Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires has gotten some seriously impressive buzz this spring, and every bit of it is deserved—we even named it as a book club pick for April. This new collection of short stories thoughtfully addresses race and will take readers into the lives of characters who are discovering how they fit into the world around them. We love a good short story, and sometimes the best recommendations come from writers who write short stories of their own. With this in mind, we asked Thompson-Spires to dish on the short stories that inspired and influenced her own work. Read on for some great story recommendations.
Readers be warned: some minor spoilers ahead.
As a lover of short fiction, it is extremely challenging for me to name only seven stories that influenced my own collection. Despite its brevity, the short story form does important work. I find that my favorites multitask, offering a gutpunch, a punchline, and a different way of thinking. And here they are, in no particular order, with some allowances for my indecision and tendency towards cheating in board games and competitive sports.
Perhaps I’m breaking the rules by declaring a tie between Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” and “The Story of an Hour.” Though Chopin’s novel The Awakening often gets the most play, her short fiction is arguably more interesting. “Desiree’s Baby” explores the concept of the genetic “throwback” and the one-drop rule with a surprising revelation about a child. “The Story of an Hour” finds the recently widowed Mrs. Mallard experiencing the stages of grief in an atypical manner, accelerating to exuberant joy. The twist—and there’s often a twist with Chopin—comes when Mrs. Mallard finds out her husband isn’t really dead. Both of these stories are joys to read because of the way Chopin plays with verbal and situational irony. Turns of phrase like “the joy that kills” or “hastened to forestall” enrich the prose. Even her character names are meaningful and reveal someone thinking deeply about every aspect of storytelling.
This story is strongly allegorical, but what I like most about it is its ending, a punchline. We see a selfish woman work her entire life, losing her only positive characteristic—her beauty—to pay off a debt for what is ultimately a trinket. The situational irony is satisfying. And, parenthetically, Kate Chopin has noted Guy de Maupassant’s influence on her work, so does this count as a third Chopin entry? Both writers have inspired my attention to endings.
This story certainly packs a gutpunch. At the risk of spoiling it, I will just name a few pertinent details: an intellectual woman stuck in a small town with people to whom she feels superior, this woman’s wooden prosthetic leg, a seemingly uncultured Bible salesman, some foreplay in a barn, and a dark twist with said prosthetic leg. There’s a lot to consider critically a la disability studies and critical race theory in Flannery O’Connor, but what I love is her interest in probing the darkness in all of us.
I’m cheating again here by naming ZZ Packer’s entire collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere as one of my favorite short stories. Each individual story here offers a mix of humor and devastation, and the collection as a whole looks at contemporary black life in interesting and nuanced ways. Three standouts are the highly anthologized “Brownies,” the very short but punchy “Pita Delicious,” and the titular story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” Packer’s use of sardonic and complex voices, dark humor, and her interrogation of race relations offers something like Daria for black girls, all of my favorite things in one book.
This story boasts my favorite line in short fiction: “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.” The frenetic prose, jungle-gym syntax, and pacing are so wrought with tension that the story can induce an anxiety attack in readers—in a good way. I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but it’s worth considering who is telling the story and why it’s called “incarnations” plural when there’s only one baby in it. I appreciate the way David Foster Wallace pushes the limits of structure and prose, an interest that is evident in my own writing.
I love this story so much that I still quote lines from it on a regular basis. Note: If I ever call you Wangero or Hakim-a-barber, that’s not a compliment. The story analyzes class shame, Afrocentrism, and identity politics with wry humor and sadness all at once. Maggie and Dee are unforgettable characters, and I wish this story had been adapted as a film or series, because I would watch the heck out of it.
A final breaking of the rules: Technically Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” didn’t influence my collection, because I read it after my book was in production. But I sure wish her story had come out sooner. This is absolutely the best short story I have read this year, so it’s no wonder Roanhorse won Apex Magazine’s fiction contest with it—and secured a book deal for what sounds like an amazing novel. Her satirical take on contemporary Native American identity through a virtual reality gaming center is brilliant, filled with social commentary that cuts across several registers. And it’s so teachable, too. I loved it, my students loved it, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.
Bonus (I told you I cheat): I can’t say this collection influenced my own either, because I also read it after mine was in production. But I thoroughly enjoyed Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World. These stories resist epiphanies, happy endings, and revelations, and they have certainly inspired the way I’m thinking about short fiction as I work through my next projects.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois. Her work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, and The Feminist Wire, among other publications. She is a 2016 fellow of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop.