The Gordon Burn Prize 2019: Heads of the Coloured People


A striking new voice has entered the scene in the form of Nafissa Thompson-Spires, who offers a fresh new perspective in her debut short story collection exploring black identity in a contemporary middle class, or what she calls ‘alleged postracialism’.

The title itself packs a punch; inspired by the nineteenth-century sketches Heads of the Colored People, Done With a Whitewash Brush by the abolitionist James McCune Smith (and interestingly, the first African-American to hold a medical degree and run a pharmacy), to which Thompson-Spires pays tribute in her author’s note. Yet instead of portraying black working-class life, it examines those who find themselves isolated in stereotypically ‘white spaces’.  

Examines those who find themselves isolated in ‘white spaces’

In an interview, Thompson-Spires states that the aim of the book was to ‘represent black characters who are marginalized in the white world’. She does this beautifully. Each story plunges into the varying lives of completely original characters with the vast range of character explorations. From a single-parent funeral singer who has fallen into mad grief for the young black men that are victims of gun violence, to a teen who struggles with her upper-middle-class upbringing conflicting with a desire to have a connection with black culture. By doing so, Spires forces us to acknowledge the issue of race across America, not just in the severe cases of police brutality, but every day.

I won’t deny that it can take time for the stories to flow. New characters, settings and stories can make it difficult to keep up. ‘Whisper to a Scream’ tells the story of a young girl, who creates ASMR videos, much to the disapproval of her mother. What is ASMR? Yes, I was confused too. Thompson-Spires does go on to reveal this later in the story. However, when you’ve just left one character’s life for another’s, it can be complicated. My advice to truly appreciate the book: read each story individually. 

It can take time for the stories to flow

Nor will I deny that there are stories within that do not as obviously address race; ‘Suicide, Watch’ focuses on a black woman who is obsessive in updating her status on social media to the point of alluding to her committing suicide. But these particular stories remind us that particular current issues, like an obsession with receiving others’ approval via the internet, are not isolated to just a specific race, religion, or gender. We are all, as humans, susceptible to them. 

Heads of the Coloured People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is nominated for the Gordon Burn Prize 2019 as part of the Durham Book Festival. The winner will be announced in Durham Town Hall on Thursday 10th October 2019 from 8pm. More information can be found at:

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