This interview is the seventh in a new series, Writers on Writing, which focuses on craft and process. The series is part of The Common’s 10th anniversary celebration.
Read Coke’s Issue 19 essay, “Brother Love.”
Tanya Coke is a civil rights lawyer and writer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Root, and USA Today. She is currently working on a graphic novel about race and suburban motherhood.
Your essay “Brother Love” reads not only as a heartfelt meditation on how familial ties can be rekindled, but also as an intricate, personal account of your family history over time. How did you navigate weaving the personal with the historical? How did you determine which moments in your life to highlight in your narrative?
That’s a good question. I didn’t write an outline or give much thought to structure. For me, it was a little like reviewing the tape of a home movie and picking the most emotionally laden scenes in a story that traverses 40 years. Or maybe squinting at a landscape to make an impressionist painting and trying to capture the most vivid things in the frame. Like the moment when my father told my sisters and me that we had a nine-month-old brother. The moment when he first handed this scrawny baby to me. The way it made me feel both special and grown up when my father took me to jazz club with him, when I was 14. The look of grief on my brother’s face at 17, when he was a pallbearer at our dad’s funeral. Or the joy on his other dad’s face, when he danced to a brace of Indian drummers on Shawn’s wedding day. Those became the touchstones for the essay.