Chesya Burke talks Zora Neale Hurston and “The Strange Crimes of Little Africa.”

Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke

Zora Neale Hurston is a wildfire. She was dynamic in real life and I tried to make her as much so on the page as possible. In the book, she’s my Mouse to Easy Rowlins’ laid back, easy going character.

Time to get to know Chesya Burke! Chesya has written and published nearly a hundred fiction pieces and articles within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Now, she’s taking on the mystery genre with The Strange Crimes of Little Africa. This instant classic introduces Jaz Idawell to the world of 1926 Harlem Renaissance. Fans of Walter Mosley, Zora Neale Hurston and Showtime’s The Knick will love!

Where did the idea for The Strange Crimes of Little Africa come from?

It was just one of those things, right. Sitting around talking with a writer friend about upcoming projects and how much I love historical fiction and writing it. One of my favorite eras is 1920s Harlem, so the discussion started kinda like this: My friend asked suddenly, “What about a Black woman detective in 1920s Harlem Renaissance?” I was like, “Oooo, what about a Black woman detective in 1920s Harlem Renaissance….”

"The Strange Crimes of Little Africa" by Chesya Burke

“The Strange Crimes of Little Africa” by Chesya Burke

As a comic book writer as well, how did you take on both writing the creation narrative for new characters, backstories and motivations?

Interestingly enough, my comic, Shiv, which should be coming out later this year, is based on a story from my short story collection, Let’s Play White. Both stories, like The Strange Crimes of Little Africa, are set in 1920s Harlem and have the real life numbers runner, Madam St. Clair, as a central character. The transition was rather simple: I wrote the novel, and wanted to explore the Madam character more, so I wrote short story for the collection, and then when I was asked to write a comic, I wanted to get back into that world, so Shiv, the comic, was born.

1920s Harlem NY, or Little Africa, as it was once called (for good or ill), is a plush environment, with many different peoples, motivations and ideologies. Crime, murder and chaos all become tenuous when you’re dealing with poor, economically and socially disadvantaged peoples. Instead the lines become very blurred between right and wrong and good and bad. As such, each character and person and situation will have differing motivations, while there may be not obvious right or wrong, or even good or bad.

So with the novel, the short story and the comic, I try to dig deep into the individual character’s motivation, personality and life to create their stories. Sometimes, I just had fewer words and space to get that across. But it’s always about the character.

Tell me about Jaz? She’s got the makings of a classic sleuth. 

Well, thanks! Jaz Idawell is a black woman in 1920s Harlem, during the emerging of the renaissance. Jaz’s father is the first black traffic cop on the NY force, and she takes a bit too much pride in being the “first daughter.” People come from all around to see the large, black man bossing white people around and Jaz loves the shit out of it. And, although she’s friends with and related to famous writers, artist and performers of the time, she doesn’t have an artistic bone in her body. Instead, she has a very unique talent, sniffing out bullshit. That is, to put it simply, reading people and crime scenes, word by word, scene by scene, picking up on fine details that others have missed. It’s a talent she learned from her father.

Jaz is, I think, a relatively ordinary woman, in a very extraordinary time and place. Except she wants to be her father (not just be like him), envies her best friend, Zora Neale Hurston (yes, THE ZNH), and she can’t stop relying on her mother for comfort and advice—although the woman’s been dead for fifteen years. I guess really, Jaz is a very weird woman in a very weird time in history.

And now she’s being forced to be a Black Betty—a detective. The first Black woman detective in Harlem. Her first caper involves a list of suspects: her own father, her cousin and the local hero/killer, the number’s runner Madam St. Clair. Unfortunately for Jaz, her mother doesn’t have many answers for her this time, and may in fact be keeping secrets of her own. Instead, Jaz is gonna have to do all the heavy lifting herself. Except, you know, being a spoiled brat means that her muscles have atrophied, perhaps leaving her too weak to carry it all.

