” narratives aren’t my favorite type of storytelling. I respect that they can zone in on an insular sense of self and reality that traditional stories can miss because they’re busy setting up other attributes. Others are certainly more welcoming to it, given that Coleman’s book was a finalist in the PEN America Literary Awards! And I *like* this style ok, but maybe it’s more of a mood read. Longer, more traditional stories may not pack as much of a punch, but I think they can roll over you more as they probe reality more complexly. Of course, most readers don’t even go for short stories at all, and skip straight to the sweeping narratives of novels, so there we go. I respect the nature of subjective opinion. I spent part of coronavirus writing a couple of similarly dashed off stories that blur the memoir/fiction line. Coleman wrote at the end of her final essay, “How to Mourn,” that her ideal reader would be Black and educated—kind of similar to her. It implies that she’s looking for some sort of camaraderie, especially perhaps with that last story, where the broke the fourth wall the most often in order to honestly capture her response to her grandmother’s death. It’s a powerful sentiment in all writing, but especially the most autobiographical writing—to be accepted for who you are, where you are. I wanted people slightly different from me, people more ingrained in traditional hierarchies of “good literature,” to tell me that my flash fiction had more merit than self-absorbed journal writing. Not sure I got there, but I’m still glad I wrote the pieces. Coleman’s work transcends that through strongly realized characters and universal themes couched in specific experiences. A strong voice—maybe even stronger than her technical writing—but a strong voice is always memorable.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sonora Taylor

    A wonderful memoir of grief, guilt, and coming-of-age. Coleman beautifully weaves “nonfiction and not-nonfiction” in a quick read that will linger in your mind. Give it a read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Impeccable writing, gutting stories, symbiotic experiences. Coleman is a force to be reckoned with in prose and I cannot wait to see what comes next. Her stories are singularly unique and wonderfully crafted.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Maya F

    How to Sit is a thought-provoking narrative mixed with fact and fiction that recounts the author's experiences with death, Black identity, and family in a series of simple-titled chapters. I laughed sometimes at the author's bluntness and other times felt the gravity of her complicated relationship with her mother and grandmother. It's the type of book that entrances you, makes you reflect. An eloquent, powerful read. How to Sit is a thought-provoking narrative mixed with fact and fiction that recounts the author's experiences with death, Black identity, and family in a series of simple-titled chapters. I laughed sometimes at the author's bluntness and other times felt the gravity of her complicated relationship with her mother and grandmother. It's the type of book that entrances you, makes you reflect. An eloquent, powerful read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ramsey Hootman

    I don't remember when or why I started following Tyrese Coleman on Twitter, but every time she tweets about her life as a writer and a mother I find myself nodding amen. So I thought, I should read her book! I devoured this slim--but emotionally weighty--volume in one sitting. And damn, this is some good writing. The last memoir I remember reading that was this incisive and self-aware was Gary Presley's Seven Wheelchairs. I'm truly awed by anyone who can see themselves and their relationships to I don't remember when or why I started following Tyrese Coleman on Twitter, but every time she tweets about her life as a writer and a mother I find myself nodding amen. So I thought, I should read her book! I devoured this slim--but emotionally weighty--volume in one sitting. And damn, this is some good writing. The last memoir I remember reading that was this incisive and self-aware was Gary Presley's Seven Wheelchairs. I'm truly awed by anyone who can see themselves and their relationships to others this clearly, and with so much insight. (Definitely a skill I lack.) As I finished the last page I wondered how to put into words this feeling of kinship with someone whose life experience is obviously so different than mine, but then I looked at the back cover and saw this quote: "Tyrese Coleman is going to tell you who she is and, if you listen well, who you are too." That's exactly it, right there. Coleman sees herself so clearly that she can distill the essence of a specific experience into a few words or lines which encompass the universal. Reading this, I gained a better awareness of myself.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cara Shachter

