Nafissa Thompson-Spires is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but, for a long time, she’s also been a prize-winning short story author. In 2013, “This Todd” won the Josephine M. Breezee Memorial Prize in Fiction, and, in 2015, “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” won the StoryQuarterly Fiction Prize.
This April, Atria’s 37 Ink imprint will publish her first book, Heads of the Colored People, a collection of 11 stories that includes those two prize winners. The collection features an assortment of black characters, some appearing in multiple stories, who are navigating their places in what the author calls “an allegedly postracial era.”
“I wanted to represent black characters who are marginalized in the white world, but also even marginalized within blackness: people who are accused of sounding white because of the way they speak, people who are really nerdy—a different angle of black identity,” Thompson-Spires says. “That’s a thing I think a lot of us know well, but I haven’t read too many stories about those kinds of people.”
The book’s title and format are based on a series of literary sketches titled “Heads of the Colored People, Done with a Whitewash Brush,” published between 1852 and 1854 in the weekly Frederick Douglass’ Paper, out of Rochester, N.Y. The author, James McCune Smith, was a surgeon—the first black American to obtain a medical degree. He was an abolitionist and a public intellectual whom Douglass had appointed as his paper’s New York correspondent. Writing under the pseudonym Communipaw, McCune Smith’s satirical sketches focused on New York’s black working class. Thompson-Spires credits her scholar husband, Derrick Spires, with introducing her to McCune Smith’s work, which, she says, “narrates black life from the mundane to the obscure and spans the didactic to the macabre.”
Thompson-Spires’s book began its life when she was an M.F.A. student at the University of Illinois, though as a YA novel rather than as short stories. She submitted that novel to an agent, who requested that she alter the ages of the characters—which she found difficult.
“To distract myself from doing revisions on the novel, I wrote six or seven short stories,” Thompson-Spires says. “Once I had written ‘Heads of the Colored People,’ I realized that was the theme I wanted to pursue for the rest of my stories. I was initially trying to write updated versions of McCune Smith’s stories, but they weren’t really updated because nothing had really changed. He was writing in the 1850s about black rights, and we’re dealing right now with so much police brutality, voter suppression, and lots of things that feel very much like where we were over 150 years ago. It’s kind of scary to see how much of that history repeats itself or hasn’t changed at all. So I tried to instead think about the broader theme of heads: heads as in leadership, as in psychology, as in mental illness, as in literal heads. And I think that helped me figure out the stories I wanted to tell without being so restricted.”
Generally, Thompson-Spires’s characters are based on observations of real people—using methods she proudly attributes to the influence of Harriet the Spy. “You’re supposed to learn a lesson from Harriet the Spy: if you spy on people, keep notes about people, your friends will all turn on you and you’ll get in trouble,” she says. “But that’s not the lesson I learned from it. I’m an extremely nosy person. I actually wanted to be just like her, and I had a literal spy notebook where I would take notes on what people were doing. And I’m not just talking about as a kid—I still have a spy notebook! I still observe people, I take notes on what they’re saying, and I love doing it. But no one has ever discovered my spy notebook and turned on me like what happened to Harriet!”
Ultimately, Thompson-Spires says, “I think there’s a little bit of me in almost all of the characters—definitely in the Fatima character.” Three of the stories feature Fatima, including “Belles Lettres,” in which Fatima is bullied (inspired, Thompson-Spires notes, by “a really nasty letter to my mom from my childhood bully’s mother, when I was in third grade, about what a bad kid I was”) and “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” in which Fatima deals with endometriosis. “I’m trying to figure out what it means to accept your body when you have an invisible illness that is wreaking havoc with it,” she says. “In fact, my next project is a novel about Fatima.”
Thompson-Spires and her brother and sister had book-filled childhoods, with parents who were educators and now work in the tech industry. Her father is a former middle school history teacher who, she says, won a Reader’s Digest essay contest in the 1990s; her mother is a former English teacher who writes books for educators teaching kids of color.
Heads of the Colored People sold at auction to Dawn Davis, of whom Thompson-Spires says, “She really understood what I was doing. She is also a Southern Californian who went to a private school, she was the only black kid in her school, and she just really got [the stories], not just on a mental level but in a kind of a visceral way.”
Thompson-Spires says she hopes the stories help readers “rethink what’s allowed as authentically black and what isn’t—to think about how mistreated the black body is, not just from the level of government and state-sanctioned violence but on an everyday level: how do you treat your own black body, how do you treat others people’s black bodies, how can you think more carefully about those behaviors?”
She adds, “I wrote ‘A Conversation About Bread’ so that one of the disabled characters that Kim fetishizes in ‘This Todd’ would have a chance to speak back about the fetish—because it was important to me that the satire in that story was apparent.” The most difficult story to write, she says, was “Wash Clean the Bones”: “It’s about a mother who considers drowning her baby because she’s exhausted from black deaths. It’s the only story where there’s no humor, and it’s deeply sad. And that’s atypical for me. I almost always use humor to disarm my readers, and writing something that was so intensely depressing was really difficult for me. But I wrote it because I felt like it was an important story to tell.”
What surprised Thompson-Spires about the book is that it’s sadder than the one she set out to write. “I see myself as someone who writes a lot of humor: tongue-in-cheek work, some satire, some stories that are even absurdist,” she says. “It surprised me that I was writing about so many more aspects of blackness than I thought I ever would—about physical trauma, chronic illness, and death. Those are all things I never thought I would pursue because I found them too depressing as a reader, and so I set out to write what I thought was lighthearted and ended up doing the thing that I was trying to avoid. But I don’t regret that—I think that those were the stories I needed to tell.”