The Strange Crimes of Little Africa is a historical mystery taking place in and around the Harlem Renaissance. How important was it for you to get the history right? What kind of research did you do? 

I love love love research. I’m an academic, entering a PhD program in the fall of 2015, so I really took my time in trying to get things as accurate as possible, while taking necessary liberties, of course. I did research on the first Black cop on the NY police force, which surprising enough happened in the 1800s. Oddly though, the first Black traffic cop took longer to accept, and didn’t occur until the mid-1920s. It really was a big deal, and people really did reportedly come from all over to see him “do his stuff.”

I visited Harlem several times, touring the city, museums, archives, but also walked the streets, from corner to corner, trying, but ultimately failing to get a true feel for what the era and space was like. I only say it was a failure because in the end, things have changed so much that my imagination had to fill in what modern day couldn’t quite supply.

I also read a lot. Yeah, yeah, I’m a writer, so I read. But, I chose to specifically focus on black mystery and crime fiction. Probably not surprising to those who read it, black mysteries often have a unique voice, style and identity from other works of fiction and I wanted to capture as much as possible. So much so, that while in undergrad I developed an entire independent course on Black mystery writers, which included Walter Mosley, Chester Himes, Barbara Neely and many, many others. I received an “A” in the course, and the beginning chapters that I wrote eventually became The Strange Crimes of Little Africa. 

The author Zora Neale Hurston plays a compelling role. Can you tell us a bit about ZNH and your experience writing about her?

Zora Neale Hurston is a wildfire. She was dynamic in real life and I tried to make her as much so on the page as possible. In the book, she’s my Mouse to Easy Rowlins’ laid back, easy going character. I read a lot about ZNH when researching this book. Not only reading about her, but I think it’s important to acknowledge what people say about themselves, so I read her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. The real life Hurston spun wild tales about her life, lied about her age and had a turbulent life. I hope to be able to develop her more as the series continues. She’s just fascinating.

You’ve published books, short stories and comics, but many people also know you from your blogging about The Walking Dead. Are you looking forward to the spin off? What makes The Walking Dead such an important show for you?

The truth is, I love critiquing The Walking Dead. The show, for me, is unintentionally a great representation of society. If you’re watching closely, race, class, gender, sexuality and many other political issues are a constant motivating force for the characters. More so, like people in society, the writers often do not realize when they’ve stumbled into these issues and they more often do not know how to correct them when they do.

But don’t get me wrong, I like the show. I could talk about it all day. It’s just that counting the flaws becomes a game kinda akin to Whack-A-Mole, where every time they try to address one problem another one pops its ugly little head up. For example, imagine sitting in that conference room: Let’s have a black man and give him an AWESOME name, like, like…um…let’s think….T-Dog! That’s it, T-Dog! Oh, but it’s not problematic, because he’s not a thug, so we’ll make sure he’s as uninteresting as possible…. But now T-Dog’s name just isn’t enough to make him a dynamic character, so we’ll have to kill him and replace him with Tyreese. Oh, Tyreese from the comic. Yes! But…but he’s even less interesting and more problematic than T-Dog…. Damn. So let’s just get rid of him too. It’ll be, you know, emotional, but then we can replace him with a string of black men and no one will ever be suspicious about the missing black dudes in Atlanta with a nearly 50% black population.

See what I mean? Whack-A-Mole. Give it a try with any topic. “The Wholesome White Woman” trope: From Lori (except she cray cray) to Andrea (she likes to sex up the cray cray) to Maggie (she just likes sex) to Beth (RIP little singing gal); or try “The Black Woman Tragedy”: from Jacqui (poor Jacqui—they just left her ass to blow up in a building, while so very obviously refusing do the same to the white woman) to Michonne (from badass chick to mammy faster than you can say, “clean your plate, Carl!”) to Sasha (who just does not give a fuck!—can’t wait to see how they fuck her up). You see? Whack-A-Mole. You’ll be hooked too!


The Strange Crimes of Little Africa is available now from Rothco Press.