    I don't remember how I came across this collection, but I am so happy that I did. It is this little hidden gem I wish more people could get in their hands, especially those who are interested in writing about their owns life. I love memoirs, but being someone who has done research on memory and cognition, I often think about how the typical memoir format is rarely representative of how the human memory works. Tyrese Coleman successfully wrote a story about her life that mimics what the real memo I don't remember how I came across this collection, but I am so happy that I did. It is this little hidden gem I wish more people could get in their hands, especially those who are interested in writing about their owns life. I love memoirs, but being someone who has done research on memory and cognition, I often think about how the typical memoir format is rarely representative of how the human memory works. Tyrese Coleman successfully wrote a story about her life that mimics what the real memory processes look like. Nostalgia isn't a single memory, but rather it is grounded in pieces of many memories amalgamated together, which Coleman embodies when she switches the narrative from yesterday to years ago to a decade ago and then back to yesterday all within one essay. Memories are jumpy and rigid and aren't perfectly serial, and this collection really represents that. I also love that she talked about how she experiences life sometimes in third person and, as a result, she remembers those moments in third person. This often makes life for palatable because it allows us to separate ourselves from heavy pain that is experienced when we are the "main character" in our own stories. I think this is something that many people do and don't realize, and Coleman illustrated this process so beautifully. This book also so accurately depicts the experience of Black women, specifically southern Black women, in the U.S. There is a war that is waged for us between ourselves and our bodies from a young age, a war that we then begin to wage ourselves. Considering the violence that is affecting Black women in this country, I think this is a really important read that will illustrate the relationship that Black women are expected to have with their own bodies and the abuse we face from young ages that are often ignored. Anyways, That was one long ramble and didn't make too much sense. So, to put it simply, READ THIS!! It's a short but powerful work of art that I highly recommend.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lily

    In the intro, Coleman writes that she didn't want the pieces in the book to be distinguished by genre. (hence: "A Memoir in Stories and Essays.") I honestly never questioned "is this a fiction piece? is this memoir?" The stories echo and enhance one another to overall tend towards something memoir: the truth of an "I" from different angles, at different stages in her life. Coleman's relationship to her mother and grandmother are a big part of the book, as well as writing about her experiences as In the intro, Coleman writes that she didn't want the pieces in the book to be distinguished by genre. (hence: "A Memoir in Stories and Essays.") I honestly never questioned "is this a fiction piece? is this memoir?" The stories echo and enhance one another to overall tend towards something memoir: the truth of an "I" from different angles, at different stages in her life. Coleman's relationship to her mother and grandmother are a big part of the book, as well as writing about her experiences as a black woman, sexuality and trauma. Coleman writes of the relationships with mother and grandmother with beautiful honesty and nuance; the pain of those relationships, the inheritances. Some of the pieces stand out as more obvious essay-form in their inclusion of research, like "Thoughts On My Ancestry.com DNA Results." But overall I appreciate the audacity of the book in refusing to make separate what forms of truth can coexist in a book together. Her writing is so rich. I wanted to re-read it again as soon as I finished.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne Ondrus

    Curious to read more about this author's life of growing up with a grandma that was a lady of the night, had one leg due to diabetes and let men touch her, had a Mom she had to bail out of jail, then went to Georgetown. I think excerpts of this would be good in a women's studies class or humanities class to show a different life. However, the above mentioned facts kept repeating in many stories and I wanted more memories and excavation. While there are stories that go from a white man touching h Curious to read more about this author's life of growing up with a grandma that was a lady of the night, had one leg due to diabetes and let men touch her, had a Mom she had to bail out of jail, then went to Georgetown. I think excerpts of this would be good in a women's studies class or humanities class to show a different life. However, the above mentioned facts kept repeating in many stories and I wanted more memories and excavation. While there are stories that go from a white man touching her black hair in a bar, to her discussing her DNA results, and to her delivery at 26 weeks of twins, I was really quite shocked by her childhood and wanted to know more and to have more of a distant and then close lens on it.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Louise Julig

    Don’t let this slim volume fool you; in fewer than 120 pages Coleman manages to pack plenty of punch. “How to Sit,” which the author describes as “a collection of nonfiction and not-quite-nonfiction,” brings us face-to-face with an unflinching narrator with a voice both vulnerable and defiant. Coleman loops in and around themes of family, class, race, grief, and what it means to be loyal to people you love while carving out your own sense of self. In essays with titles such as, “Why I Let Him To Don’t let this slim volume fool you; in fewer than 120 pages Coleman manages to pack plenty of punch. “How to Sit,” which the author describes as “a collection of nonfiction and not-quite-nonfiction,” brings us face-to-face with an unflinching narrator with a voice both vulnerable and defiant. Coleman loops in and around themes of family, class, race, grief, and what it means to be loyal to people you love while carving out your own sense of self. In essays with titles such as, “Why I Let Him Touch My Hair,” “Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results,” and “How to Mourn,” Coleman invites the reader in without apology and without sentimentality. Well worth reading.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lisa M.

