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.