Five Questions for: Nisha Coleman

Photo: Jeremy Cabrera

Posted on: 11 September, 2023

Category: Featured Member, QWF News

Nisha Coleman is a writer, storyteller, musician, and actor based in Montreal. Her stories have been featured on the CBC, Moth Radio Hour, Risk!, and Confabulation, among others. Her children’s book, Dear Humans, addresses climate change and was published in March, 2023. 

QWF’s Membership Services Coordinator Riley Palanca spoke to her about her various experiences as a multidisciplinary literary and performance artist who draws from real-life inspirations.

Content Warning: This piece mentions suicide. For support, please call the Suicide Prevention Centre of Montreal (SPCM) at +1 866 277-3553.

1) To set the stage, in your words, could you explain what storytelling is as a genre? What drew you to this unique way of sharing narratives, and what, in particular, characterizes Nisha Coleman’s storytelling?

The concept of true-life storytelling is deceptively simple. In essence, the storyteller shares a true, personal story from their lives. No props, costumes, or notes. If it is done well, the audience will have the impression that the storyteller is telling this story for the first time, that the words are coming to them in the moment, and it will have the intimate quality of sharing a moment with a close friend. In reality, the storyteller has carefully considered every detail, every word, and sometimes in my case, every syllable. Everything has to fit together like a seamless puzzle. If you give too much information, your audience will disengage. If you don’t provide enough context, they will get lost. Speak too quickly, they’ll miss details. Speak too slowly, they’ll get bored. True-life storytelling is a complex craft that, if done well, feels simple.

The thing that drew me to live storytelling was the immediacy and intimacy that it offers for both the storyteller and the audience. I feel heard and understood, and the audience does too—there is always something to relate to in a stranger’s story. It brings us together as humans in such a unique way when we find parallels between our stories.

I think two elements that characterize my own storytelling are vulnerability and humour. I don’t shy away from tough material, but I also don’t hesitate to allow humour into my stories. I guess it’s a reflection on how I see life: hard and hilarious.

2) Congratulations on the successful run of your storytelling show Alright: Solving the Problem of Living (Rabbit in a Hat Productions, 2023) at the Montreal Fringe! Can you talk us through the process of selecting narratives from your life that would work best as stories in your performance?

Alright is a show that centres around themes of mental illness and suicide, which are difficult topics. I had the obvious stories, about growing up with a suicidal father, losing a friend to suicide, and battling suicidality myself, but I also needed to balance those stories with others that were about living fully and taking risks. My random encounter with Cary Elwes from The Princess Bride was an obvious one because it is fun and absurd and a reminder to trust the unknown. The other story, about getting stranded in Madrid with a stray cat, was about trusting strangers and my own agency. I tried to dose the show with a balance of seriousness and fun. I wanted to acknowledge how excruciating life can be, as well as how exciting and amazing and, above all, how we are all connected in one big constellation.

3) Your non-fiction memoir Busker (Radiant Press, 2015) vividly portrays your life in Paris. Could you share how your experience as a performance-based artist influenced the process of writing a literary memoir? Were there notable differences and challenges between the stage and the page?

You know, I actually started storytelling at the same time that I was writing Busker, and it helped my writing tremendously. First, it helped me be true to my authentic voice. I wanted my readers to feel as if I was telling them the stories, to capture that intimacy of a confession-like narrative.

Concision is another thing that transferred from storytelling to literary writing. In live storytelling, every detail has to pull its weight, must serve a purpose. If not, snip-snip! This is more obvious in a short, performed piece, but I feel the same way about my literary writing. When writing from your life, it can be difficult to let go of “how it actually happened” and let the story decide what’s necessary to include. I used to describe everything, every detail about characters’ bodies and clothes and smells and voices. But storytelling taught me how to better sift through all the details and only keep the ones that matter to the story I am telling.    

4) In your recent picture book Dear Humans: A Letter from the Animals (Linda Leith Publishing, 2023), you give voice to animals expressing their concerns about global warming. How did you find a balance between conveying the urgencies of the climate catastrophe while maintaining a child-friendly narrative?

Dear Humans is written for kids but in a way for adults too. Issues as big as climate change sometimes need to be simplified for us to feel like we can have some agency and impact. Once the animals in Dear Humans discuss the issues in their environments, they move into the action phase. That’s where we need to be too.

Tabby Cat, who lives with humans, tells the others how smart and capable humans are at solving problems. This serves as a reminder to anyone feeling defeated by the scale of the problem: we are a capable species with all that we need to solve this crisis. We just have to make it a priority—something that capitalism has not typically allowed.

In a previous draft of Dear Humans, I included a prescriptive things-to-do list, but it wasn’t interesting, new, or inspiring. I don’t want tell people to stop idling their cars or eating so many animal products. If they feel a deeper connection with nature they will figure that out on their own. In the end, it made more sense to highlight things that nature provides—from soothing sounds to vibrant colours—for free. I believe that if we value and understand nature, not only will we be more attentive to its plight and more likely to take personal action, we will be happier more wholesome people too.

5) Finally, personal narratives often require a degree of vulnerability. How do you navigate this vulnerability while also ensuring your stories empower both you and your audience?

Oh, it can be so freeing to share your deepest secrets, to a therapist, in writing, or on stage! Every time I am vulnerable on stage, people come up to me after and tell me things from their lives, things they might not have shared otherwise.  

Being vulnerable on stage empowers others to be vulnerable. For me, this is one of the most powerful aspects of personal narratives. Even if you aren’t comfortable being vulnerable on stage or in published work, it is still empowering to connect with someone else’s life story. You vicariously feel seen, understood, accepted. It can be tremendously healing. It is my hope that people also feel empowered to share a little of their personal stories too, to a friend, in their writing or, why not, on stage!