The Big Idea: Chesya Burke
Titles: They can be simple. They can be difficult. They can be complex. They can be direct or mysterious. Sometimes they can be the hardest thing in an entire book to get right. But the right title can make a difference in how people see the book. When Chesya Burke decided on a title for her new collection of short fiction, she wanted one that would do some very particular things. Here she is to explain how the title Let’s Play White works for her, and for her work.
Let’s Play White.
The three words don’t exactly seem to inspire cozy, warm feelings of opened discussion. As Richard Wright knew when he wrote them in his 1940 novel, Native Son, the words “let’s play white” imply there is an expected conformity within society, a sort of acting on the part of many people—a role that some simply cannot fit into. ‘Let’s play white’ is itself is a play on words meant to taunt the reader, make them think.
With his novel, Richard Wright implied that being white is simply a game to be manipulated, and that perhaps people of color (and even many whites) do it on a constant basis (the idea wasn’t exactly embraced sixty years ago when it was published). If this is in fact true, however, and “playing white” is the idea that people of color in general sometimes feel they must change essential parts of themselves to conform to a society that doesn’t value their differences, what would that mean to fictional characters that live in a world not created for them? What would it mean for African American characters that play white in a world that doesn’t accept their blackness—in other words, what would this real life scenario mean for fictional characters in a speculative world.
As you can imagine, the stories in Let’s Play White aren’t about one theme, or one issue or topic. It isn’t even about racism specifically. Instead, like people themselves, Let’s Play White, is an eclectic array of stories about diverse people and topics and lives. It is a collection of short stories with characters who, much like real people, are affected by the society around them.
So when I decided to use this as the title of my collection, I wanted, as the originator before me, to open dialogue and create discussion. What happens when a well-known historical character in 1920s Harlem forces a nine year old girl into her deadly gang of forty thieves and then must choose between the child and her own survival? How does a mother sooth one child when another is dead? Everyone knows that the rats in housing projects can be vicious, tormenting the residents, but what happens when the rats are the only thing to offer relief from the pain?
Although each of the stories explores these questions and more, in many cases the answers themselves are left up to the reader to decide. Could you ever be complicit in murdering a potentially deadly child? What should two sisters do when the third’s addiction is threatening their lives?
With these questions, I want to entertain people, of course. But I also hope that these characters will stick with the reader long after they’ve put the book down. While I love reading for fun, I also love to read powerful, thought-provoking stories.
I grew up reading authors such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. Both of these writers managed to entertain readers while touching on social issues and forcing a young girl like me to understand just a bit more about the world that I didn’t understand before.
I don’t imply that my stories will do this for every reader, but I do hope that just one of the stories relates to each of the readers. I hope that people are willing to slip into the skins of my characters, and come and play white with me.
Mostly, I hope that the title inspires discussion instead of fear as it did over sixty years ago.