Brittany Allen | Longreads | May 2018 | 12 minutes (3,259 words)
A kind of cognitive dissonance occurs when your body is a political battlefield, but your body is also an ordinary meat-sack, worth love and attention and a good talking-to like any other flawed protagonist. In this reader’s experience, to be black, or perhaps more generally “Other,” in today’s America, is to dwell in this contradiction; it is to feel freighted by the harrowing historical origins of one’s existence, even as it is to know what every human knows — dailiness, murk, muddle, and tedium. Fiction writers who carry the burden of “Otherhood” must contend with this paradox on the page (not to mention in the marketplace). And when one is a Lorax, one may find oneself wondering how to treat the political heft of “Otherhood,” while creating characters and situations that feel true in the most mundane, human sense. Put another way: when you’re a Lorax, how do you write for an individual truffula tree without sinking under the weight of all their combined trunks? How do you render humanity when recent history and current politics — those arch and lumpy enemies to imagination — cast tall shadows over the lives of your chosen subjects?
I’ve met few fictions that really inhabit the murkiest corners of — say — black life in America, perhaps because rare is the author who gets to write (or feels free to write), about what and who is murky and daily when such an obvious historical tragedy defines us from the get-go. I’ve encountered few fictions that explore the maddening, difficult-to-name contradictions inherent to “Otherhood” (as I know it); few characters who feel like myself, or the people I love and know. Black folk who have wondered about their own individual responsibility to blackness. Black folk who struggle to name the pesky, omnipresent sensation that they are thwarted in some way that’s vaguely but crucially connected to their skin color. But this spring marks the arrival of two new collections that take on all the cognitive dissonance with compassion, insight, and unflinching honesty: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (Graywolf) and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People (Atria).
From starkly different angles and in starkly different voices, both of these stunning new books offer fresh perspective on all the paradoxes which attend “Otherhood,” that condition in which characters do constant, exhausting battle — for the most part — inside their own heads.
Heads of the Colored People is a parade of characters who crackle with internal contradiction, led by an author of uncommon gifts. In these bright and witty stories, Jack n’ Jill graduates (and dropouts) struggle to square their emotional and physical insecurities with their intellect, or — more generally — they fail to square the world in their heads with the world outside. Brainy folks who are strangers to their own minds stud these pages. Two girls in private school, the “Onlies” in their class, wage a war in microaggressions; the only two black men in a Masters program quibble over an ethnography project. People in these pages are always butting against the boxes and structures the world has placed them in. As a result, everyone is neurotic, though they largely lack the ability to diagnose this in themselves.
How do you render humanity when recent history and current politics — those arch and lumpy enemies to imagination — cast tall shadows over the lives of your chosen subjects?
Take the maddening and delicious “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” in which Thomson-Spires provides a wicked commentary on self-loathing and call-out culture under guise of a story about two professors fighting over the use of overhead lights in their shared office. The hero of this short is a fussy, perfect creation: Randolph the anal instructor, who feigns migraine and crushes up gorp and maintains “…two social media pages, one for colleagues and one for old friends who knew him when.” The horrible, brilliant joke that cinches this story turns on Randolph’s own failure to perceive (or even name) a strain of prejudice in his colleague. In this man, Thomson-Spires offers us the breathing paradox: a fellow who is both hapless victim and willful antagonist, a “head” worth both our pity and our disgust.
But Thomson-Spires is mainly interested in women, who are as unknowable to themselves as Lucy Honeychurch, or Lily Bart. As the collection’s title suggests, there is a lot about the body — particularly the ways in which isolated black girls perform their inner trauma onto their outward selves. In “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” we meet the spiky Fatima (who reappears as her younger self in a subsequent story, “Fatima the Biloquist: A Transformation Story”). During a yoga class, adult Fatima recalls the fraught relationship she had with a high school peer. That other black girl (Christinia), with her different body type and different relationship to blackness, haunts our heroine like a Hyde, even years out of high school. Of her old frenemy, Fatima says:
I have heard that Christinia is an OB-GYN somewhere in the South…funny that she fixes “feminine problems,” now, when she was my problem then. Sometimes I wonder if a black woman I pass in the street is her, if I have unknowingly nodded acknowledgement to or feigned distraction to avoid eye contact with her. When I choose new doctors, I pore over the in-network lists, avoiding Chrissys, Christinias, Christinas. I wonder if I am taking the wrong approach, if somehow only she could tell me what is really wrong with me, could read my body better than a stranger.
