Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People

"Heads of the Colored People" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.

Short story writer Nafissa Thompson-Spires knows how not to change the way Black people are treated in America. Thompson-Spires grew up in the 80s in Southern California and saw her fair share of news reports which played the brutality enacted on Black bodies on loop.

“The beating of Rodney King was a huge, huge part of my childhood, and those visuals played over and over, but that didn’t change anything about the way people felt about Black people,” Thompson-Spires said. “We don’t need to reproduce the trauma in order to create empathy, it doesn’t actually change anything. In fact, it might do the opposite.”

In a reading hosted by UT’s Creative Writing program Monday night, Thompson-Spires read excerpts of two stories from her 2018 debut collection “Heads of the Colored People,” which was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

Thompson-Spires, a writing professor who holds a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, has said that her raison d’etre as a writer is to create stories about nerdy Black people like herself, which often go untold. She also wants to depict the trauma that Black people in America face in a way that does not make the trauma the focal point.

Her first reading of the night came from the titular story of the collection, “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” a story which won StoryQuarterly’s 2016 Fiction Prize and accomplishes both of Thompson-Spires’s goals as a writer. 

First, it deals with a young Black man on his way to a cosplay convention dressed as the anime character Tamaki Suoh (read: nerdy). By the end of the story, her protagonist has been killed at the hands of the police (read: trauma). But Thompson-Spires was careful not to detail the killing itself or the dead bodies of its victims. As its title suggests, her debut collection is about the heads, rather than the bodies, of Black people.

“When it came to actually writing this collection, the first story and the last story are about police brutality, and so there is death on the page,” Thompson-Spires said. 

“But it was important to me to make sure that death didn’t happen in a trauma porn reproducing way, where you just stare at the dead body, you gawk, you’re a rubbernecker, isn’t that sad, isn’t that gross, isn’t that grotesque, and then you walk away and you do nothing … I think what trauma porn does is it anesthetizes us to actual empathy.” 

Josh Sorrells, a first year graduate student in UT’s fiction writing program, introduced Thompson-Spires and moderated the event. In his introduction, he tied the message of “Heads of the Colored People” to the events of the past year. 

“In a year that has been fraught with tragedy, from the introduction of a pandemic to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to the more recent events of violence and insurrection at our capitol, it can almost feel like trauma is becoming a familiar state of being,” Sorrells said. “In this collection, Thompson-Spires shows us that the best way to cope with this trauma is through humor, wit and empathy.”

Indeed, Thompson-Spires’s stories, which began as a project to update the sketches of Black lives written by 19th-century abolitionist John McCune Smith, are full of sly cultural references, sharp sarcasm and biting social commentary on the interplay between Black and white people in predominantly white spaces and the struggle for Black authenticity.

Thompson-Spires read even her most comedic lines with a deadpan expression, perhaps because many of them are drawn from her own experience. 

The second story that she read from, titled “Belles Lettres,” was entirely inspired by a years-long episode of passive-aggressive letter-writing from Thompson-Spires’s childhood, a story which she detailed on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” as well as during Monday night’s reading.

“It’s sort of autobiographical. Not sort of. It’s totally autobiographical,” Thompson-Spires said. “This story came from my mother sending me what she called a ‘care packet’ and it was really just a box of crap from my childhood and it had in it like old report cards, and any time I’d been in the local newspaper or the school newspaper.

“And one of the things that was in it was a letter from my childhood bully’s mother about me, and it said that I was basically a monster and her child was perfect, and it became clear that my mom and this woman had been fighting back and forth through these letters.”

“Belles Lettres,” the third story from the collection, is told through years of letters written between Thompson-Spires’s mother (named “Monica” in the story) and the mother of the only other Black girl at the private, white prep school which Thompson-Spires attended as a child. It crackles with the subdued rage that only battling mothers can put to paper.

How does Thompson-Spires' family react to their stories being published in such a public way? Her mother was delighted, says Thompson-Spires, and told her that she should’ve waited to see the letter of complaint she had just written to the TSA, because she really would have loved it.

At the end of the reading, Thompson-Spires was asked to speak about her creative writing MFA experience, a degree for which she wrote an unpublished young adult novel. Thompson-Spires spoke in favor of diversifying the genres studied in MFA programs, which she said often fail to prepare students professionally. 

She praised young adult fiction, or “YA fiction,” as a perfect middle ground for those who want to write at a high level and also profit from their writing.

“Unfortunately, genre fiction makes money and literary fiction often doesn’t, so you can sort of stick to your pride of ‘I’m only going to write the most literary of literariest things,’ or you can actually make a living off of writing, and most people don’t have that middle ground; they’re either one or the other,” Thompson-Spires said.

Like many writers, and especially writers of color, Thompson-Spires was critical of her own MFA experience, which she found creatively stifling. Before the students and professors of UT’s writing program, Thompson-Spires confessed what the mocking tone and self-referencing irony of “Heads of the Colored People” was actually about. 

“It’s kind of a middle finger to my MFA program,” Thompson-Spires said.

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