Pitt alum Cole Arthur Riley discusses spirituality, love in debut book

By Jamie Sheppard, For The Pitt News

In her new book, “This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation and the Stories that Make Us,” Cole Arthur Riley attempted to address, yet not answer, questions about grief, love and rage.

“What does it mean to grieve? To love? What does terror do to the body?” Riley said. “I have no interest in answering these questions. At least not concretely, but I do want to travel into them — encounter the stories these questions contain.”

Riley, a 2020 Pitt alumna, recently published a New York Times bestselling book, “This Here Flesh,” in February. The book is both a reflection of the stories Riley’s grandmother and father passed down to her, as well as a reflection on race, spirituality and emotion. It’s a combination of memoir writing, nonfiction, poetry and prose.

Riley is also very active on social media, running Black Liturgies, an Instagram account with more than 150,000 followers which posts a collection of prayers, affirmations and quotations from Black figures.

She said her spirituality, roots and passion for contemplative storytelling inspired the book.

“I wanted to convey a spirituality that was liberating, and so I wasn’t so much interested in teaching or espousing doctrines or creeds,” Riley said.

Timothy Maddocks has taught at Pitt for six years in the English department, and encountered Riley when she was an undergraduate student. Maddocks said Riley’s book is a mix of genres, and explores various questions of race, faith and family — among other things.

“It’s actually a blend of genres — of criticism, of memoir, of reflection. It’s at once a narrative and a meditation,” Maddocks said. “She explores questions about race and faith and family — but it also reads as a celebration of life, celebrating both the good times and the bad.”

Maddocks also said Riley and her book are undeniably rooted in the culture of Pittsburgh.  

“Cole is a Pittsburgh writer through and through,” Maddocks said. “If you’re living in Pittsburgh and read ‘This Here Flesh,’ you’ll find yourself in it. You’ll see our City come to life.”

Although Riley said she did not have an audience in mind for her book, a part of her wrote for her family, her ancestors and her lineage.

“Maybe at the root, I was writing for my family. For those who came before me and those who will follow us,” Riley said. “I had much more fidelity to them than any imagined audience.”

As a child, Riley’s father bribed her and her sister into writing poetry to get out of chores, and they often competed with each other. Riley said years later, the gift of storytelling that her father planted has led her to discovering more about her family.

“I had been interviewing elders in my family for a handful of years and collecting stories and videos of the storytelling just as a personal project,” Riley said. “I saw such a bond between my grandmother, my father and my own story, that by the time I went to write this book, our stories were just really alive in me.”

As a first-generation student, Riley said she felt very lost during her years at Pitt. Due to her social anxiety, she was too afraid to ask for help.

“I’m only recently beginning to uncover the role trauma played in my college experience. I was riddled with anxiety, profoundly lost,” Riley said. “There were seasons where I just stopped going to class altogether.”

Riley said she deeply regrets not using her voice more.

“I wish I would’ve gotten the help I needed, gone to therapy, told someone,” Riley said. “I fantasize about meeting with professors I adored from afar, or speaking up more in class.”

But Riley isn’t just a bestselling author — her passions have led her to create spaces for Black voices like through her position as a spiritual teacher at Cornell University’s Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making.

“I think I was looking for a spiritual space that could appropriately hold Black grief, Black emotion, the Black body in helpful ways … and so while there may be beauty in traditional liturgical expressions, it was important to me to preserve and curate Black liturgies —using our art, our literature, our voice,” Riley said. “I was surprised by how many others were hungry for this.”

Maddocks first encountered Riley through Sampsonia Way Magazine,” a small online literary magazine out of City of Asylum that aims to amplify the voices of the persecuted. 

Although Riley was not a student in Maddocks’ “Professional Experience” class, where a small group of students run the magazine, she wrote for the publication in fall 2019 and spring 2020. After working with her on the magazine, Maddocks said she was the kind of student he’ll always remember.

“She was the kind of student that sneaks up on you,” Maddocks said. “One moment you’re not really sure what she’s up to and the next moment, she’s landing interviews with exiled writers and writing grants to fund podcast projects. We’re still spending grant money that Cole raised for us.”

Riley’s influence has continued to grow since then. Abby Lembersky, the director of programs for City of Asylum, found it a joy to work with her, even just briefly. During a virtual event hosted for Riley’s debut book on March 2, more than 150 people attended.

Lembersky described the conversation between Cole and Damon Young, a native Pittsburgh author and co-founder of the entertainment website “Very Smart Brothas,” as “warm” and “generous.” She said they spoke about spirituality, writing and “what it means to write the stories you want to see in the world.”

“It was a true honor to host Cole,” Lembersky said.

Maddocks said he feels as though Riley’s work can reach anybody, regardless of faith. 

“I’d say, while her work is definitely founded in her Christian faith, and it’s a book about faith  — it’s accessible to anyone,” Maddocks said. “I’m a non-Christian — or a recovering Christian, what have you — and I couldn’t put her book down, simply because it was so compelling and tender and affecting.”

Riley said she believes it’s okay for spiritual paths to be different, as long as we have a sense of curiosity and connection with each other.

“It just happens to be the path that I’ve stumbled upon. I think what is important is to preserve one’s connection to the spiritual, however that looks,” Riley said. “To have an imagination for mystery and the unknown things which bind us to one another.”