WIHM: Interview with Dr. Chesya Burke
By Sonora Taylor
This year's Women in Horror Month interviews kick off with Dr. Chesya Burke, author of one of my all-time favorite short story collections, Let's Play White.
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Chesya: I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I used to write horror stories and read them for my family who were—to their credit—always very supportive and listened, telling me they loved whatever story my child mind could think about at the time. My mother always made me feel like it was the best story she had ever read/heard.
Sonora: I loved your short story collection, Let’s Play White. Tell us about writing that collection. When you wrote the stories, did you plan on compiling all of them as one, or were each their own inspiration?
Chesya: I wrote the different stories at different times. Some of them had been published before and some of them I wrote specifically for this collection. Those are Walter and the Three-Legged Kind, I Make People Do Bad Things, CUE: Changed and The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason. I wrote these while I was in undergrad. Each of the stories was its own inspiration, but I did want to make sure they all fit the “theme” of Black resistance in some way.
Sonora: I also loved your novel, The Strange Crimes of Little Africa. What inspired this story? Will there be a sequel?
Chesya: Yes! A Black woman detective in 1920s Harlem? Whose best friend is Zora Neale Hurston? That story is begging for a sequel. I’m a huge fan of ZNH and reading about her time as an anthropologist. I’m inspired by the way Black women take up and create space--whether it’s writing, creative or academic.
Sonora: Do you prefer writing short stories to novels? Vice versa? What’s it like for you writing one versus the other?
Oh, this is a good question. If I have to think about it—and am forced to give an answer—I guess I’d say that I prefer to write short stories. My head thinks more short story form. It wasn’t this way in the beginning. I never wanted to write short stories, but was advised that it was probably easier to get my “foot in the door” writing shorts. While that is true, it does take a different skill set. If I’m writing a short, I don’t tend to write outlines. On the other hand, I oftentimes do a brief outline for my novels.
Sonora: What has been your experience in the horror community as a Black woman? Do you notice differences or similarities in the way you’re treated as an author versus as a professor?
Chesya: Another interesting question. The horror community—as a whole—has not been very welcoming to me over the years. Individuals, here and there, have been, but the genre is overwhelmingly white and male and it seems as if they are content to keep it that way.
As for being a professor v/s writer? I don’t know. I have been a writer way longer than I have been a professor. People don’t really care if you’re a writer. And now there’s a push toward anti-intellectualism, so people don’t necessarily care about academics either. It’s interesting that both of these careers are historically seen as respectable, but I am not the normal person most people think about when they conjure the images in their heads.
Being a PhD may give me more gravitas in some spaces that being a writer doesn’t, but it’s not tangible as far as I can tell right now. But I have only officially been an official “professor” for 5 months.
Sonora: What can the horror community do better to promote Black women’s voices?
Chesya: I have spent a significant amount of my writing life trying to express what the horror community can do better when it comes to Black women’s and people’s voices, and other voices of PoC. Too many have spent an equal amount of time trying to ignore and/or silence me.
Now it’s 2021. I’m not playing this game anymore.
Sonora: What would you like to see more of in terms of Black characters in horror? Conversely, what’s a horror trope you’d like to never see again?
Chesya: See above.
Sonora: What are some of your favorite books? Who are some of your favorite authors?
Chesya: I normally recommend authors such as Octavia Butler, NK Jemisin or even Maurice Broaddus. But I want to make a conscience effort to name up and coming writers. So I recommend Tenea D. Johnson, whose collection, Broken Fevers, I just blurbed and is amazing.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Chesya: Right now, I’m working on an academic book about Storm from X-men, a middle grade “Black Girl Magic” book, several contracted stories and I’m guest editing a special issue on Jordan Peele’s work for the journal of Supernatural Studies, among other things.
Chesya Burke is an Asst. Professor of English and U.S. Literatures at Stetson University. She has written and published nearly a hundred fiction works and articles within the genres of science fiction, fantasy, noir and horror. Her story collection, Let's Play White, is being taught in universities around the country. Poet Nikki Giovanni compared her writing to that of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany called her "a formidable new master of the macabre.