‘Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology’ by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Here is another story that describes terrible things and outlandish things and makes all these things rise out of the same world. In this case it’s a police shooting of two young men outside a ComicCon. I’ll be honest: I read the book that this is the title story of in order to be polite; I was teaching at the same weekend festival as Nafissa Thompson-Spires and sometimes I lie and claim to have read books, but for some reason I decided this time to proceed on the up and up. The whole book knocked me out but the title story is one I have taught over and over: it’s a story that’s self-aware but also heartfelt; generous but also ruthless. Time folds over itself and the narration is complicated, and funny, and entirely itself, and heartbreaking: you never stop seeing the chalk outlines of the title. 

First published in Story Quarterly 49, 2016. Collected in Heads of the Coloured People, Simon & Schuster/Chatto & Windus, 2018. You can read an extract of the story on the Fawcett Society website, here

‘Heads of the Coloured People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology’ by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

I think about the opening of this story a lot. It just unfolds perfectly. In second person, the narrator introduces us to Riley, who is on his way to a cosplay convention. He has blue contact lenses and bleached hair and ‘he was black. But this wasn’t any kind of self-hatred thing’. From there, Thompson-Spires sets out all the way he might fit into a reader’s conception of being ‘authentically’ black while also pointing out that none of those make the story about ‘about race or “the shame of being alive” or any of those things’. By constantly pre-empting the assumptions of the reader about Riley, Thompson-Spires creates a kind of negative space which makes us in danger of not seeing him, his own attempt at self-definitionThen the narrator acknowledges ‘there is so much awareness in these two paragraphs that I have hardly made space for Riley’. It is only later that we realise that this careful picture of Riley – and his preferences – serves a particular purpose, which might be guessed from the subtitle of the story. There’s an extract here. 

First published in Story Quarterly 49, 2016. Collected in Heads of the Coloured People, Simon & Schuster/Chatto & Windus, 2018