Somewhere on the internet is a two-hour video of a lecture by the late writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, author of the short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? (posthumously published in 2017). In the footage, filmed in 1984 at Howard University, Collins is magnetic. She emits warmth as well as deep seriousness. And although she would be dead four years later – losing her life to cancer at the age of 46 – one of the questions she poses to her black students continues to reverberate. ‘How do we,’ she dares, ‘divest ourselves of the need to make ourselves extraordinary?’ Collins was speaking as much about black lives as she was about black fiction. In Heads of the Colored People, an intricate, playful debut short story collection from Nafissa Thompson-Spires, we are able to observe some answers. A whole palette of them.
Take Riley, for example, a character we meet in the titular opening story ‘Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology’. He appears sporting blue contact lenses and gel-slicked, bleached-blonde hair. The narrator, deft and ironic like a much cooler friend, is quick to add that Riley is also… black. Not only this, but (just in case we were thinking it), this is neither a story about ‘any kind of self-hatred thing’, nor about ‘the shame of being alive’. Contrary to any hasty assumptions about his sense of blackness, gender or sexual orientation, we are made aware that Riley simply has a love for comic book characters – and is merely on his way to a convention dressed as one.
Setting the tone for the entirety of the collection, Thompson-Spires crafts a narrative voice which always walks one step ahead, sometimes turning to us with a wink, before getting back to what really needs to be said. Which is that the characters in this book are allowed to be idiosyncratic. They are freed by the metafictional narration from burdens of representation, reader projections, or the need to be taken as symbols. You won’t find any Serenas or Beyoncés in the collection. Nor are there any quasi-mythological constructs or characters who are exceptionally gifted or polished at anything in particular. Instead, everyone’s just getting by. What does this look like? They write petty emails to each other in drawn-out parenting rivalries; they battle passive-aggressively with their academic colleagues; they monitor their Twitter notifications and plan their suicides – whilst simultaneously perfecting their next Facebook updates.
The result of this is a sense that Thompson-Spires’s characters have inner lives that are comedic and tragic at the same time – albeit in a way that seems not to have too much consequence. Some characters appear aware of this, such as Randolph, the protagonist of ‘The Necessary Changes Have Been Made’, who is content to sustain an entirely non-verbal series of territorial exchanges with Isabella – his new, and white, office mate. When Randolph offers to, and then buys, Isabella her own desk lamp in an effort to avoid the migraines he suffers in a brightly-lit office, Isabella doesn’t use it. Instead, she ‘beat[s] him to the office for the next couple of weeks and turn[s] on all the lights’ except the one he bought for her. In ‘Fatima, The Biloquist: A Transformation Story’, a teenage girl who finds herself isolated at her all-white school decides she is ready to ‘become black, baa baa black sheep black [. . .] if only someone would teach her’. The person for the job ends up being Violet, a new best friend whom Fatima meets at the local mall, and who also just happens to have albinism.
For all the irony and pathos running throughout the collection, however, Thompson-Spires leaves the most affecting narrative until the end, leading us to ask why the story that feels most real must be the one in which we find the most suffering. This a question to be reckoned with, and has us examining the extent to which we are over-accustomed to witnessing stories about black people in states of overwhelm and struggle. In ‘Wash Clean the Bones’, nothing is absurd and everything feels inescapable. A baby named Ralph suffers from a chronic respiratory illness. Alma, the child’s single mother – a nurse, as well as a funeral singer as a side-hustle – is losing her grip on life in what feels like agonising slow motion. Her long dead brother Terry – an unarmed victim of a police killing – walks into her dreams alongside indiscriminate dead patients she once cared for in the hospital. Increasingly, he begins to appear with Ralph, who cries out to her, ‘How will you keep me safe?’
The book opens and closes with the threat and fear of unnecessary black death. What ultimately happens to Riley, who we meet in the opening story – the ‘well-read, self-aware, self-loving black man with blue contact lenses and blonde hair’ – happens to him in spite of the quirks and wholeness that the narrator affords him. While the narrative voice that Thompson-Spires crafts is sympathetic and generous towards her characters, the world that they inhabit remains deadly. The minutiae of her characters’ lives are a joy to read for the purity of the unremarkable, and yet there is nothing light about her subject matter. Thompson-Spires’ juxtaposing of small normalities against larger, more crippling truths powerfully draws attention to the oppressively racialised realities of her characters’ lives. Turning to us at the start of the collection, Thompson-Spires makes her meaning clear. ‘What is a sketch but a chalk outline done in pencil or words?’, the narrator asks. We understand, then, that Thompson-Spires is concerned with attending to the liminal spaces of black life: the points of demarcation between the seemingly uneventful, and the stark reality that even the uneventful may not be safe.
Regardless, Heads of the Colored People remains a book of both, and this is its triumph. The lives it holds are equal parts quirky and conventional. Deliberately, comically predictable, yet still serious. Lightweight and heart-breaking. In Randolph’s quiet but protracted fight for Isabella to respect his sensitivity to light, a book titled Microaggressions turns up on his desk. Elsewhere Jilly, the lonely protagonist of ‘Suicide, Watch’ ponders the consequences of not dying from an overdose, concluding that the likely treatment of stomach-pumping would be still be ‘better than last year’s colonic’, and that the weight loss ‘would make for a great status update’. What Thompson-Spires’s collection achieves through these sometimes paradoxical blendings is a much longed-for portrayal of a black normality – even if it is a maligned one. We encounter a narrative voice that attentively bears witness to the mundane details of characters’ lives, even if those mundane details only intermittently exist outside of the overarching malaise of living in a world they know cares little for them.
Several of the collection’s stories are linked by the repeated appearance of the character of Fatima, and these connected stories provide a welcome cohesiveness across the book’s middle section. Fatima appears first as a child seen through her competitive mother’s eyes but never heard; later, as a teenager in pursuit of black cultural belonging; and finally, at the age of thirty-three, at last speaking for herself. In ‘The Body’s Defenses Against Itself’ we meet the older Fatima at a yoga class. Still recovering from her uncomfortable years of being ‘the only other black girl’ she looks back on her relationships with black women as she moves through asanas. When she suffers a serious injury and the only person to help her is the ‘only other’ black woman in the yoga session, we witness Fatima’s breakthrough realisation about the relationship between black sisterhood and self-love. The story’s title is then unravelled: the ‘Body’ is the black body, and all the other black bodies must learn to love – each other as well as themselves – in a society that demands otherwise.
There are no saints in Thompson-Spires’s debut, no sinners either. It’s something to be grateful for. Even in the few moments of the book that land less memorably, we are left feeling thankful for the inconsequence of events. It is as though we are relieved at the affirmation of the fact that not everything in these lives must be newsworthy, for better or worse; not extraordinary, not even post-worthy.