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Thomson-Spires is particularly gifted at showing her characters’ blind spots so the reader can see them plainly, even when we’re operating in the first person and are necessarily inside their heads. There’s another elegant example of this in Kim, the itchy-making heroine of “This Todd.” In this unsettling character study, a young black woman fetishizes a series of disabled men, whom she calls ‘Todds.’ Kim is transfixed by physical difference, but never once thinks to reconcile her own body — with all its political implications — to her sexual preferences. In service of this pointed and darkly funny metaphor, Thomson-Spires blesses Kim with musings like this one:
The thing is, if this Todd could have just gotten used to things, learned to see the world in a slightly different way, seen a counselor to help him deal with his condition, we’d have been fine.
There is a great specificity to each self-doubting or denying protagonist in this book, every “Only,” every unicorn. From the haughty black mothers in “Belles Lettres,” to the self-making young Fatima (who “had existed like a sort of colorless gas, until she decided, in 1998, that she was ready to become black, full black, baa baa black sheep black, black like the elbows and knees of praying folk black, if only someone would teach her”), these people, gaslit by their surroundings, struggle simply to be themselves.
It is only after assuming a difficult yoga pose (which she attempts as a kind of competitive strike against the other black woman in class) that Fatima’s internal pain finally cracks the surface. “I try to land in wheel pose,” she tells us, “but the fall is so sudden that my body and brain disagree about their directions.” Throughout Heads of the Colored People, folks wobble like so, on the fault-lines intrinsic to their very existence. And sometimes, yes: they fall for trying.
The not so lucky men who populate Brinkley’s pages are likewise unknowable to themselves.
Like Thomson-Spires’ women, Brinkley men tend to twist inwards, where they root about for self-affirmation when the world has failed to deliver. Also like Thomson-Spires’ women, the men in these pages seem doomed to remain strangers to themselves, as the true causes and names of their desires and disappointments evade them.
In this reader’s experience, to be black, or perhaps more generally ‘Other,’ in today’s America, is to dwell in this contradiction; it is to feel freighted by the harrowing historical origins of one’s existence, even as it is to know what every human knows — dailiness, murk, muddle, and tedium.
With a wise and wistful touch, Brinkley offers us a series of portraits of black men — New York City natives, all — who cannot square their desires with the demands of a culture that expects masculinity, self-sufficiency and confidence. In these pages you’ll find a lonesome barfly artist who catastrophically fails at flirting; a man returning to his high school reunion with a dire need to recreate a sexual encounter from decades ago; an ex-con who attempts to inhabit his deceased friend’s old life. In “Everything the Mouth Eats,” a high point in the collection, a man — Eric — slouches toward catharsis at a capoeira festival, because it’s only through reframing his relationship to the physical world that he may face his and his brother’s history of childhood abuse. While recalling his first capoeira training session, Eric contemplates the divide between instinct and caution:
Part of entering the world of capoeira angola is a constant training in vigilance, and not just during the actual playing of the game. Feint and trickery are generalized into a capoeira player’s worldview such that they are revealed to be an unavoidable part of the texture of life itself. I realize now how strange it is to exist otherwise… I marvel at people rushing, rushing, headlong into things, how full of trust they are, how they can’t see what often lurks behind the floating vapor of a smile.
Brinkley’s gifts shine brightest in such passages, when his characters tiptoe toward but never quite reach a lucidity about their own emotional conditions. This almost-transcendence is also on display in the eerie and affecting opening story, “No More Than a Bubble,” in which two college boys are so bewildered by the easy sexuality of two women they meet at a house party that they end the evening rattled, entirely lacking the language to describe the transformation that’s taken place. In the first of many knockout ending passages, the protagonist of “Bubble” realizes:
It has been this way with people in my life, with people I have loved: a fine dispersal, a rupture as quiet as two lips parting, a change so sudden one morning, so slight, you wonder if they had ever been beautiful at all.
