Heads of the Colored People

Stories

LIST PRICE $11.99

About The Book

Longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction and Kirkus Prize Finalist

Calling to mind the best works of Paul Beatty and Junot Díaz, this collection of moving, timely, and darkly funny stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era.

A stunning new talent in literary fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in these compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Heads of the Colored People includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book

Introduction

In Heads of the Colored People Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in the compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide, while others are devastatingly poignant—from a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, to the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture. Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In the opening story, “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, And No Apology,” what similarities arise in both Riley and Brother Man? In the height of the conflict between the two men Thompson-Spires writes, “it was just like Naruto v. Pain, only with two black guys, so you couldn’t tell if either one was the hero.” Discuss why their race would help dictate knowing which was the hero.

2. In the same story, before Thompson-Spires shares a few of the details of the shooting, did you already predict them? Were your predictions correct?

3. As Randolph speaks with DIY in “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made” she says to him:

“ Sometimes the problem is the environment; sometimes you are the environment. In your case, you think you’re making changes, but you take the problem with you, like you did exchanging your old job for this one,” she said, tapping one side of her head. Then she gestured with one hand for him to leave. Randolph left the meeting furious with DIY, though he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why. He asked Carol about the new office that day, and though it looked like another demotion of sorts, it represented, for him, a battle he won, growing a pair.”

Do you agree that Randolph is the problem here? Who won the battle Randolph or Isabela?

4. In “Belles Lettres,” how does the feud between Dr. Lucinda Johnston and Dr. Monica Willis highlight the challenges upper class minority families’ face? Which letter did you find the most offensive and yet comical, and how do the two women reconcile?

5. Fatima and Christina are now adults in “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” as Fatima reminisces on childhood we learn more about what really happened in their school-aged years. What did Christina’s mom call “the body’s defense against itself?” In closing, what does Fatima mean when she says, “I’ve been doing this yoga since I was a child?”

6. In the opening paragraph of “Fatima, The Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” Thompson-Spires writers, “Fatima felt ready to become black, full black, baa baa black sheep black, if only someone would teach her.” Describe how Violet teaches Fatima to be black.

7. Fatima spends weeks hiding her relationship with Rolf from Violet, her new best friend and the person who has helped her become comfortable being herself. What would make Fatima hide Rolf from Violet or was she hiding Violet from Rolf? Where did Rolf go wrong in meeting Violet at the mall?

8. On page 81, Thompson-Spires writes, “other things she hadn’t told Violet because she wasn’t sure which lip she was supposed to use.” How did you interpret “which lip she was supposed to use?”

9. In “The Subject of Consumption,Lisbeth and Ryan are fruitarians practicing detachment parenting while filming a reality TV show. While the tension in their relationship is sensed early on, it does not reflect the love the couple had in years prior. What is the main issue in their relationship now?

10. In Heads of the Colored People, we see just how dynamic relationships can be, both in person and digitally. In “Suicide, Watch,” Jilly leans on her online Facebook community as she drops hints of her coming suicide. In “Whisper to a Scream,” Raina feels safer in her ASMR videos. What are the pros and cons of social media in these instances? How and why does Jilly’s attempt to warn her “friends” fail?

On page 126, we see Carmen’s response to Raina feeling unsafe.

Her mother had said she wanted to “deal with this situation,” but she also asked Raina, “Did you do anything to make him think he could touch you like that? Did you give him any ideas?”

How do you feel about Carmen’s response to Raina’s confiding? How does this response mirror the way larger society handles sexual assault?

11. What are your initial impressions of Marjorie in “Not Today Marjorie?”

Do your friends know how hard you are on yourself or how much you care about what other people think?” Alex had asked just last week during their session. “Because it seems like your Christianity offers you grace, but you don’t seem to ever offer any to yourself.” Marjorie almost told her about Coryn and Charles then, but she decided against it. Instead she said quietly, “I’m just trying to keep my hands clean, day by day. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, and I’ve asked for forgiveness, but I feel like I can’t stop doing them.

What do you believe about the concept of grace? Should Marjorie be completely honest with Alex and forgive herself?

12. It is often said that people repeat cycles until they learn the lesson they need to learn. In “This Todd,” we are introduced to Kim an artist who repeatedly has unsuccessful relationships with disabled men. What must Kim learn in the way she handles these relationships? Is she tender? Was Brian right to call the police as Kim lugged a wooden leg into his home?

