Growing up, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, MFA ’15, felt absent from the fiction she was reading. “I didn’t see a lot of black nerds,” is how she explained it to NPR’s Audie Cornish when interviewed for All Things Considered about her short story collection, Heads of the Colored People (Atria 2018). “I wrote the stories I wished I could have been reading and seeing,” she says.
What Thompson-Spires is seeing is growing critical acclaim. She is one of 10 writers to receive a 2019 Whiting Award. The prestigious prize provides one of creative writing’s richest purses—$50,000—intended to recognize “explosive talent at a relatively early stage,” says Courtney Hodell, the Whiting Foundation’s director of literary programs. Hodell believes the award should help Thompson-Spires find the time and space to write with complete freedom and focus. “We’re all excited to see what results,” she says.
Thompson-Spires, a UI assistant professor of creative writing, has a history of impressive results. She was a 2016 fellow for the creative writing workshops sponsored by Callaloo, a leading journal of African diaspora arts and letters. Her work has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Lunch Ticket and The Feminist Wire. Heads of the Colored People has been longlisted for several literary prizes, including the National Book Award.
In recognizing Thompson-Spires, the Foundation praised her as “a bold new voice—young, gifted, black, unafraid of its own contradictions, and powerful enough to take the writer anywhere she wishes to go.” They cited her work for its “profound compassion for … chaos and not- knowing,” concluding that Thompson-Spires assures her readers that “all of us are surrounded by darkness; our willingness to enter it is what makes us human.”
Previous Whiting Award winners include notables such as August Wilson, Ruth Stone, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Sarah Ruhl. Thompson-Spires says that she is “overwhelmed with gratitude” to keep such company. “I value the community the Whiting Foundation has allowed me to access and cultivate,” she says. “I have so much respect for their philanthropy, their commitment to diversity and their practical, tangible impact on the writing life and the writers who live it.”