Kool Kat of the Week: Chesya Burke Investigates the Harlem Renaissance in THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA

Posted on: Jan 29th, 2016 By:

chesya1Atlanta author Chesya Burke finds a mystery in 1920s Harlem in THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA, her debut novel  from Rothco Press which has its launch party Friday Jan. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Charis Books and More in Little Five Points. The innovative and much anticipated story features as its protagonist feisty would-be detective Jaz Idewell, daughter of the first African-American officer in the New York Police Department, and as her best friend a young Zora Neale Hurston.

Chesya has been turning heads with her short fiction, unabashedly bringing an African-American  woman’s perspective to horror and spec-lit. Her first story collection, LET’S PLAY WHITE, came out from Apex Publications in 2011, and other recent publications include “In the Quad of Project 327,” in CASSILDA’S SONG, an all-women authors’ collection of stories inspired by Robert W. ChambersTHE KING IN YELLOW which featured in HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE.

ATLRetro was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at STRANGE CRIMES and enjoyed it so much we couldn’t help but make her Kool Kat of the Week.  We caught up with her recently to find out more about the book, the festivities at Charis and what’s next for this innovative author.

strangecrimescoverATLRetro: What’s the “secret origin story” behind how you came to write THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA?

Chesya Burke: STRANGE CRIMES isn’t much of a secret. A fellow writer and I thought that a black woman detective novel would be fun to write, Harlem would be a great setting and now there’s my Little Africa. Which I hope captures just a little of the real Little Africa.

How much of an impact has Zora Neale Hurston’s writing had on you personally, and did you feel at all intimidated bringing such a literary icon onto the page?

I love ZNH! Just love her. I love everything about her. Researching her, reading her biography, her own story, written by her, true and false—she was known to…subvert the truth when she saw fit—was fascinating. I’m a huge fan and I enjoy her work. I’m not sure how much influence she has on me, probably quite a bit, but less than some authors such as Octavia Butler. I think what I take most from Hurston is dialogue. She really got to the essence of rural black dialect.  I hope I can be half as good as she one day! 

I was nervous to write about Hurston. I have this idea of the woman that she was in my head, but it’s not real. I had to realize that I could never get the real Zora on the page, only a bit of the mystery of her as I could imagine.

Zora is not the only real-life character from the Harlem Renaissance. Briefly, can you tell us about a few of the others, such as the enigmatic Madam St. Clair, who also appears in your story “I Make People Do Bad Things”?

There are so many. I researched a lot for the book. Stephanie St. Clair, Bumpy Johnson, Anderson Charles and several others. Even her father, Rueben Idawell was based on the first black traffic cop in NYC.

chesya3What did you do to research the book, and what was the most challenging piece of information to find/fact-check?

I’ve been to New York a bunch, and I went to Harlem specifically to do research. I spent hours and hours in the museum, walking the streets and just trying as hard as I could to get a feel for it. But, of course, I hadn’t been to 1920s Harlem, so I looked at old articles and pictures and newspaper clippings from the time. That’s where I got the name, “Little Africa.” I hadn’t [known] it was called that until I read it in a newspaper from the time.   

Jaz, the protagonist, is the daughter of the first African-American officer in the NYPD. Are there any lessons that you hope readers will bring to the present from your depiction of race and justice/injustice in the Harlem Renaissance?

Racial injustice and police brutality have only changed in measures since the era of the novel. We don’t have to read historical novels to see this. Anyone reading STRANGE CRIMES will see parallels. And that is unfortunate.   

Your acclaimed short story collection LET’S PLAY WHITE is horror/spec-lit. Especially over the past decade more African-American horror writers have risen to prominence from Tananarive Due to Victor LaValle, and some would say that Toni Morrison’s BELOVED is one of the best horror novels of all time. Are you encouraged by more diversity in the genre community or do you still see significant challenges/barriers for writers of color?

Of course. I hope that in the future we will see even more.

You just completed a master’s thesis at Agnes Scott College about Storm of Marvel Comics’ X-MEN and started a doctoral program at the University of Florida-Gainesville. Is it challenging to be both a graduate student and an author?

Oh. My. God. Yes. It’s most difficult because it seems that I’m being pulled in so many directions and both careers are doing relatively well. But it’s the problem to have, so I’m not complaining. Love every minute of it!

letsplaywhiteYou still consider Atlanta home, though. Is that why you wanted your official book launch here at Charis? Can you tell readers a little about the festivities on Friday night?

Yes. Atlanta is home. Always will be. The book launch is on Friday and I will be reading from STRANGE CRIMES. Charis is also home and is the perfect place for the release party of my first book. I’m also reading at Agnes Scott College on Wednesday evening!

What’s next in fiction for you? The end of STRANGE CRIMES seemed to hint that you might have a sequel in mind?