13. In “A Conversation about Bread,” we hear more of Brian’s story and spend time with him and his classmate Eldwin as they complete an assignment. Another character we see but do not hear from is the white woman listening in on their exchange. Thompson-Spires writes:

If Eldwin cared about the white woman—and he might have at some level, but it wasn’t a visible level—he would have seen that she was now very interested in the conversation. His theory, he had told Brian before, involved learning to ignore the white gaze until it no longer came to mind. Then, “and only then,” he’d said, “black people can be free from all that double consciousness bull.”

How would you define the “white gaze?” Do you believe it is possible for minorities to live outside of the white gaze?

14. Explain the significance of the title of the book. How did the theme show up in the different stories within the collection?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Throughout the collection, how are you feeling in your own body? Did the collection make you more aware of the space you take up in the world by gender, race and/or class?

2. Brian was not pleased with the way Eldwin portrayed the bread story. “I’d do more to try to distinguish the narrator from the other characters so it’s not like they’re some kind of monolith,” he states along with other reasoning. In the end, Eldwin decides to go with another story. What do you believe convinced him to do so? Have you ever had a person tell your story from an angle that displeased you? How did that make you feel and what does it say about the ownership of certain narratives in society?

3. In “Wash Clean the Bones,” Alma has witnessed a lot of death in her life, from Terry to her patients to the bodies at the funerals. When she asks Bette, “But how would you protect him?” referring to her son Ralph, what is the urgency and fear in her asking? How does this fear arise in other stories?

4. What surprised you most in the collection of stories? Did one story resonate very strongly for you? If so, why?

5. Of This World author Allegra Hyde wrote, “Nafissa Thompson-Spires explores what it means to come to terms with one’s body, one’s family, one’s future.” In what ways do you see Heads of the Colored People exploring what it means to come to terms with one’s body, family and future?

About The Author

Photography by Adrianne Mathiowetz Photography

Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois. Her work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, and The Feminist Wire, among other publications. She was a 2016 fellow of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria / 37 INK (April 2018)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501168017

Raves and Reviews

“Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a way of staring intense, awkward, comic, and sorrowful situations right in the face. There's no escaping her honest gaze. Heads of the Colored People is a necessary and powerful new collection with, thankfully, not a dull sentence to be found.”  

– Peter Orner, Am I Alone Here?

"With devastating insight and remarkable style, Nafissa Thompson-Spires explores what it means to come to terms with one’s body, one’s family, one’s future. The eleven vignettes in Heads of the Colored People elevate the unusual and expose the unseen, forming an original—and urgent—portrait of American life.” 

– Allegra Hyde, Of This New World

"Vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive, these stories by the vastly talented Thompson-Spires create a compelling surface tension made of equal parts skepticism towards human nature and intense fondness of it. Located on the big questions, they are full of heart." 

– George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

“Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an unusually intricate matrix of clear-eyed observation and devastating revelation about what it means to be a human being alive on this aching, raucous, unjust planet in the early 21st century. It is also, often, extremely funny, and is very smart on every page and gorgeously, rewardingly varied in its sentences and forms.” 

– Laird Hunt, Neverhome

“The stories here are dazzling, wise, wicked and tender. Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut is a knockout.” 

– Kelly Link, Get in Trouble: Stories

 

“What a true pleasure it is to spend time with this alive mind thinking so openly and interestingly on the page about character and culture and storytelling and one’s everchanging role in it all. This book made me laugh many times, and I also sometimes stopped midpage to read a paragraph aloud just to relish how Thompson-Spires was moving her story along. A marvel of a debut.” 

– Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

“The stories in Heads of the Colored People bring layer after layer of awe, humor, style, and vividness. All of that comes as Nafissa Thompson-Spires finds new and distinct angles to show the contours of each story’s world. On the bus. At the DMV. On social media. The fine details and the narrative style show the minds, bodies, and circumstances of an evocative mixture of folks.  There’s so much to recommend here, from the commentary to the line, where these sentences build feelings, rooms, and the people we find there. The fidelity of the voices comes through in a way that makes Nafissa Thompson-Spires work stay with you.” 

– Ravi Howard, Driving the King

“Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ stories fearlessly tackle broad issues of race, identity politics, and the body, while never losing sight of the intricately-faceted individuals inhabiting those bodies. She writes with a precision of psychological insight that is both moving and profound. Dignified, controlled, and, above all, original: Thompson-Spires is an important new voice in contemporary fiction.” 

