Saturday, April 10, 2021

"Talking to me like a friend": Nafissa Thompson-Spires as Storyteller

The students in the reading group this semester have been enjoying stories from Nafissa Thompson-Spires's collection Heads of the Colored People, and some of their recent responses confirmed the importance of highlighting the style, not just the content of a writer's work. 

I had previously worried a little that we only considered the content of the stories and neglected to adequately acknowledge the artfulness of stories that Thompson-Spires composed. Of course, it's understandable why students were distracted by the plot of a story with two black mothers lobbing insults at each other through letter writing or a young girl determined "to become black, full black, baa baa black sheep black." 

The title story, "Heads of the Colored People," offered us an opportunity to recognize a literary artist at work. She presents a "black network narrative," where she introduces a variety of interconnected characters in a brief tale. I asked students about their thoughts concerning the art of Thompson-Spires's storytelling. 

"I love this writing style," said Deja. "It's casual in a way that it's talking to me like a friend would, but still professional enough that I take it seriously." Devin enjoyed the writing style as well "because it changes the perspective that we are used to of stereotyping, while also, checking how we think about these ideas, in our mind."

Kalonji brought up aspects of the network narrative: "The way Nafissa Thompson-Spires was able to intertwine these four individual characters' stories demonstrated her foresight, preparation, and ability to project fine details/characteristics onto each character."

According to Jalen, the approach in the story was "profound" as it "does a great job of creating stand-alone characters with their own conflicts, while also adding some sort of through line to connect them to the black experience."

Adejoke noted that the direct address to readers was notable: "I thought that the most interesting thing about the author's writing was that he would call out the reader for having preconceived judgments about the characters." 

Several students admitted that they were initially confused by the story until they thought on it a little more. "I was a little confused by the organizational pattern at first," observed Alexis, "but by the time I reached [the character] Paris' point of view it clicked." 

Mark had a similar response: "My first thought was that it was more confusing than it needed to be. However, after thinking about it some more, I see now that the narrative order was to set up the scene and characters in a way that would cause us to understand their place in the world before they were taken out of it." 


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