Extraordinarily powerful stories bookend Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut collection, “Heads of the Colored People.” Both center on the scourge of gun violence in America and its disproportionate and indiscriminate effect on black men and boys.
Such subject matter might be expected from a contemporary black author. But 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.
Most of those characters are black women or girls who, for a variety of reasons, are not entirely comfortable, either in their communities or in their own skins. Thompson-Spires has particularly revealing insights into those who struggle against themselves or their impulses, often because they don’t feel black enough.
When these portraits succeed, most notably in a trio about a girl named Fatima at various stages in her life, they are eloquent, funny, forceful and occasionally shocking.
If they miss the mark, it is either because the satire is clichéd, such as the woman with anger management issues who is irritated by the service at the DMV, or too off-the-scale, such as the family that subsists solely on fruit and puts their 7-year-old in charge of her own education.
Thompson-Spires can address the familiar with real understanding, however, as she does in “Whisper to a Scream,” which tells of the crushing solitude of a young girl battling online harassment and her own feelings of worth.
It would be exciting to see Thompson-Spires develop a character like Fatima beyond such short vignettes (these 12 stories take up just over 200 pages). It would also help eliminate the punny, winking aphorisms that end several of these otherwise thought-provoking stories.