December 15, 2021

Writing on the Resilience of Black Families: Iliyah Coles ’22

For English major Iliyah Coles, pursuing a certificate in creative writing at the Lewis Center for the Arts showed her that writing could be more than just a hobby. “This is what I love to do, and I want to make a career out of it, no matter how it goes,” she says.   

Coles began her creative writing studies at the Lewis Center in her first year with “Introductory Fiction”, taught by lecturer Daphne Kalotay. Coles cites this course, along with a course taught by professor emeritus James Richardson, “Life is Short, Art is Really Short”, as two of the many that helped her gain confidence as a writer. Before Princeton, Coles explains, “I’d never really had people look over my work and [suggest changes and improvements] that were in my head, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate or move forward with.” She found that insightful collaboration in her Lewis Center classes and workshops.  

Iliyah with foward gaze, wearing brown sweater with caramel colored long curly hair

Princeton student Iliyah Coles ’22. Photo by Marc-Anthony.

Coles is one of 31 Princeton seniors who are pursuing a certificate in creative writing in addition to their major areas of study. Each is currently working on a novel, a screenplay, translations, or a collection of poems or short stories as part of a creative thesis for the certificate. Thesis students in the Program in Creative Writing work closely with a member of the faculty, which includes award-winning writers Michael Dickman, Aleksandar Hemon, A.M. Homes, Daphne Kalotay, Christina Lazaridi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, Paul Muldoon, Kirstin Valdez Quade, and Susan Wheeler, and a number of distinguished lecturers and visiting professors.

Coles is writing a collection of ten short stories focusing on Black families.

In 2019, Coles was the first-place co-winner of two awards from Princeton’s English Department: the Ward Mathis Prize for the best short story and the Morris W. Croll Poetry Prize for her collection of poems. She was surprised by the Morris W. Croll Poetry Prize as she does not consider herself a poet. She explains, “I prefer fiction because I can explain more, where poetry is very brief.” She continues, “It’s really hard expressing everything you have to say in such a short amount of space, and I think fiction really allows me to explore character development and plot.”   

Professor Yiyun Li, Coles’ advisor and a 2010 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and a recipient of the 2020 Windham-Campbell Prize, says of Coles, “Over the past three months Iliyah has been producing a strong collection of stories, looking at the racial and class issues in contemporary America from the points of view of a wide range of characters. Oftentimes they feature strong female characters, and it’s thrilling to meet these characters in Iliyah’s stories, and to see the world through their eyes.”

Coles finds herself drawn to the subject of Black families:

“Black families in general… weren’t really supposed to exist and get this far. They have been the main target of enslavement and oppression since then.” And yet, she continues, it’s “an institution that’s stayed so firm and strong…It astounds me!”  

six young adults grouped together outdoors at night by trees and streetlights

Iliyah with her five siblings, pictured left to right: Isaiah Coles, Jehiyah Coles ’25, Iliyah Coles ‘22, Taliyah Coles, Justin Coles, and Jasmine Coles. Photo courtesy of Iliyah Coles.

Even though Coles draws inspiration for many of her stories from her own life growing up in Maryland with five siblings (one of whom started at Princeton this fall), the story she is most excited to share details her interaction with a total stranger. In “Trespasses,” Coles tells the story of a young woman who freezes as she witnesses white officers arresting a lone Black man at a bus stop. In the story, Coles hopes to create a connection between the feeling of frozen fear and a “vessel, where, in moments like that, moments of aggression, specifically racial violence against Black people, Black people become connected in a way where we could’ve been strangers, but because of this our hearts are tethered.”   

After Princeton, Coles hopes to work as a writer or in publishing. For now, she continues to work on her story collection around a busy schedule that also includes women’s rugby practices and meeting with the Christian Union NOVA worship group. She will be reading from her work along with several other seniors on February 14 as part of the C.K. Williams Reading Series

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