Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Fiction


Whiting Awards 2019

Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Photo: Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the McSweeney’s column“The Organist,” The Paris Review Daily, Dissent, Buzzfeed Books, The White Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, and other publications. Her short story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” won StoryQuarterly’s 2016 Fiction Prize, judged by Mat Johnson. Her writing has received support from Callaloo, Tin House, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She currently works as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Illinois. Her first book, Heads of the Colored People, was long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Aspen Words Literary Prize, and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.


An excerpt from Heads of the Colored People:

She ran water, testing the temperature with her elbow. She took Ralph from his crib, and he fussed and whimpered for a moment, then looked into her eyes as if to say, “Why did you wake me?”

She attempted to compose a text message in her mind, some sort of explanation or apology, but she couldn’t settle on the right words. Ralph clapped his hands together before and after she pulled his shirt over his head. She undressed him and then dressed him in a white linen suit she had bought for an upcoming vacation trip. She blessed his forehead with olive oil.

A song came to her, something Terry used to play on his acoustic guitar when she was six or seven. She would get ready for work when she finished with Ralph—she could work on less sleep than this—and tend to the boy in room 47, maybe pray a level three for him and a level two for herself.

When she covered Ralph’s head with the warm water, she reasoned that at least it wasn’t freezing. At least it was shallower than the plunge from the side of a slave ship. At least it was more comfortable than forcing him to float down the Nile in a woven basket. She dunked him once and counted to five. Had there been time for Terry to cry out as the bullets shattered his right leg, his chest? Would she preserve any part of Ralph? Their faces were blurring together. She wept in terror and allayed her guilt by singing soft phrases, “his bones will be unbroken,” “there’ll be no more crying there.” She could do this—eleven, twelve, thirteen. By fourteen, doubt had begun to creep in. Shouldn’t Ralph have a choice, now that he was already here? Who was she to snuff out his life for fear that someone else would? Would Terry want this for his nephew?

She yanked Ralph from the water, his eyes wide, her count long lost. She feared the damage was already irreparable and listened to his chest. Alma was frantic, but the muscle memory took over, and she began pumping for CPR. What if her baby did not wake up, and even then, would he be vegetative for the rest of his life?

She had only pumped once when Ralph gurgled, spat water, and cried. He was used to barely breathing.

Alma exhaled for the first time in months.

She didn’t know how they would get through the night, let alone years; one or both of them might end up with their heads underwater some other day. For now, she would monitor Ralph and herself, perhaps call Bette. She gently pinched Ralph’s chubby leg. She felt something like sunlight on her neck and torso, saw a hot flash of heaven or hope in that baby’s wet face, and redressed him and herself for bed.