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.
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 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.