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Two Collections: ‘Heads of the Colored People’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’

My local library is a wonderful place to browse, and on one trip there earlier this year, I came across two short story collections which I had heard a lot of.  Both Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? explore black segregation, identity, and experience in the United States.

36562557._sy475_Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires ****

Published in 2018, Heads of the Colored People is Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection.  Reviews on the colourful hardback edition which I read call it, variously, ‘fresh-laundry-clean’, ‘superbly witty’, ‘wholly original’, and ‘one of the best short story debuts I’ve read in my whole life.’  I was therefore, understandably, looking forward to discovering Thompson-Spires’ work for myself.

In Heads of the Colored People, the author ‘interrogates our supposedly post-racial era.  To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.’  Her collection of twelve stories, which comes in at just under 200 pages, ‘shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic’, and ‘marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.’

A lot of the stories within Thompson-Spires’ collection are immersed in popular culture, much of which, I must admit, went straight over my head.  She takes different approaches throughout the stories.  The title story, for instance, is made up of different interlinking character portraits.  Another, ‘Belles Lettres’, is told entirely using correspondence between two warring mothers, and is laugh-aloud funny.  There is a consistency to Heads of the Colored People, but the use of different formats and perspectives which Thompson-Spires has employed makes it more interesting.  There are recurring characters who appear throughout the collection, something which I personally enjoy.

Thompson-Spires’ writing is sharp and memorable.  Her characters are clear, and all have a depth to them.  She focuses upon all sorts of topics and issues: the obsession with social media, ‘fitting in’, trolling, bullying, race, police violence, rivalry, alternative lifestyles…  In ‘The Subject of Consumption’, for example, protagonist Lisbeth has become a ‘fruitarian’ after having tried a variety of different diets.  She makes her husband and daughter join her: ‘The groceries became more expensive and the lifestyle more time-consuming the closer they tried to get to earth, to original man, to whatever…’.  She also practices what she calls ‘detachment parenting’, largely leaving her young daughter to get on with it alone.

I felt absorbed by every single story in Heads of the Colored People, and appreciated the numerous flaws which each character had been given.  Thompson-Spires is incredibly perceptive, and each of her stories packs a punch.  Some build to a crescendo; others open in arresting ways.  ‘Suicide Watch’, as an example, has this as its opening sentence: ‘Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light.’

Ultimately, in Heads of the Colored People, Thompson-Spires examines what it means to be, for want of a better word, different.  I appreciated the dark humour which she uses, and the unexpected twists which come.  There is certainly a freshness to her writing, and whilst not a favourite collection of mine, I can imagine that I will return to it in future.  Heads of the Colored People has a lot to say, and Thompson-Spires does this well.  Her authorial voice is commanding and authoritative, particularly considering that this collection is a debut.  I very much look forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

 

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins ***

Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is set in New York during the 51rythrc7gl._sx334_bo1204203200_summer of 1963, a city ‘full of lovers and dreamers’.  This was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States.  Collins’ stories take place ‘on university campuses and in run-down Manhattan apartments’, where ‘young women grow out their hair and discover the taste of new freedoms, praying for a world where love is colour-free.’

The edition which I read included a foreword by Elizabeth Alexander, who writes of the years which it took to track down Collins’ film, ‘Losing Ground’, and the great effect which it had upon her.  When Alexander found that Collins had also written short stories, and was able to ‘encounter with a start her singular, sophisticated black and white bohemians talking their way through complicated lives – is akin to discovering a treasure trove.’

Collins never saw her work published; it wasn’t until almost three decades after her death that her stories were collected together by her daughter in this collection.  They were all originally written during the 1960s.  A lot of the issues which she deals with are as important today as they were then; perhaps, most pivotally, depression, poverty, and issues of race which still sadly prevail in modern society.

The first story, ‘Interiors’, is a duologue; we first hear from a husband, and then a wife. This is an incredibly insightful work, where both characters address one another, and, in the process, lay themselves bare.  The husband comments: ‘I’m moody, damn it, and restless… and life has so many tuneless days…  I can’t apologize for loving you so little.’  In this manner, Collins’ writing is striking, and revealing.  ‘How Does One Say’ begins: ‘When she left home for the summer her hair was so short her father wouldn’t say good-bye.  He couldn’t bear to look at her.  She had it cut so short there wasn’t any use straightening it, so it frizzed tight around her head and made her look, in her father’s words, “just like any other colored girl”.’

Each of the stories in this collection is beautifully considered, and Collins’ characters are deftly introduced, with all of their feelings, their foibles, their flaws.  We do not often learn their names, but they feel wholly realistic.  I found Collins’ prose evocative, and quite sensual in places.  ‘Treatment for a Story’, for example, opens as follows: ‘A ground-floor room in the back, cluttered with trunks, boxes, books, magazines, newspapers, notebooks, and paintings, and smelling of Gauloises, burnt coffee, dirty sheets, couscous and peppers, and a mélange of female scents.’  Other stories contain descriptive writing in this vein, which wonderfully sets the scene.

Oddly, then, the sixteen short stories were not quite as memorable as I had hoped.  There were a few stories which did not capture my attention at all.  From the outset, I imagined that Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? would be a four-star read for me, but from around the halfway point, this had changed to more like a three.  The collection was not quite consistent enough for my taste, although I can see why people love Collins’ prose, and admire her stories.