There is an effortless feeling to Brinkley’s sentences, a casual beauty that lends poignance to all his confused boys, his sad and angry men. In “Infinite Happiness,” another standout, our poet narrator creeps the closest of all to self-actualization, when he speaks about pining for a woman he loves the idea of:
What could I offer her, what could I offer to myself, that could ever compare? All I had was a mess of sadness, with no language to clear the way.
Like Thomson-Spires’ women, (mostly) invisible aches and chronic frustrations are what has warped these souls. The not so lucky men are lonesome and demonstrably sensitive — unless they are lonesome, but filled with overcompensating bravado. I thought about the term ‘radical softness,’ in connection to these stories, in which black men are often painted with vulnerability and allowed to be abject in their need for other people. Obvious trauma fringes many of the psyches in this book, but pain never bubbles outward, into violence. Characters fight — again — mostly with their own minds.
Style-wise, Thomson-Spires and Brinkley go about rendering the paradoxes intrinsic to contemporary black life via very different means. The shiniest pieces in Heads of the Colored People are master classes in dramatic irony. In “Suicide, Watch,” a young girl (Jilly) who is contemplating suicide insists that her pain is negative space; the world’s presumption that something must be wrong about her (black) life has itself become the psychic burden. Here’s Jilly’s confession:
Nothing exciting or terrible had ever happened to her, and if there was any oppression for her to overcome, it only grazed but never lingered. She had been followed in posh boutiques many times by Asian and white women and twice by black women, but those were the only examples of racism she could remember experiencing. She knew that she should feel discontentment, connected to a large chain of disenfranchisement of systemic persecution — it’s not that black death and the news of the world didn’t touch her in spirit — but she was somewhat ashamed to say, in therapy or publicly, that the bulk of her discontentment came from having very little about which to be discontented.
There is a pane of satire, covering all these heads. We and the author can see the truffula trees — but not Jilly.
The hyperintelligent voice coursing through Heads of the Colored People sometimes summons David Foster Wallace. But the author’s self-consciousness, useful as a metaphor, never suffocates. Though her subject matter is serious — code-switching, the fetishization of “Other” bodies, microaggressions, and police brutality are all plot points — Thomson-Spires remains relentlessly funny. Take our girl Fatima again, whose “structured, ethnographical study,” of the black culture she missed the boat on as a girl involves “trying to work her mouth around phrases with the same intonation that Countess Vaughn used.” There are LOLs like this aplenty in the book — the kind of LOL that can crack you open with recognition, or just in half, on the subway. Thomson-Spires coaxes genuine fun from the way her characters fail to perceive or treat their own pain, yet she always does this while mocking the culture that enabled this pain in the first place.
The end of the titular story in Heads is that perfect, sick-making kind of gut-punch — just like the discomfortable titter that arrives unbidden, in a tense, public moment. Here we’re at a comic book convention, and there’s been an unpredictable/predictable act of violence — an innocent black man is murdered by the police. Circling the chalk outline on the ground, the author interrupts her own story to situate us firmly in the book’s tone and offer a kind of thesis for the rest of these shorts. Like her characters (and me), she’s got questions:
I concede that it might have been so much more readable as a gentle network narrative, with the cupcakes and the superheroes and the blue eyes and the nineties image-patterning. But I couldn’t draw the bodies while the heads talked over me, and the mosaic formed in blood, and what is a sketch but a chalk outline done in pencil or words? And what is a black network narrative but the story of one degree of separation, of sketching the same pain over and over, wading through so much flesh trying to draw new conclusions, knowing that wishing would not make them so?
Brinkley’s voice often drifts toward melancholy, but it’s a very specific strain of the thing. Some spooky light suffuses his Brooklyn and Bronx. No surprise then that the strongest prose in this collection is in the first person, where Brinkley can really let us inhabit his dreamy subjects’ heads. In these heads, vivid imaginations attempt to fill the voids left by people; a young boy pretends he is a robot to endure an unsatisfying day camp jaunt to Scarsdale (“I Happy Am”); another one cooks up an imaginary friend while his older brother leads him on an aimless goose chase through a Crown Heights festival (“J’ouvert 1996”). The barfly in “Clifton’s Place” comes closest to peace when he’s inhabiting a woman’s dementia-made delusion. This all amounts to a tonal undercurrent. In A Lucky Man, boyhood is a magical playground, and the last bastion of true joy. Missing parents are ghosts, whether they’re dead or just elsewhere. Sex has the reverence of ceremony.
