Authenticity and Racial Humor with Epistolary Format in “Belles Lettres” - REVIEW
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ 2019 acclaimed debut Heads of the Colored People is the short stories collection where, at one point, two black mothers get into a comical letter debate about their daughters and their respective parenting skills in “Belles Lettres.” The short story is infused with backhanded remarks, witty writing voices, and an overt racial authenticity that can only arise from the real-life event that inspired the story.
The story is presented in epistolary format, which adds to the comical exchange since it creates a medium that can thrive in passive-aggressiveness. Lucinda and Monica — the two mothers— start their conversation after a rumor is spread in the private school both of their daughters attend that Lucinda’s daughter killed her hamster and Monica’s daughter was the culprit for said rumor. Thus, Lucinda takes the first shot at Monica, masking entitlement as motherly concern (“Children who start lying young often end up with longtime patterns of dishonesty.”), but Monica does not back down from this challenge and fires back with doubled acidity: “It is true that liars who start young often end up with psychological and social problems … How lucky for you (and for Christinia) that she has access to psychotherapy through your practice.” From this point on, the two headstrong women change their attitudes, both of their voices becoming ‘petty’-er as time goes by and letters fly; the fight that was supposed to be over their daughters shifts into being a fight about the two ‘adults’, coming to a point where the reason for the fight is ultimately forgotten, touching instead on intelligence, parentage, talent in poetry, and even blackness.
The attention to details of character and formatting is superb because it creates that desired authenticity. Lucinda flaunts her doctorates (“—yes, plural—”) in the headers and footers as an attempt to ridicule Monica, while Monica is proud of her “ghetto” background and makes sure to get her ferocity across when provoked. The entertaining exchange is made even more appealing since it was hinted at the very beginning: (from Lucinda) “we both know how ugly these things can get.”, but, in the end, the conflict is resolved off the page once the mothers come together to face their new target, their daughters’ female teacher. The complete twist in the women’s personality in the last letter doubles the comical situation, insofar as making it utterly pointless— if that was not the case until then. As comical and tongue-in-cheek as this letter exchange appears to be, it is also genuine because of these two stubborn characters; their color is simply a significant part of their identity and personality.
As a whole, Nafissa Thompson-Spires deftly creates a banal situation that escalates until its (missing) boiling point, that entertains until the last period, and that uncovers a humoristic realism truly missing from racial narratives. I could not stop reading, always keeping tabs on the best ‘burn’, relishing in my place as a spectator of the best and most authentic racial exchange I have had the pleasure to read.
“The goal of a writer should be to tell the truth in some way, even if it’s to tell it slant.” - N. Thompson-Spires
My Rating: ★★★★★