From Our Authors | November 14, 2017
On “Coleman Hill”: Kim Coleman Foote on mining fiction from family history
We talked with fiction writer Kim Coleman Foote about the inspiration for her story “How To Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tell about It (Vauxhall, NJ, c. 1949)” from the fall 2017 (40:3) issue of the Missouri Review. Here’s what she had to say:
Fact: circa 1949, the Coleman kids and their cousins plotted to kill Gra’ Coleman with her braids, poison, and a kick.
Fiction: most of the rest.
I grew up with a time machine. It was the ’80s, and I was entrenched in a world of Garbage Pail Kids, pixelated video games, and boom boxes, but just as easily, I could go to the ’40s. My mother would tell stories about her childhood, transporting my brother and me to Vauxhall, New Jersey, to a time when no one locked the front door, when neighbors had license to spank each other’s kids, when a ginormous block of ice cooled your food.
If that wasn’t captivating enough, there was my great-grandmother, a.k.a. Gra’ Coleman. She died a few years before I was born, but her memory loomed in the stories. She was the petite, snuff-spitting lady who fought her daughters on Friday nights and invoked submission in grown men. The grandmother who brutalized her dozen grandchildren and tore their mother from them.
My brother and I often declared that she wouldn’t have terrorized us; we would have fought back—wasn’t she only four feet tall? My mother would shake her head, saying it was a different generation back then; kids respected their elders. But my young mind couldn’t accept that concept, and it wasn’t just due to cheekiness or the privilege of having a far less turbulent upbringing. From the stories, I gathered that Gra’ Coleman had ruled by fear. And fear, I told myself, was not the same as respect. I also drew connections between past and present, thinking, No wonder such-and-such is like that today!
For the longest time, I wanted to write about those connections in my fiction, to explore the legacy of trauma that has reached as far as my generation, but it was so immensely personal. I felt I needed permission, and not necessarily from the living.
Ten years ago, I felt it come. I had returned home to Jersey after several years’ absence and was living with my family to save for an apartment in New York City, where I’d landed a job. While examining old family photos, I came across the one taken of my grandfather’s sisters when they were little. One of their voices popped into my head: I ain’t afraid of that man or his camera.
More words started pouring, and I was shocked. Usually when I create fiction, it’s images that come to me, not words; it’s like watching a movie or calling up a dream. Within minutes, I’d penned a very short story about the day that photo was taken, circa 1925. And suddenly, I was feeling tenderness for my aunt, who most of the family recalled with a bad taste in the mouth.
I tried to replicate that process at a writing residency, posting old photos on the wall. Genealogist that I am, I could also draw from the family documents, census, and other records, and family interviews I’d amassed over the years. I quickly wrote a draft of a story incorporating the legends of my great-grandfather’s lockjaw and of how his mother challenged a white man in Jim Crow Alabama.
This is working! I thought. I envisioned finishing a story collection in no time. I would call it “Coleman Hill,” modeling it after Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, featuring Gra’ Coleman throughout.
Then I started “How to Kill…” A few paragraphs in, I wrote about how Gra’ Coleman bashes Marlene’s head, and I burst into tears. No longer able to see my computer screen, I took a break. Came back to it later, read through the beginning for a refresher, got to that line about the beating, and cried again.
Over the next few years, I would keep trying to pick up where I left off in that story, but all I could do was cry, and I wasn’t quite sure why. The aunt who is the basis for Marlene’s character had a tough life—some of which I witnessed firsthand—but she overcame her demons. Another writing residency would fortunately give me the time and peace of mind to power through my tears and finish the story.
Yet my eyes still get misty, reading that line. In fact, all of the stories I’ve begun for the collection give me visceral reactions, including chills.
Sometimes I hope it’s a sign of the ancestors granting more permission, especially since my living relatives won’t see my stories until publication. I struggled with the decision not to share anything in advance until realizing, as indicated by the opening lines here, that I am using a hefty dose of imagination to reconstruct the past. In essence, I am creating a biomythography à la Audre Lorde, drawing from many sources to create a modern myth, a new history.
Other times, I interpret my reactions to the stories as my awareness of the power inherent in both the words and in the act of writing itself. Many of my ancestors have no headstones to mark their graves. Neither did they do anything esteemed enough or even infamous enough to earn them a place in history books. They were poor and black and spoke what some still deem an inferior version of English. After slavery, they became sharecroppers, then renters, few of them owning land or the homes built upon it. They were mostly farmers, domestic workers, manual laborers. So I find it quite precious to document in writing the lives and deeds of these ordinary yet often disregarded Americans. To memorialize Coleman Hill, that unofficial place in still unincorporated Vauxhall. To see Gra’ Coleman and others not just as villains but as children, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors, caught up in a cycle stemming from slavery.
In doing so, I can now steer that time machine in an effort to expose the roots of that cycle, break that cycle, and make peace with the past.
Kim Coleman Foote grew up in New Jersey and now calls Brooklyn home. Her fiction, essays, and experimental prose have appeared in Obsidian, Crab Orchard Review, the Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship and NYFA Fellowship, among other honors. She is currently working on a novel about the transatlantic slave trade and stories fictionalizing her family’s experience of the Great Migration. For more information, visit www.kimcolemanfoote.com.
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