Review of Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

I enjoyed this book more than I expected to, mainly because the stories are a surprising combination of everyday life, tragedy, and humor.  The stories focus on black identity in a powerful way, but this is far from a one-issue book. Thompson-Spires covers body issues, bullying, friendship, parenthood, and therapy, just to name a few.  I related to her biting portrayals of reality television and social media.

Thompson-Spires does a great job of keeping every story interesting and different, yet also loosely connecting each story through a few repeated characters.  I was particularly interested in Fatima, who we meet as a sixth grader through a series of biting letters written between two petty, competitive mothers.  Then we see her as a teenager and as an adult.

Sometimes the enemy who looks like you is but a preparation for the enemy who is you.  The violence directed inside mitigates the violence that comes from outside.  It prepares you, creates calluses, fills holes.

These stories feature characters we sympathize with, but a few feature characters who were really disturbing, and that’s got to be challenging for a writer.  We meet Jilly, a narcissist who only thinks about how she’s seen on social media (“Suicide, Watch”); we meet Randolph, who finds inventive ways to torment his office mate (“The Necessary Changes Have Been Made”), and we meet Kim, who stalks disabled men so she can feel needed, yet can’t be bothered even to learn their names (“This Todd”).

Racial identity is ever-present throughout these stories.  Because we go back and forth between humor and tragedy, there’s a sense of never knowing what to expect, and this makes the issues hit home even more powerfully.  For example, the first couple of stories are about a fight that breaks out at a convention between two guys who just happen to rub each other the wrong way.  The story focuses on the little things; who the men are, why they are at the conference, who they’re dating, what they’re wearing.  But there’s a tragic side to the story.

In contrast, another story is about a complicated friendship between two girls.  One of my favorites was simply about two college students in an anthropology class trying to write about race (“A Conversation About Bread”).  Many of the stories, in fact, are about the interactions among black people, rather than between black and white.  In these stories, you see just how complicated race can be.  Our identities also come from what we look like, where we’re from, how we were raised, how we talk, and how we feel about ourselves.

I was particularly moved by the story about Raina, a teenager who posts videos online, is being harassed by the boys at her school and who’s in an online relationship with a guy who doesn’t show his face (“Whisper to a Scream”).

On days like this, Raina sometimes fantasized about running away, saving her money, taking her equipment, and finding a community of people who would really see her, not the family brand, not the extra thirty pounds, not the untouched edges of her hair or her Web tags, but her, whoever she was, her whole head and body fitting into a frame of her own design.

With a lot of short story collections, I enjoy some of the stories but dislike others. Or sometimes the stories all feel so similar it’s hard to stay interested.  In this book, there really was only one story that failed to capture my attention, and that was about a troubled woman standing in line at the DMV (“Not Today, Marjorie”).  And even this story was relatable and thoughtful, but the narrator grated on me.

The book is named for an actual long-running series of sketches by James McCune Smith that, as the author explains, “narrate black life from the mundane to the obscure and span the didactic to the macabre.”  I think that’s a perfect description of this book.  I highly recommend this book, for its portrayal of the complexity of race issues in America, but also because it’s darkly funny, clever, and thought-provoking.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Atria Books.  The book was published April 10, 2018.

  8 comments for “Review of Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

  1. April 16, 2018 at 9:28 pm

    I heard about this book on NPR – they interviewed the author. I’m glad you like it and liked the majority of the stories. It’s one I really want to read.

  2. May 1, 2018 at 11:07 pm

    I’m not a big fan of short stories, because they’re often hit or miss for me as well, but your review makes me think this collection might work for me. I tend to prefer both one-author collections and connected short stories, plus the quotes you shared are fantastic and the premises of the stories you described sound really good too. Going on my to-read list 🙂

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