Chesya Burke’s new short story collection newly out from Apex Publications provides a take on the horrific and strange from, as you might expect from the title, an African-American perspective. The title comes from the opening story, “Walter and the Three-Legged King,” in which the down on his luck protagonist is advised by a talking rat, one that he’s maimed by tearing off its leg, that “let’s play white” is the only way for him to get a job and avoid getting thrown out of his apartment. The notion that you have to “play the game” in a job interview is hardly the province of any particular race, however; moreover, the no-doubt low paying job of doorman the protagonist hopes to land might actually have less to do with “playing white” than “playing subservient,” which is why ethnic minorities probably hold a larger percentage of these kinds of positions.
Of course, sf and fantasy have been a natural home for ethnic writers to explore the state of “otherness” in which alien creatures and societies symbolize the psychology of oppressed racial and sexual minorities. Burke’s stories are more grounded in the everyday realities of the disenfranchised, realities that are disrupted by cultural myths such as the actually benevolent but of course misunderstood village witch (“The Teachings and Redepmtion of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason”), zombies (“Cue Change”) voodoo (“Chocolate Park”), diviner-healers (“The Unremembered” and “The Light of Cree”) and the evil eye (“I Make People Do Bad Things”). Some of the scariest, however, are the most realistic.
In “Purse,” a woman feels ill on the subway. She’s worried about how she is being perceived by the train riders, particularly a group of teen thugs who she thinks might want to steal her purse. She starts to bleed, which leads to unwanted revelation of what’s in the purse. The one story told by a white narrator, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared,” is a Bradburian fable of white guilt.
I particularly liked “He Who Takes Pain Away,” an horrific take on Santa Claus (“He’s here,'” Hattie Mae said with all the excitement that only an eight-year-old girl can have.” p.82) and the concept of all-knowing God who nonetheless allows evil (“But He who takes your pain will come. And He will save you. All you must do is ask. Like a child on Christmas, you’ll be happy…” p.85) that, however, is subverted by what to this cynic was a disappointing ending with its implication of redemption.
Underpinning all these stories is the notion of social strictures that both enslave but, with self-knowledge, can liberate, as the epigraph of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask” points out: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–this debt we pay to human guile…But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask.” Burke’s stories peer behind the mask, while also recognizing why, for good or ill, it’s worn in the first place.