Brinkley’s men and Thomson-Spires’ women fail to recognize and receive ‘correct’ love…. Yet I loved them. I loved all these humans, who tremble on the faultlines, and struggle to inhabit comfortably their impossible bodies.
Women are perhaps the most bewitching, magical features in A Lucky Man — they hover at the edges of these pages and remain unattainable to the heroes, and sketch-like to us. But like Thomson-Spires, Brinkley is skilled at conveying his characters’ blind spots in such a way that they don’t feel like the author’s. Men and boys behold the women who mystify them from a rapt, humiliated distance; the swaggering Micah in “Infinite Happiness” even makes a point to call all black women “queens.” In the titular story, a security guard with a thorn in his marriage loves his wife with a mixture of venom and desperation:
Her smooth face. Even after all these years he longed for it, to rub his cheek against hers and breathe hot words into her hair — there’d been no diminishment of that feeling. He still had those appetites, and she did too. Yet he also felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face, to bite down and place the first deep crack in. When pulled by contrary desires, you often don’t do anything at all. So on evenings and weekends he’d sit at home like a chastened boy, captive to her every small gesture. He didn’t want to lose her.
For all the dreamy quality in his voice, this is not to say that Brinkley isn’t very funny, too. His ear for dialogue (see especially: the front porch forecasters in “J’ouvert 1996”), and his way of folding in ancillary characters who raise the room temperature just-enough, keeps his fiction buoyant even when things drift to spooky. Pompous Claudius, in “No More Than a Bubble,” instructs his friend to “check out these biddies.” And Micah spews quasi-African platitudes under guise of wisdom (“Reggae was a big part of the way Micah announced the syncopated cluck of his heart to the world”). “Infinite Happiness,” is really a story about betrayal and the death of a friendship, yet because of tossed-off gems like Micah’s saying “It’s time for me to put the booty-goggles back into storage,” we are lifted even as we’re perturbed in this piece, invited even as we’re repulsed.
At once politically fraught but alive with small, human truth; wicked and warm about the under-visited corners of black life, yet serious about the ways in which race perturbs an individual’s psyche, Brinkley and Thomson-Spires not only acknowledge the many contradictions of contemporary “Otherhood,” but in their different ways, they inhabit them. Each of these stories are motored by protagonists who fight their small-big wars with fire, insecurity, wit, and limited degrees of self-awareness. The world outside the head presents great danger for these characters. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that in both collections whiteness is also a contingent thing — a largely offstage force that is never given the spotlight, yet still has the power to haunt (or destroy) the rooms and minds we visit.
For all the reasons, Brinkley’s men and Thomson-Spires’ women fail to recognize and receive “correct” love (to borrow a Brinkley usage of the word) — from their parents and partners and communities, but mostly from themselves. Yet I loved them. I loved all these humans, who tremble on the faultlines, and struggle to inhabit comfortably their impossible bodies.
In a moment that resembles Eric’s dance toward truth in “Everything the Mouth Eats,” Thomson-Spires’ Fatima approaches self-actualization via forceful, physical encounter. It seems that she must, finally, crack her own head open to achieve any kind of emotional clarity. As she falls in the yoga studio, Fatima briefly knows epiphany:
I see colors more brightly, briefly. I understand. Sometimes the enemy who looks like you is but a preparation for the enemy who is you. The violence directed inside mitigates the violence that comes from outside.
It’s a surreal kind of head to occupy, this “Other” one. It’s an absurd, dreamy, murky, tragic, frustrating, angry, joyful place. You will know pain and pleasure at once, in both of these collections. You may stumble on the contradiction, but neither of these authors will let you fall.
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Brittany Allen is a New York based prose writer, playwright and actor. Her essays and fiction have been published in Catapult, The Toast, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere.
Editor: Dana Snitzky