Review: Let’s Play White

By Jesse Bullington

Burke, Chesya. Let’s Play White. Apex Publications (April 26, 2011). USD $15.95, paperback. ISBN-13: 978-1937009991.

Chesya Burke’s powerful debut short story collection, Let’s Play White, begins with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, Lyrics of a Lowly Life, a bleak and haunting, yet beautiful, piece that perfectly sets the tone for the stories that follow. Burke’s writing fluctuates from beguilingly plain language to the lush and the lyrical, and her plots range from the supernatural to the mundane, yet there is a constant to the pieces: an unflinching examination of humanity. There will be readers who find Burke’s stories to be bleak, and that is undoubtedly true of several in this collection, but to simply label them such does a profound disservice to the author. If these stories are bleak, particularly where race relations in America are concerned, it is because Burke writes with a heartbreaking authenticity, and that is where the true horror in this collection comes out – not from stock horror ghouls or torture-porn set pieces, but from the realness of Burke’s vision. These stories sing with their language, but they also pack a vicious sting with their insight.

The collection opens with “Walter and the Three-Legged King”, from whence the title of the book is pulled. It’s a brutal story of desperation and futility in an urban hell, one where the intrusion of the supernatural into proceedings actually alleviates some of the pain of the piece, replacing it with a numbing horror that is shared by protagonist and reader alike.

As with several pieces in the collection, such as “The Light of Cree”, how much is real and how much could be explained as madness or metaphor is left ambiguous, to fine result. Recalling Toni Cade Bambara’s classic The Salt Eaters, the otherwordly in Burke’s writing is sometimes of questionable corporality, but even as literary device, it will thrill fans of the weird. On odd occasion, Burke’s symbolism can be a little heavy-handed, but, more often than not, it succeeds wildly.
Other stories, such as “Chocolate Park” and “CUE: Change”, are much more overt in their use of the supernatural. Both of these pieces play with the trope of zombies, but in radically different ways. The former uses them in a more traditional folkloric interpretation, whereas the latter in a more modern fashion…but in both cases, the social metaphors are present and poignant.

Some of the pieces that cut the sharpest are Burke’s historically-set tales, where her unobtrusive period details provide a quietly brilliant backdrop. “I Make People Do Bad Things”, for example, features the notorious numbers queen Stephanie St. Clair, and positively pulses with the sights and sounds of Depression-era Harlem…yet its story of too-human ruthlessness is timeless.

Then there are stories that shine with a sense of hope, even through the gloom of hard realities, such as the novella, “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason”, that concludes the collection. That Burke starts her storytelling in the abject apartment of Walter, yet concludes in the open air with Leona and Iona, twin inheritors of Burke’s brand of conjure, proves that, for all the hurt and heartache infesting the world, there are also possibility and wonder to be found, for those willing to work for it.

At times, Burke reads like a cross between Ernest J. Gaines and Shirley Jackson. Yet, as is always the case with promising authors, she has already established a voice of her own, one that cannot be defined as a simple amalgamation of other writers. She is Chesya Burke, a gifted, fearless author who has her own stories to tell, stories of cruelty and oppression, but also of hope, strength, and perseverance. We would do well to listen.

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