Staff Writer Clara Goldberg attended a lecture with award–winning author Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
In a dimly lit lecture room, Columbia kicked off their first lecture of the Creative Writing Lecture Series. As the attendees of the event found their seats, holding on to their plates of deli sandwiches and plastic cups of red wine, the author leading the lecture was introduced, Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires is the author of the short story collection Heads of the Colored People. She is known for her darkly humorous works in short fiction and essays, often focusing on topics of chronic illness and Black identity. Heads of the Colored People won numerous awards including the PEN Open Book Aware, Hurston/Wright Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Thompson-Spires received the Whiting Award in 2019.
“Lower your expectations about laughing,” she told us, which was met with a huge laugh from the attendees of her lecture. Thompson-Spires explained that despite the main topic being humor, a lecture on how to be funny often wasn’t that funny. But in reality, Thompson-Spires lecture was the opposite—sharp, witty, and invoking in me and other attendees a whole lot of laughter.
Her lecture strived to tackle some of the theories and philosophies behind the concept of humor and how that could be applied to literary works. Humor in itself, Thompson-Spires argued, could “add a different kind of literary tension” that can be used to insert an author’s views, politics, or opinions in complex ways within a story.
In fact, Thompson-Spires encouraged the idea of “finding the absurd in all dramatic situations.” Oftentimes, that’s what humor was. Thompson-Spires to represent this idea told us a story from her own life, about her hatred of flying on airplanes. The existence of stressors and annoyances, a person kicking the back of the seat, the stealing of an arm rest, with just the change of perspective became hilarities in the own dramatization of her life. The anxiety of travel, through the humorous lens, had suddenly become a sitcom episode filled with the relatable and outrageous occurrences that all of us experience.
But with comedy’s positives, it is also our responsibility to recognize its pitfalls: one of the largest, Thompson-Spires argued, being that “humor is highly culturally embedded.” There is a subjectivity to humor, what you find funny, may not be funny to the person sitting next to you, and that subjectivity is only heightened when it comes to cultural divides. Depending on your family, your background, your identity, or where you’re from can greatly impact what you find to be funny. Thompson-Spires told us stories exhibiting this from first hand experience, finding that when she was on her book tour, a reading of a scene from the Heads of the Colored People could be met with uproarious laughter in New York, and complete silence from an audience in the South.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires then extended the lens out, looking into the history of theory and philosophy in relation to humor. A modern theory of humor that Thompson-Spires cites comes from A. Peter McGraw and is what is called the “Benign Violation Theory.” This theory cites that the supposed funniness of a thing comes from the overlap between a mild and normal concept, and a concept that violates it. McGraw’s most often used example is as follows: the benign concept of a church, which is then violated when combined to create this benign violation: “Mass-vomiting in church.” Another example given was “Grandpa erection.”
The room was silent, shocked that this could be the example favored for what has become the most widely accepted theory of humor. But Nafissa Thompson-Spires was right along with us, commenting that our silence affirmed her own less than positive view of this comedic example. So, in response, Thompson-Spires encouraged us to create and share our own examples of benign violations, which gained a lot more laughter from the room.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires spent the ending portion of her lecture delving into one of her favorite types of humor, passive aggression in the epistolary form. Her example this time came from her short story collection, reading an excerpt from a story about two mothers exchanging passive aggressive notes to each other through their child’s backpacks. The story was hilarious with its zooming into the space of the bickering amongst elementary school mothers.
But Thompson-Spires story went further, stemming from her own experiences, she used this space to highlight the pressures placed upon Black students and in predominantly white schools, and how they are often pitted against each other. Rather than villainizing or laughing at the mothers defending their children, Thompson-Spires smartly used the humorous lens to instead call out the environments that forced them into that position. This story clearly represented one of Thompson-Spires points made about humor’s usages—that humor can not only be used to make people laugh, but can also be used to highlight one’s views on societal issues.
“You should write the stories you want to tell, your audience will find you.” That was one of Nafissa Thompson-Spires final remarks of the night during a brief question and answer session. She turned her remarks outwards and gave warming words of advice to any writers who were in attendance. With that, Thompson-Spires ended her lecture which had begun with the words “lower your expectations about laughing.” I can say with certainty that my expectations were not only met, but exceeded past anything I could have imagined. Thompson-Spires didn’t only offer us laughter, but she offered us knowledge, encouragement, and inspiration to take with us long after.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ lecture was the first of Columbia’s Creative Writing Lecture Series. The next lecture of the series will happen on November 15th from author Eugene Lim. All information for the event can be found on the Columbia University School of the Arts website.
Header via Columbia School of the Arts