In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, District Lit fiction editor and 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship finalist Tyrese L. Coleman delves into the tradition of flash in African American literature and how it drives the lyricism and urgency in her flash fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Tyrese L. Coleman
Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer’s Cane is a story collection I always come back to when I want to reeducate myself on how to write flash.
No, “story collection” is not right. I can’t call it that. What can I call it? A book?
It is a book. That is the best I can do.
I can only give it this basic label because defining it with terms and categories would mean dismissing one or more of its elements. This book is complication made tangible in black ink and sepia-turned paper. Only the barest of explanations will ever make it comprehensible. In one instance, it is a collection of very short stories—short-shorts or flash fiction or prose poetry is what we would call them now, but who knows what the form was called back in 1923 when it was first published, if anything. The book is divided into themes portraying Reconstruction-era black life in the country and the city. In another instance, is a collection of poems, songs, and spirituals. And yet, in another, it is a play.
It is all of this, and none. It is everything.
This book changed me.
The slim, dark Kelly-green cover of my now dog-eared, scribbled-on copy quotes Alice Walker: “[Cane] has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.” This sentiment is true for me too. I can’t lie and say it is the book that made me want to write. I was a writer before this book came into my life. But, when I read it in an undergraduate Harlem Renaissance literature course, my mind expanded like a batch of Southern biscuits rising in the oven, a once hard, round mound building slowly upwards into something providing sustenance. I thought: “You can do this?” “Who does this?” “I want to do this.” But, I was not able to appreciate the book as much as I would later. It moved me, but I didn’t quite understand it.
Many years after undergrad, I started a Master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. For no reason or every reason, I found this book again. It was the best example I could think of to help supplement my practical writing education—the book I went to when our instructor told us to “read like a writer.”
The first short story is titled “Karintha.” The story (?) prose poem (?)…the piece takes up a page-and-a-half. In that short distance, we travel through ten years in Karintha’s life, the piece’s shortness representing the hurried nature in which this child is made to become a woman. The rush is due to the desires of men urging her body to age: “This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.” Old men rode her hobby-horse on their knees. Young men bided their time, waiting for her to ripen for devouring. Because of this desire, she grows vain, loathing the men who love her, playing them like the toys they denied her.
Who sent me this book? Was it some long-dead ancestor who watched over me, knew I would see myself, right there, on the very first page? Karintha herself, maybe. My skin is the same color: “dusk on the eastern horizon,” and I know what it feels like to grow up too soon. I am a daughter of the rural south, of running down dirt roads with bare feet, “red dust that sometimes makes a spiral in the road,” of long black pigtails flopping against my shoulders. Old men had ridden me hobby-horse on their knees. I used to write poetry, bad bad bad poetry, but I loved—still love—verse. The lyricism and flow of Toomer’s prose, how he begins and ends with a verse, and interrupts a paragraph with a song, blew my mind when I was in graduate school learning how to read and understand these techniques. Never jarring, the ebb and flow between structures is natural, the natural swirl of Karintha’s story, like smoke or dust with everything caught up in it.
After returning to Cane, I wrote a flash memoir essay for my class called “I Am Karintha.” It was the first thing I ever published. The first time I ever cried while writing.
As I continue to write flash, I often find myself returning to this method of combining prose and poetry, trying to recreate the feel of “Karintha.” Toomer is not the only flash writer I admire who uses this lyrical mashup of poetry and prose. Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric all use this style in some variety. Reading their work has been integral to the development of my voice as a writer. I have a cultural and racial connection to these writers and their stories, enamored by the way every piece is written as if someone is speaking to me, or singing to me, or telling me a secret turning me on to this world.
Their style of flash is immediate, creating a verbal impact, a short punch that, when it’s done and read, makes you cock your head to the side and say “huh,” and then lower it to read again and again. You can call writing flash “a stripping down,” but I call it “a building up.” Flash builds tension with every sentence, every word, so that the intensity is like a line of wire pulled tight. The combination of verse and prose is difficult to maintain in longer stories or essays—there is so much building with language you can do before readers lose stamina and interest. Poetic or figurative language in longer pieces, if done too much, can feel contrived. That is why I adore Maud Martha especially, an entire novel of short flash pieces written in a lyrical prose style. In the tradition of Cane, Maud Martha, and Citizen, my goal as a flash writer is to create my own work of art, something undefinable that merges forms, a combination of fiction, non-fiction, prose, and poetry: a literary mutt.
And as I’ve worked on this baby, I’ve dragged around my dog-eared, scribbled-on copies of these books all over—to work, to writing groups, to the store, to visit friends. If I leave them behind, will the ghost who sent them to me think I’m ungrateful and take away my muses? Probably not. But, I like the reassurance of having them with me, to know that when I need to remind and re-educate myself on how to write lyric in the form of a story, I have a book at arm’s reach that will show me how it’s done. I have Karintha by my side.
Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and the fiction editor for District Lit, an online journal of writing and art. She is currently working on a flash fiction and memoir chapbook called, How to Sit. A finalist for the 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship with SmokeLong Quarterly, her flash has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, The Stoneslide Corrective, The Tahoma Literary Review, Hobart, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and elsewhere. Reach her on Twitter @tylachelleco or at tyresecoleman.com.