Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Story Collection: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People is a powerful collection of short stories exploring concepts of identity, class, race, body-image, and love among African Americans. Sometimes funny, sometimes gut-wrenching, always provocative, Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses powerful and piercing language to look frankly at issues that most authors would hesitate to address.

 

Thompson-Spires introduces us to characters who are very different than the typical characters we meet in books and stories. All of them are black, but their “blackness” is uniquely their own. Two characters who appear in multiple stories are the only African American girls in their high school. We first meet their mothers, engaged in a very pointed exchange of letters that is equally amusing and cringe-worthy. The girls themselves wrestle with their own identities: should they be friends because they are both black in a white world? Are they rivals? Are they enemies? One of the girls is large, the other is thin, and their body image also factors into their relationship.

 

Other characters wrestle with interracial relationships, with being disabled (or with stalking the disabled), with anger and lust and religion, with participating in atypical pursuits like cosplay. Most of the stories are set in southern California, which seems to add its own unique dimension to the characters’ identities. One of the characters specifically contrasts California racial identity to that experienced by people in the south, calling out his friend for his attitude toward those from the south.

 

All of these stories are fascinating and reflect a world very different from my own. What stands out to me is how different the worlds of the characters are from each other as well. Although there are certainly commonalities that transcend various differences, to say there is one “black experience” is unfair and dismissive. Some of the characters in this book have a lot superficially in common–and they don’t relate to each other at all. Two black girls in the same majority white private school can still have very different experiences based on their own physical size, their own experiences dating, their relationships with the larger African-American community, their own personalities and their attitudes toward each other and toward others. A young man who enjoys cosplaying as Japanese anime characters can feel alienated from others of his own race and not feel fully embraced by those of other races even when they share that common passion. A young woman can objectify someone based on disability just as much as another might objectify that same person based on race.

 

All of the characters have an uneasy and tortured relationship with the world around them. They struggle with their families. They struggle with their communities. They inflict wounds on themselves and on others. Not all of them survive their own stories. Thompson-Spires gives us troubled characters who are unique and individual, struggling to find out who they are. Are they identified by their skin color? Are they identified by their physical body type? Are they identified by their social or economic class? Are they identified by their choices? Are they identified by their families? The answers are always yes and no and somewhat and I don’t know…which is probably the dilemma most of us feel trying to find our way through life.

 

I do not want to pretend that I can fully relate to any of these characters. In America, my skin color comes with privileges that Thompson-Spires’ characters do not share. But although her stories are about black people, they are profoundly and deeply about people, people with loves and hurts and desires and needs and struggles, lusts and longings and confusion and mental disorder. And in many of their hopes and dreams and fears, I could see myself as well. Heads of Colored People is a powerful collection of stories, one that challenges and delights and provokes.

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Sparrow Hill RoadBook 1 Ghost Roads Series, Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Fantasy Short Story Collection: Sparrow Hill RoadBook 1 Ghost Roads Series, Seanan McGuire

Rose Marshall wants to avoid being killed. Again. She was killed once already, in 1952, run off of Sparrow Hill Road in Michigan, and since has wandered the roads as a “hitcher,” a ghost who hitchhikes along the roads trying to save people. But the man who killed her, Bobby Cross, wants her soul, and he is still chasing her. Dying once stunk, but being killed again would really ruin her day.

 

Rose is known by many names. The “girl in the diner.” “The girl in the green dress.” “The phantom prom date.” And there are many legends surrounding her. It is said that she saves drivers by leading them to avoid accidents. It is said that she kills drivers by leading them to accidents. Rescuer? Harbinger of doom? Killer? Give a ghost a break!

 

The rules of the road for hitchers are important. If a hitcher is given a coat, jacket, or some other outerwear, she can regain corporeal form until midnight that day. If food or drink is given to the hitcher, she can enjoy it. Rose is particularly fond of cheeseburgers and malted milkshakes. However, if the road compels her to go somewhere to try to help someone, she must obey. Sometimes she is able to save them–help them avoid an accident, send them along a different route, distract them until the danger has passed. Sometimes she is able to save their spirits, guiding them to their final destination, helping them avoid Bobby Cross and other dangers in the spirit world. The rumors of her harming people are untrue, but she does have the habit of being there at the end for a lot of people. That’s one way rumors can start.

 

Seanan McGuire books are very personal to me. She, along with a few other authors, wrote some wonderful books that meant a lot to me in a very difficult time. Although Sparrow Hill Road is from 2014, it is new to me…and yet in many ways it is not new. It is vintage McGuire. Humor and horror mixed together. Wry, ironic, dry, yet with compassion and tenderness. McGuire loves her characters, even when she kills them. She even loves the dead ones. McGuire can make you laugh while you still have tears in your eyes from the previous paragraph. Her writing is fun and funny. And sometimes furious. And sometimes shocking. And always, always, delightful.

 

Sparrow Hill Road is more a series of connected short stories than a novel with a single overarching plot. It jumps back and forth in time, telling stories of Rose’s dealings with humans in the daylight and with spirits in the twilight. We read of Rose’s last days alive, how she meets friends Tommy and Emma, various battles with Bobby Cross, and the fates of her niece and her boyfriend (the boy who was supposed to take her to prom on the night she died). These stories are not in chronological order; ghosts don’t quite do linear time the way the living do.

 

Sparrow Hill Road is set along the American highway system, which may make it exotic to readers from other countries–and makes it a quintessentially American ghost story to those of us who grew up taking our family vacations and conducting business by way of these routes connecting the continent. Although we seldom see hitchhikers on those highways today, it is fun to think that some of them may be looking for a ride, a jacket, and a burger. That is NOT a recommendation to pick one up, though. Unless she is wearing a green prom dress from the 1950s, it is not worth taking that chance.

Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire