Heads of the Colored People: Stories

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A Year in Reading: Kate Petersen

Letters. The year began with letters. Well, emails. Jokey work emails that turned, somewhere along the line, to letters—getting-to-know-you letters, then, to love letters. I began to consider paragraph breaks. Thrilled to his name in my inbox. In a smoky restaurant in Mexico City I read one letter again and again, then handed my phone to friends and asked them to read it, asked if they heard what I heard.

I had not received such
letters in many years, and was out of practice.

I had recently moved from a single room in San Francisco where the only books I could keep close were those I taught. It was a year of rediscovering books I had known and not seen in a long time. Collections of poetry I had found in the stacks of now-gone Aardvark Books, the still-there Green Apple.

In winter, I sent him poems by Joanna Klink, poems of light and frost and estuary. He checked out books of poems from the library, sent phone pictures of pages to me: Kyle Dargan. Mary Oliver.

Friends sent me other poems, ones by Maria Hummel. Jon Davis. I saved everything. My phone ran out of room.

More emails. I planned a Summit, an endeavor as big and overshadowing as the word suggests. This required many many emails. Books languished, half-read, on my coffee table. (I am reading them now: among them, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, Peter Kline’s Mirrorforms). Too many browser tabs stayed open. Birthday cards and bills lay unsent on my desk. As if there were a different well of hours to draw from, I also worked to finish my own book. Read my own words over and over until sentences arrived to me on training runs and in dreams, and I understood they were complete.

In spring, he sat in my kitchen and read me Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.” Layli Long Soldier visited campus and read to us from Whereas, then a love poem from her phone.

At the beginning of summer, he found his old copy of The Wind in the Willows. (“This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward.”)

Driving over a pass in the Rockies at the end of an August hailstorm, I read him the bewildering music of Anne Carson’s “Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men.” (“From the shadows run mysterious ground lines down into my apparent heart.”) A story of image and estrangement, hers, but perhaps my campaign was one of foils. There we were in the same country. Were we not there to disprove her essay’s theorem?

On a stolen afternoon in fall, we packed sandwiches and library books and headed up Bear Jaw trail. Stolen from emails, I mean. High up in the aspens, I read Jane Hirshfield to him. (“If the leaves. If the rise of the fish”).

On the way back from the Chicago Marathon, I bought Susan Steinberg’s Machine in the airport bookshop, Barbara’s, all while holding the largest McDonald’s ice cream cone ever dispensed at O’Hare. Please patronize Barbara’s; they were very forgiving about the ice cream cone.

After he was asleep, I read Sharon Olds to myself.

On nights he wasn’t there, I thumbed through my old books for articulation, clues to this season. I found myself turning to persona poems (like Amy Gerstler’s Ghost Girl), stories of manners, inward-turned, jar-tight stories of being a woman, or an other woman, of the mind casting around in its now ill-fitting loneliness. Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark and Laurie Colwin’s “Animal Behavior.” I let myself be devastated by tenses (here, Adler’s narrator, Kate): “You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.”

On nights he was there, he read to me from The Once and Future King, a book I taught long ago.

Well, so what? In certain houses, certain years of life, reading to someone and being read to is routine. The default even. But I had not lived in such a year, or house, for many. (“Until you brought me, casually, an hour,” Klink writes.)

Then he read to me. Some nights by headlamp, or perched on a rock over Oak Creek, but most in the plain confines of my beige-walled apartment by the light of an oil lamp he’d cleaned up and given me. Year of long return. Year of song, a voice that is not yours telling you a story. Year I was let back in to the original enchantment of reading a book: a shoulder, feeling the words begin in his chest, breath held as the page turns. A light nearby, not much more than a candle, waiting to be blown out.

A Year in Reading: Kali Fajardo-Anstine

In December of 2018, in preparation for the publication of my first book, Sabrina & Corina, I quit my job as an office manager in Denver and organized a national book tour (with a couple stop offs in Canada along the way). Sabrina & Corina was born out of a decade of writing, countless rejections, and years of uncertainty. I was both excited for and afraid of what lay on the other side of publication, and I knew I had to do everything in my power to honor the book I had written. In the span of eight months, I traveled to over 20 cities and small towns, and I gave readings at places like universities, high schools, community centers, book stores, literary festivals, public libraries, art galleries, and more. All this is to say, in 2019 I spent long hours in the air, reading books. I read books by my debut peers. I reread many of my old favorites. I read books I found in Little Free Libraries. I read books abandoned in hotel lobbies. I read books gifted to me, wrapped in red bows.

In 2019, I took pleasure in reading new short story collections. I was charmed, delighted, and challenged by the power of the stories in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s The Heads of the Colored People. I loved the connection to place, Houston in particular, and the natural readability of Bryan Washington’s Lot. Beth Piatote’s The Beadworkers dazzled me with voice, dreamscapes, the reverence for ancestors and land.

As for novels, in Santa Fe, N.M., on a rooftop patio with adobe walls, sipping a bright green margarita, I was blown away by the robust storytelling in Inland by Tea Obreht. During a family vacation in Breckenridge, Colo., I took my father’s advice and read the exquisitely written On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

For a piece in Bustle, I revisited The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and was reminded of reading this masterwork for the first time in high school, the lingering pleasures of feeling seen on the page, 15 years later. In preparation for my conversation with Julia Alvarez for her NEA Big Read event in Denver, I reread In the Time of the Butterflies and was reminded of the power in her storytelling, the intricacies of her plot, the force behind the Mirabal sisters.

In 2019, I read memoirs, too, and I found myself staying up late into the night thinking about Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. It’s beautifully haunting and structurally gripping, providing an important look into loneliness and so much more. I also read a memoir from 1996, Drinking: A Love Story by the late Caroline Knapp, which I fished out of a free library in Golden, Colo., while I was on a walk one summer evening. I finished the book that night, and I thought a lot about my own relationship to alcohol and the vulnerability of Knapp’s voice.

And then there were the poets. I saw Tommy Pico perform at the 2019 Bay Area Book Festival, and I was blown away as he read from Junk. His latest, Feed, kept me company this fall and reminded me of how bighearted and wide-ranging both language and the imagination can be. I adored the crisp and somber Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love by Keith S. Wilson. And during the summer in Los Angeles, I nearly teared up at Yesika Salgado’s signing table after reading her Hermosa.  

It was a beautiful year for books, and I was so honored to read these transformative words. Thank you to their authors. 

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