– Jamie Quatro, I Want To Show You More

“Nafissa Thompson-Spires has taken the best of what Toni Cade Bambara, Paul Beatty, Morgan Parker and Junot Diaz do plus a whole lot of something we've never seen in American literature, blended it all together and giving us one of the finest short story collections I've ever read. The super thin lines between terror, intimacy, humor and hubris are masterfully toed, jumped and ultimately redrawn in the most exciting and soulful fiction I've read this century. The nation needed Heads of Colored People 40 years ago. Thankfully, Nafissa Thompson-Spires gave it to us now.” 

– Kiese Laymon, Long Division

“Stuffed with invention… Thompson-Spires proves herself a trenchant humorist with an eye for social nuance.” 

– Publishers Weekly

"We need a new word for this story collection. Dark humor isn’t quite it. But it’s close. It’s dark; it’s funny; but it’s kind, too."

– Tayari Jones

Nafissa Thompson-Spires brilliantly delves into the concept of black identity in modern times in Heads of the Colored People, a collection that echoes the power of Junot Díaz and cements her role as an incredibly important voice in literature right now.

– PopSugar.com

“What’s interesting is the use Nafissa Thompson-Spires makes of race – as a plot-driver, irony engine, and comic goad – in the self-aware manner of Paul Beatty and others.”  

– New York Magazine

"Presenting unique characters, gifted storyteller Thompson-Spires navigates the black experience with humor and poignancy while also acknowledging the inherent tensions and exposure to violence black citizens encounter. Highly Recommend." 

– Library Journal, Starred Review

Darkly humorous and incredibly moving, Heads of the Colored People is a wonderful collection of short stories that tackles what it means to be black in a world that thinks it's "post-racial." (Spoiler alert: It's not.) The book couldn't be more timely — and even the stories that seem light-hearted on the surface are, at their center, incredibly intelligent reflections on race, identity, and blackness. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has written a masterpiece.

– Shondaland.com

“For the freshest voice in literature, look no further than Nafissa Thompson-Spires blisteringly clever short story collection, Heads of the Colored People… Sometimes, a voice comes around that is so singular, so funny, so wholly original, that you go back and reread each story once you finish it… In each of these humorous, intelligent vignettes, Thompson-Spires explores aspects of being Black and middle-class in today’s America. This is a special collection. Buy it so you can read it more than once."

– Refinery29.com

“This collection resonates on many frequencies. There are direct links between characters in several of the stories, many of whom are foils for each other, and their nuances are sure to strike a chord with any reader who’s struggled with insecurity and a search for self… Thompson-Spires writes with grace, a lightly bitter humor, and a real eye for a detail that calls attention to the simultaneous reality and fictionality of each story… A profound and truly enjoyable collection."

– The Riveter Magazine

"An unforgettable debut, Heads of the Colored People examines black identity in boundary-pushing new ways. Full of unique characters, the stories offer a mixture of humorous and dark tales. From mothers exchanging snide notes to a teen struggling with her identity, Thompson-Spires shines a light on the insecurity inherent in black citizenship."

– Redbook

"Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ exquisitely original Heads of the Colored People is fresh, inventive and sure not to disappoint. Each short story starts in the familiar and then leads to unexpected and compelling revelations."

– TheRoot (TheRoot.com)

“In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings auger a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.” 

– Kirkus Reviews

"Thompson-Spires’ dazzling collection of short fiction addresses black identity in the so-called post-racial era... Transgressive and wildly funny, Heads announces a major new talent."

– Ms. Magazine

"With a well-tuned ear for the cadence of comedy and dialogue, Thompson-Spires uses her characters to illustrate what real conversations about identity can be."

– Booklist

"A writer to watch… Extraordinarily powerful.Thompson-Spires distinguishes her work by keeping explicit violence off the page and focusing on raw grief, pushing her readers to confront the senselessness based solely on the strength of her voice and her characters… [E]loquent, funny, forceful and occasionally shocking."

– amNewYork

"Here's an author to watch. Thompson-Spires' first story collection is a fascinating, lyrical, and profoundly moving examination of contemporary black identity."

– Entertainment Weekly

“Funny, smart, and #ofthemoment, this electrifying debut marks the emergence of a daring talent whose characters are as comfortable referencing Octavia Butler and Flannery O’Connor as they are dropping allusions to Fetty Wap and Patti Mayonnaise."

– O, the Oprah Magazine

"Superbly witty debut… The topics [Nafissa Thompson-Spires] takes on are often deadly serious (one is about an impending suicide), but every story flashes grim humor. She is also a brutally sharp observer. The epistolary story 'Belles Lettres' could have been written with a scalpel?"

– Janet Maslin, New York Times

Awards and Honors

  • Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best

Resources and Downloads

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