28 OCTOBER 2019



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On a Friday evening in October 2004, with the nights drawing in and the layers piling up over summer clothes, I was sitting cross-legged in the living room of my friend Miranda’s house in east London. I had recently returned from living in Senegal, one of the last frontiers of Africa before it stabs into the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and melts into the Sahara Desert in the north. Two years earlier, I’d barely had time to say goodbye to these university friends – I’d given myself a few days to recover from the exhaustion of my final exams, packed two large suitcases, then boarded an Air France flight, twenty-one years old, impatient to begin the journey into my new, African identity. It was a journey that had been years in the planning.

The friends gathered round on this autumn night had treated my return much as they had my departure: curious, but unsurprised. I came bearing stories of unpredictable work in countries that most British people have barely heard of – Chad, Burkina Faso, São Tomé – of trying to hold meetings with government ministers in languages I could barely speak, of only just surviving cerebral malaria, of smuggling suitcases of cash into war zones. My friends, deep in the hustle of London’s graduate job market, pointed out how fortunate I was to be able to decorate my CV with this kind of experience. But that had never been the reason for going. I hadn’t left Britain to become an expat with a competitive advantage in the job scrum; I had left Britain to leave being British. I believed that relocating my future to one or more of Africa’s many nations would solve the problems of belonging that had nibbled away at me, a mixed-race girl growing up in Britain, for as long as I could remember. I had not meant to come back, not after two years, not ever, but to settle in West Africa for good, and take up my place in the world as a proud African, in places where I thought I would fit in.

Exactly the opposite had happened. Living in Senegal I had discovered, to my endless confusion, how British I was. Returning to London meant the relief of familiarity, of home, but the painful reminder that home was a place that had surveyed me as alien, questioned me about my background, and expected me to provide explanations. Very little, it seemed, had changed.

Evenings like this, in the little house that marked the beginning of a steep staircase of Victorian terraces descending down to the River Lea and the bleak London marshland beyond, were different. These friends and I – a group of black, mixed-race and other misfit Oxford graduates, sitting in a loose circle on the carpet – were bonded by the fact that none of us had ever really fitted in. So we would congregate there, feasting on vegan food, painfully aware of the clichés and contradictions that we embodied, and trying to work out the point of it all. I’d longed for this companionship while I’d been away, and the rhythms of our London lives, the quirkiness of our homes and our clothes and our seasons, the cynicism and sarcasm of our humour. Now I was back in the midst of these traditions, and drinking them in like warm tea.


The above is an extract from the titular short story in Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, 2019. Published by Vintage. Vintage is part of Penguin Random House. Find out more about the book here

Sign up to become a Fawcett member this week & for one week only, new members will receive a copy of The Travelers by Regina Porter