Yes. I’m working on the next book in the series. At least, I should be. I’m working on a few short stories and comic stuff. Most of it, I can’t talk about unfortunately. 

Any other current or “lost/forgotten” writers you’d like to recommend to ATLRetro readers?

Octavia Butler, who is not lost, but everyone should know about. Maurice Broaddus. Jennifer Brissett. Victor LaValle. Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Kiese Laymon. Shane McKenzie. Laird Barron. I know I’m missing lots of people. 

Chesya talks more about THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA and other works in this recent interview on THE OUTER DARK podcast on Atlanta-based Project iRadio.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Tracy Murrell Creates Retro Art For the 21st Century, Work Featured In Upcoming Exhibit At Lowe Gallery

Posted on: Feb 19th, 2014 By:

"Torchy" by Tracy Murrell. Used with permission.

One of Atlanta’s hottest rising visual artists and this week’s Kool Kat, Tracy Murrell, plays with pin-ups and cartoon pop art in her latest installation, part of the Fine Arts Workshop Group Exhibition, which opens Friday, Feb. 21 at the Bill Lowe Gallery in Midtown.

A minimalist painter inspired by vintage iconic photographs, Murrell reduces her subjects to their essential elements, eliminating everything until it’s stripped to raw imagery, exposing their most compelling details. Her latest work features female forms reminiscent of sophisticated pin-ups. But for Murrell they are much more. Inspired by the stunning images of pioneering artist Jackie Ormes (1911 – 1985), the first African-American woman cartoonist, Murrell explores racial and gender stereotypes. She reimages the original cartoons, sometimes morphing her own likeness with Ormes’ original groundbreaking female African-American archetype, creating an ‘avatar’ for her struggle for her own identity as an artist and a woman. Painted in high key color, reminiscent of Pop and Post Pop Masters such as Lichtenstein, Katz and Hume, Murrell’s work prompts the viewer to question their own beliefs about race and gender, as well as what is high and low art. Her bright, bold, provocative works are already causing a stir with private collectors.

On a recent weekend, while busily working on several large canvases in her studio at the King Plow Arts Center, Murrell is percolating with ideas while she talks about her work. “I always drew from the time I could hold a crayon,” Murrell explains.  “My dad was in the Air Force so we moved a lot and I took influences from different places. We spent four years outside Madrid, Spain when I was a child. I think the colors and flavors of life there greatly affected my view of the world and my art.”  After Spain, The Murrells returned to the states and settled in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Tracy Murrell in her King Plow studio. Photo credit: Shiela Turner.

“I took art classes in college but didn’t consider it a real career choice because I was studying to be a child psychiatrist. I got a degree in psychology and then got an offer in Atlanta in the music industry,” Murrell continues. “I landed a great job with Red Distribution/Sony Records which lead to a dream job with EMI Records. I needed something to balance the craziness of the music industry so one afternoon I went to the art store and bought a canvas so huge that I had to borrow a truck to get it home. I put it in the corner of my kitchen and painted and repainted on that canvas for two years until I liked what I saw. I realized I needed to paint or I would go crazy.”

By 2009, Murrell was at a crossroads and realized she wanted her work to have deeper meaning. She began the search for a mentor. Answering an open call to work with renowned artist Louis Delsarte on his 125-foot-long Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mural introduced her to a collaborative artistic environment, which she loved. It also led to finding her mentor, Michael David and the Fine Arts Workshop.

Working with Michael and the artists who are part of the Fine Arts Workshop has been a life-changing experience for Murrell as she begins to establish herself as a professional artist. In the process she’s been tracing her family history with art and connecting the dots. Her mom is an avid art collector, teacher and curator. And she discovered that her great uncle Elton Fax is a significant artist and writer.

It was while researching Fax’s work during the Harlem Renaissance that Murrell discovered Ormes. The more she read about her, the more she felt they were kindred spirits. Among Murrell’s favorite subjects is Jackie Ormes’ famous 1930s character, Torchy Brown.  Murrell’s “Torchy” series pays homage to Ormes.

"Girlfriends" by Tracy Murrell. Used with permission.

Another step along Murrell’s artistic path has been working as a marketing consultant and a curator. Working in the music industry taught her valuable skills that she brought to the Atlanta Jazz Festival’s 2012 marketing team, in her current position with the National Black Arts Festival, and as the curator at Hammonds House Museum for the last two years.

“I love exhibition making,” Murrell says. “Instead of paint, I use an artist’s work as my medium. It has helped me grow as an artist. I study each of the mediums as we present them so I am learning constantly. I have become more sensitive to the partnership between art and the public.”

The opening reception at Bill Lowe Gallery is from 6-9 p.m. on Fri. Feb. 21. The gallery is located at 1555 Peachtree Street NE #100, Atlanta, GA 30309. To see examples of Tracy Murrell’s art visit her Website at: www.tracymurrell.com.

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