    My semi-regular tradition of reading indie lit and drinking hard cider continues I heard Coleman speak at last year's AWP and purchased her book because of it. This book is incredible. I really appreciate any work that presents the truth frankly, without a second thought. I am definitely part of the current trend that believes that genre is a construct--for me, all that matters is emotional honesty, and this book has plenty of that. Well, I also appreciate good prose--and Coleman's is delicious. My semi-regular tradition of reading indie lit and drinking hard cider continues I heard Coleman speak at last year's AWP and purchased her book because of it. This book is incredible. I really appreciate any work that presents the truth frankly, without a second thought. I am definitely part of the current trend that believes that genre is a construct--for me, all that matters is emotional honesty, and this book has plenty of that. Well, I also appreciate good prose--and Coleman's is delicious. This is really good (and the acknowledgements--filled with popular publications--) also support that. I look forward to reading more of Coleman's work.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Richard Noggle

    A potent fusion of fact and fiction exploring Southern black female sexuality and ancestry. It's occasionally experimental (an essay centered around the results of an ancestry test; a sort of meta final essay about how to write about death), but largely reads like a memoir that puts the emphasis squarely on "memory," not concerning itself with a strict reliance on "truth." A potent fusion of fact and fiction exploring Southern black female sexuality and ancestry. It's occasionally experimental (an essay centered around the results of an ancestry test; a sort of meta final essay about how to write about death), but largely reads like a memoir that puts the emphasis squarely on "memory," not concerning itself with a strict reliance on "truth."

  18. 4 out of 5

    Karen Strother

    Oh my goodness... This book is...woooo it is just so good! The essays stuck right into that space between my heart and frontal lobe and have been following me for days. The humor and the pain are conveyed with a feeling that Tyrese Coleman is winking at you from across a table, wine glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, telling stories until three am.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Carole Duff

    I heard Ms. Coleman read at a recent conference and picked up her book. What an experience, both separate from mine and head-noddingly identifiable. What is fact and what is fiction? Does it matter when observations about others and self are unflinchingly true?

  20. 4 out of 5

    Davon Loeb

    'How to Sit' is a special glimpse into the presumptions, expectations, and rules that family, society, and individuals have when trying to govern our bodes. Such alive storytelling that is alike to Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison. A truly amazing book. 'How to Sit' is a special glimpse into the presumptions, expectations, and rules that family, society, and individuals have when trying to govern our bodes. Such alive storytelling that is alike to Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison. A truly amazing book.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shannon McLeod

    This book is a must read. Coleman writes such powerful flash pieces, and the ones in this collection build on one another in a way that is really spectacular. Beautiful, poetic writing. Highly recommend.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dwaine Rieves

    Tyrese teaches us how to sit and sooo much more!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I picked this book up at a cool little bookshop in Baltimore (Greedy Reads). Tyrese Coleman had been to the store and signed some copies. It looked interesting and it was.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Taube

    "Fiction never get real life right, though. It's always the parts of real life written in fiction no one seems to believe." "Fiction never get real life right, though. It's always the parts of real life written in fiction no one seems to believe."

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rachel McKenny

    Read this book read this book. So excellent. Short, punchy story-memoir pieces that have me thinking about them days later.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rae Theodore

    A slim book that packs a punch. Tyrese Coleman unabashedly explores race, guilt, sex, privilege and family. Her stories stay with the reader well after the last page has been read.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    So much to love about this book. The voice is assured and smart and fresh. The material feels urgent. The portrayals are funny and sad and compassionate and searing. This is an author to watch.

  28. 5 out of 5

    NobodysNobody

    This book read like parts of my own life. Beautifully written non-fiction/memoir.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Aqsa R

    Soo good, I loved the blurred lines between fiction and reality in her short essays. I met her in person and she speaks like she writes. Very bluntly. But I believe the topics she writes about needs a blunt voice so it works well. I really liked the essay on her going into labor. It packed a lot. Her writing is honest and curt, but still emotional.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dorothy Bendel

    I rarely read a book in one sitting—but I was so taken in by Coleman's voice & her characters that I read this in one go. I'm thrilled to see this book getting the attention it deserves. I rarely read a book in one sitting—but I was so taken in by Coleman's voice & her characters that I read this in one go. I'm thrilled to see this book getting the attention it deserves.

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