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Two Favourite Contemporary Novels: ‘Swimming Lessons’ and ‘The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty’

I have linked my relatively short reviews of Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (2016) and Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (2015) for two reasons – firstly, I adored them both, and secondly, there is a very thin and tenuous thematic thread which links the two.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller *****
“Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?”
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I very much enjoyed Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and was very much looking forward to her second effort, Swimming Lessons.  I am pleased to report that I enjoyed it even more than her debut.  The plot very much appealed to me, and it was compelling from the outset.

Ingrid’s voice is rich and distinct; she has such agency.  The inclusion of her letters allows her to be present within the story despite not being visible in the physical world.  Each of the backstories which Fuller has created for her characters are just as vivid as their present; there is a wonderful sense of realism here.  The structure perfectly matches the plot, and the presence of the landscape is exquisite; it is always there, affecting the characters and, in part, being affected by them.  There is so much depth and emotion within Swimming Lessons, and so much to adore.

 

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida *****
In Vendela Vida’s taut and mesmerizing novel of ideas, a woman travels to Casablanca, Morocco, on mysterious business. While checking into her hotel, the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport all of her money and identification. Stripped of her identity, she feels burdened by the crime yet strangely liberated by her sudden freedom to be anyone she wants to be.  Told with vibrant, lush detail and a wicked sense of humor, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is part literary mystery, part psychological thriller an unforgettable novel that explores free will, power, and a woman s right to choose not her past, perhaps not her present, but certainly her future.9780062110916

I have very much enjoyed Vendela Vida’s previous novels; they provide fantastic, intelligent escapism, which grips one from the beginning through to the end, and give realistic glimpses into vivid and vibrant places.  Her most recent effort, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is no different, and the fact that Morocco is high on my travel list made me look forward to reading it even more.

The second person perspective was used masterfully throughout, and worked incredibly well.  The story itself is relatively simple on the whole, but it has a complexity all of its own.  The sense of unease which creeps in is almost unrecognisable at first, but – in part due to the narrative voice used – the reader becomes so invested within the story that its tension soon heightens.  Vida plays with the concepts of identity and loss in her tautly written novel, which has been extremely well paced.  Little clues are left along the way, but one never quite guesses what will happen next.  The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a whirlwind of a novel, which begs for compulsive reading, and which deserves a far wider readership than it seems to have currently.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’ by Andrew Solomon ****

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and is also the recipient of twelve other awards.  It has been called, among other things, ‘a monumental book’ (Stephen Pinker), ‘a landmark, revolutionary book’ (Jennifer Egan), and ‘the most amazing book I’ve ever read’ (Curtis Sittenfield).

Throughout Far from the Tree, Solomon, a lecturer of psychiatry at Cornell University, draws upon interviews with over three hundred families, and studies those with such conditions as dwarfism, Down’s Syndrome, disorders which occur within the autism spectrum, children born of rape and those convicted of crime.  He also examines the way in which prodigies can be ‘surprisingly similar to those with disabilities’.  In Far from the Tree, he aims to discover what happens when children are radically different to their parents, and in doing so, he ‘celebrates repeated triumphs of human love and compassion to show that the shared experience of difference is what unites us’.

In his introduction, Solomon states that ‘parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity’.  He goes on to set out ‘vertical identities’, in which ‘most children share at least some traits with their parents’, and ‘horizontal identities’, where ‘someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’.  ‘All offspring are startling to their parents,’ Solomon writes, and ‘these most dramatic situations are merely variations on a common theme’.

Solomon’s interest in writing such a study began in 1993, when he investigated Deaf culture for the New York Times, and he couples this with the fact that he himself, a homosexual and a sufferer of dyslexia, is ‘different’.  Coming to terms with the things which set him apart from others has made him want to identify a wealth of differences, and how what sets them apart from the masses often serves to make the child in question more treasured.  He is a firm believer that ‘difference unites us’, and that ‘to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state’.  The book has been split into ten sections which relate to a certain disability or trait which goes against the ‘norm’.  It begins with a chapter entitled ‘Son’, and ends with ‘Father’.

Andrew Solomon (right) with his husband John Harbich and their son, George

Throughout, Solomon writes so coherently, and makes his book an eminently readable one.  His research is immaculate and far-reaching, and he weaves a wealth of facts into his narrative.  The entirety of Far from the Tree has been crafted in such a way that it is not in the least overwhelming, even to readers who have not studied psychology in any depth before.  The case studies within the volume, which are often very touching, are interspersed alongside the history of each condition, and Solomon writes of such diverse subjects as Alexander Graham Bell’s leading of the oralist movement in the nineteenth century, which encouraged deaf people to use their voices; the way in which genetic information has been discovered over time; the origin of the genius; and the history of abortion within the United States.  Somehow, the tone of his prose is both sad and hopeful.

Solomon examines every possible way in which the child’s differences in each case have impacted upon the lives of themselves and their families, from those parents who embrace the child and do everything within their power to allow it to blossom as far as possible, to those whose parents tried to brush the issues under the carpet, and caused deep-rooted problems as a result.  He has also spoken to other researchers and specialists in each field, whose ideas he then builds upon.  It is heartwarming to see that most of those whom Solomon speaks to have made the best of themselves despite – or, in some cases, because of – their disability or difference.  He examines those who have paved the way for change for others – Clinton Brown III, for example, a dwarf, who addressed the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to tell them that it was incredibly difficult for disabled people to access the city’s subway system.

Far from the Tree is a far-reaching and fascinating study upon humanity, and upon those issues which affect many of us.  It is intelligent and is certainly an important contribution to the field of child psychology.

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