Nafissa Thompson-Spires' auspicious debut sharply unpacks contemporary racial dynamics
Heads of the Colored People begins with a story that culminates in a fatal incident of police brutality. Everything that precedes it — the nerdy fan-con setting, the lightly comic tone, the fragmented points of view — runs against what we’ve come to expect of a tragically familiar narrative. There’s no gloomy foreshadowing of what’s to come, no character detail to help make sense of the senseless. The story hums to the rhythm of daily life, and only when it reaches its harrowing climax do we realize why that’s such a sharply political choice.
Every once in a while a book comes around that fills a need — that communicates ideas so effectively and humanely its social value leaps off the page. Heads, the debut of Nafissa Thompson-Spires, is such a book. It strikes a careful balance: Despite being a collection, most every story exists in the same, particular world, and the issues each bring up cleverly connect. This is a book interested in the intersection of race and class as it plays out in modern society. The main characters are black and (mostly) professionally successful, and they don’t typically encounter blatant racism. Their experiences, complex and provocative, feel urgently true.
Thompson-Spires unpacks the “only one” phenomenon, regarding black people who inhabit predominantly white spaces: fan conventions, private schools, elitist universities, yoga classes. She’s not content to whittle these experiences down to a single idea or emotion — stories run the gamut from intimate to uproarious to devastating — and she’s refreshingly reluctant to attach capital-I Issues to any of them. The author thoughtfully reveals contemporary racial dynamics by letting authenticity lead the way. She poses dilemmas, and we observe them play out as if she’s plucked scenes directly from our day-to-day.
Early on, a string of stories connect the relationship between Fatima and Christinia, two black students in an otherwise white elementary school class who develop an adversarial dynamic. The first tale, “Belles Letters,” is written in epistolary format between the two girls’ mothers. The moms take jabs at one another in increasingly absurd — perhaps to a fault — letters stuffed into their daughters’ backpacks, a competition over whose daughter is the real bully that descends into petty insult wars. From there, the saga turns fascinating; Fatima reflects on her childhood as an adult, triggered by the appearance of a black woman in her yoga class who reminds her of Christinia. She gets pointlessly competitive and obsessive with a person she doesn’t even know: “Years later, I will wonder why I competed with that woman in the class, why Christinia competed so much with me,” she narrates. “Years later, I will be more informed but no better.” Fatima’s coming of age as a black woman is key to Heads: a meditation on the nuances of identity formation and how it’s complicated by identity markers (black, affluent) that defy entrenched social structures.
Thompson-Spires deftly handles even the trickiest of tone mixtures. She follows a young woman at a loss as to how to announce her impending suicide on social media; the result is morbidly funny and insightful. Writing in versatile prose and with a penchant for naturalistic dialogue, the author calls to mind writers like Junot Díaz (This Is How You Lose Her) and Tayari Jones (February’s An American Marriage) in the way she weaves timeless human conflict into a quietly political tapestry. Well-observed as they are, some of these entries could use a little more meat on the bones — the story of the minor indignities placed upon a college professor is too slight for its own good; the aforementioned “Belles Letters” cuts off too abruptly for its final scathing line to really land — but the collection sparkles in its mundanity nonetheless.
The power of Heads of the Colored People stems, ultimately, from its author’s command. In the book’s first story, she slides into meta-commentary, describing it as a “black network narrative”: a portrait of a diverse group of characters linked by gun violence — by a murder. It’s upsetting as none of the other stories are, a sharp pain manifested out of the trauma of history which sinks into the rest of the book. Even at Heads’ most low-key, that shock is there, lingering. It’s telling that Thompson-Spires ends her first story on such a defeated, piercing note: “What is a black network narrative but the story of one degree of separation, of sketching the same pain over and over, wading through so much flesh trying to draw new conclusions, knowing that wishing would not make them so?” B+