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Book Review: “Let’s Play White” by Chesya Burke


Lets Play White by Chesya Burke

Let's Play White by Chesya Burke

Children with eerie powers. Powerful women, some with command of hoodoo. Blood. Dead babies. These are the recurring elements in Chesya Burke’s “Let’s Play White.” I had heard these stories described “horror”, but I think “macabre magical realism” might be a better description. The stories are not pleasant, but many are quite powerful.

Several of her stories are non-genre stories with an eerie twist. “Walter and the Three-Legged King” is a social-economic story that happens to feature a talking rat in a key role. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is a gangland-style tale of whore houses and numbers games, and a little girl’s eerie powers are the most powerful weapon. “Chocolate Park” is a story of drugs, prostitution, and revenge that’s enacted by hoodoo.

Violence is very present in all of Burke’s stories here — even very depraved violence — but the violence is not particularly graphic. She doesn’t linger over the depravity, but she doesn’t shy from it. I wouldn’t recommend reading all the stories in one sitting, as I did: the violence loses its effectiveness from repetition.

Burke’s stories at times make use of African (and African-American) folklore, and her characters are usually black, but the plots don’t turn on race. Because the book was framed with quotes from Dunbar and DuBois, I thought that race was going to play a larger role. Even the title, “Let’s Play White,” announces some kind of racial opposition or masquerade that I just didn’t feel was terribly present in the stories. I don’t see this as a positive or negative; there is room for literature that confronts racial issues, and there is room for literature that has black folklore and black characters without becoming all about race. I feel that Burke’s collection belongs to the latter.

A few of her stories fall short for me. “CUE: Change,” a lighter zombie story, feels out-of-place. “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” feels like a Victorian ghost story, but without weight. “The Light of Cree” is too short to make much of an impact. And “Purse” (also very short) feels like a bad student writing exercise. That’s four of the eleven stories, but the bulk of the page count is in the remaining seven, which I think are more successful.

Burke is at her best when she gives herself time to develop full characters. “Walter and the Three-Legged King” does this quickly and economically; “I Make People Do Bad Things” and “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason” are longer. This last story is the standout of the collection — it visits all her recurring themes (children with eerie powers, powerful women, dead babies, and violence), but does so against a backdrop of real character progression and a well-realized setting.

Written by timwestover

September 23rd, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Reviews

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