The Librarian Is In

By KATRINA SPENCER

RANDOM HOUSE

If I am honest with you, the author of this work is everything I’ve ever wanted to be: a smart, paid and recognized writer who addresses issues of race in her writing without being beholden to them (and who has a solid plan B for a career, just in case). In this debut collection of short stories, Nafissa Thompson-Spires draws a broad swath of characters, who also happen to be people of color, who encounter a variety of challenges. There’s the woman who lives for likes on Facebook; the university professor who struggles to assert authority over a shared office space; a woman who has a romantic fetish for amputees; an anime-based cosplayer at a convention; and feuding mothers who attack each others’ children with ongoing epistolary insults. The literary plain is so rich! And the verisimilitude so plausible! In one work alone, Thompson-Spires addresses the sometimes brutal confrontation between the 21st century desire to be well adjusted and to appear well-adjusted on social media; the weight of code-switching many people of color encounter as we/they navigate personal/social circles and professional/educational ones and the general quirks and eccentricities of a people that is as diverse as any other.

I should probably call the author by her first name, “Nafissa,” as we’ve met and occasionally chat on social media. Nafissa and I coincided at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was shy and (lovingly) awkward in person, her social skill failing to convey what would come next as the United States’ “ideal” protagonists of “success” are often effusively extroverted and take up a good deal of space. 

At that time, I didn’t know I was in the company of genius. I also didn’t know that “Nafissa” was also “Dr. Thompson-Spires,” that the book she released would be chosen for Oprah’s Best Books of 2018 or that she would be interviewed regarding her writing on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Since the time we met at a bus stop on Wright Street a handful of years ago, Nafissa has publicly launched a writing career with a strong foundation. 

Part of what’s special about her writing is that it both casually and aggressively eschews the use of caricatures and stock characters. Twentieth century consumers of media have certainly encountered enough of those when it comes to representations of African Americans. See “magical Negro,” “mammy,” “Sambo,” et al. There’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the topic: “Stereotypes of African Americans.” She takes characters who are “queer” (in the retro, retro sense of the word) and demonstrates that they, too, exist within communities of color and also experience the crises of identity that have been regularly afforded to the dominant culture. She diversifies diversity, an effort creators and people of color have long wanted to see forwarded.

I listened to this work as an audiobook on go/overdrive/ as, at this point in my life, moments of multitasking allow me to get slightly more done this way. I move through texts faster, but I imagine I retain less. I recommend this work to people with seemingly conflicting identities holed up in one body. For example, if you’re both a ballerina and a boxer or a fitness guru and a junk food fiend. Thompson-Spires’ works explore the less visible personalities that exist among the extremes. For more titles like this one, see Carmen Maria Machado’s “Her Body and Other Parties” (which I have yet to read), “The Ways of White Folks” by Langston Hughes or “The Complete Short Stories” by Zora Neale Hurston.

Literatures & Cultures Librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Center, the Arabic Department, the Comparative Literature Program, the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS) Program, the Language Schools, the Linguistics Program and the Department of Luso-Hispanic Studies.

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The Librarian Is In