New Lives in Deadly Stories: A Conversation with Nekesa Afia




IN 2015, YA author Corinne Duyvis created a hashtag — #OwnVoices — that became a movement. Its goal was to affirm the voices of marginalized authors by uplifting works in which main characters shared the diverse identities and perspectives of their writers. It’s one of many successful initiatives forcing publishing to finally reckon with its race problem. Recently, some in publishing have decided to retire the hashtag over concerns that its evolution from shorthand to “catch-all marketing term” was subsuming diversity instead of showcasing it. But its legacy is important. For 26-year-old debut novelist Nekesa Afia, who has been writing protagonists who look like her since she was a child, the movement reflects a cause she’s worked toward her whole life that has now culminated in her first book: Dead Dead Girls. Afia is a Calgary-born Toronto resident who has an affinity for bygone eras — her hobbies include sewing and swing dancing. Her love of history helped her craft her maiden novel, a mystery set in Jazz Age Harlem that she proudly tells me, “is an #ownvoices novel because it’s a Black girl writing a Black girl.”

Women, principally white women, are the usual victims in crime novels, a genre trope that mirrors society’s obsession with dead white girls. But, in an important divergence from genre norm, the dead girls in this book’s title are all young Black women. They are being targeted and slain by a shadowy figure known as the Girl Killer. Tight pacing and skillful world-building help Afia succeed at turning the roaring streets of 1920s New York into a claustrophobic danger zone where fear and suspicion hang in the air like perfume. The book’s heroine, Louise Lloyd, has her work cut out for her as she is neither a detective nor a cop but rather someone approaching the crisis with personal investment — a flashback in the prologue explains that she was abducted as a teen and narrowly escaped. Years later, when girls like her begin to turn up dead, Louise is forced to confront her traumatic past or become the next victim. With this engrossing and gratifying first entry in a planned series, Afia manages to craft a period-specific yet race-conscious mystery that resonates with the world we live in today.

I spoke to Afia over the phone in May from her home in Toronto. We talked about the importance of creating a complex Black heroine who can be a role model and a real (read: fallible) person, and how violent words can be beautiful too.

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NAOMI ELIAS: You set the novel in 1920s New York, specifically Harlem. What attracted you to that time period, and how did you find your way into it? Did you do any historical research to nail down details like the Jazz Age slang or the cadence of characters’ speech?

NEKESA AFIA: Yeah, I did a ton of research. The reason I set it in the 1920s is because I was studying the Prohibition era in my university history class and I found it really interesting. It’s such a different time period; alcohol was super cheap, prohibition totally backfired. It was this generation of young people trying to make their way in the world just as we are now.

I read a lot, and I watched a lot of classic mystery movies, like The Big Sleep. I basically watched anything with Humphrey Bogart in it. Some Hitchcock too — Rear Window, North by Northwest — things like that. We have this beautiful reference library here in Toronto that has every resource I could ever need for the research so I spent a lot of time in those stacks writing and taking notes. It was just like writing a school essay but way longer and a little bit harder. [Laughs.]

The book’s protagonist is a twenty-something named Louise Lloyd. There are several important aspects of her identity that I want to talk about. She’s a Black woman, she’s a survivor, and she is also queer in an age where that is not only a social taboo but also illegal. Can you talk about why each of those aspects of her were important to the story you wanted to tell?

I’ve always loved reading and I’ve always loved mystery, but it’s really hard to find a mystery that stars someone who looks like me. When you’re a Black character, you’re usually the sidekick or the sassy Black friend and it gets tiring seeing yourself as secondary, in a secondary position. When I started writing — and not even this novel, I mean, like when I was a kid — I would always make sure that my protagonists looked like me.

Now that we’re in the 2020s, people are thinking back on the Prohibition era and the work of the really big contemporary authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and realizing they all just wrote about white people. It’s really important to me to get a different viewpoint. I wanted a different main character to show a different part of the era. She has a lot she has to hide because she can’t be like, “Oh look, it’s my girlfriend,” because she’d go to jail and she does not want that. I like that she is confident enough to own her identity even though the world says she shouldn’t be.

Disguise is a big theme in this novel. Louise and her lover hide their sexualities; unfaithful and violent men disguise themselves as gentlemen to protect their reputations; seedy nightclubs lurk just under neighborhood cafés. As a reader, I felt like I couldn’t trust that anyone was presenting themselves truthfully and it kept me on my toes. Was it fun to play with that concept?

It really was. That’s something I like to do while writing because if I don’t keep myself interested and engaged in the story, I can’t hope that a reader will be. I always think that everybody’s hiding something or there’re parts of people’s personalities they’ll deny like, “Oh yeah, I’m a great person, I’m also cheating on my girlfriend, but I’m a great person.” We do it all the time. It was interesting to bring it into Louise’s world and the fiction I was writing because it’s so true and I think that helps make the story more realistic.

Violence against women is a hallmark of the crime genre and, sadly, of real life but the victims in these stories are predominantly white. In fact, the deaths of Black women and girls are so overlooked in our society that civil rights scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw had to start a social media campaign (#SayHerName) to make sure they weren’t erased. Did your knowledge of this reality factor into your decision to center Black female victims?

Yeah, that was the one thing that I was set on: these are going to be Black victims and there’s going to be a Black heroine at the center of the story. In truth, I did model the crime in this novel after Jack the Ripper, and I’m pretty sure all of his victims were white women — 99.9 percent sure on that one. But I was thinking about how we could kind of put it into a different social context. Changing the race was a huge thing because there are specific ways Black communities will react, and I don’t know if it’s the same for white communities. Having Black people as the stars of the story, whether they’re victims or a heroine, was really important to me.

I’m Black and I’m a huge fan of crime shows and mysteries, but I had to really rack my brain to think, “Has there ever been a Black female victim? Has anyone in those shows ever cared for one?” It’s a real blind spot for the genre.

Yeah! There’s all these shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries which didn’t have one Black person I think in its entire series run, and Murder, She Wrote — which I’ve never seen — but seems very white. I watch all these TV shows and I love the idea of solving crimes in say the 1920s but it’s like, “Can the character be Black?” She can be Black!

I don’t know if you saw it, but I recently watched A Love Song for Latasha, Sophia Nahli Allison’s Oscar-nominated documentary short about the 1991 murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in Los Angeles. She spoke to Slate about it and she said that “people will always blame young Black girls for their outcome.” That felt so true to how Louise and the other Black girls victims are treated in your book. Any thoughts on that quote?

That is so true. I don’t know what it is about society but Black women, and Black girls especially, we do so much, generally speaking, and then it doesn’t matter at all. We get blamed for everything. It’s frustrating and I don’t know how to fix it.

I saw it modeled in Louise’s relationship with her dad. He blames her, even as he profits off of her survival story, he blames her for what happened to her. And it just keeps happening to all the Black girls in the book who fall victim to the Girl Killer. And I wondered if that was a conscious choice you were making.

Not totally conscious, I think, but, yeah, it did happen, didn’t it? This has a sequel, so I’ve been working on that and now that the book’s coming out, I have to sit down and reread it because I don’t think I remember all the stuff that’s in it. [Laughs.] 

Lou’s dad has a very specific way of looking at the world and he definitely blames her for everything that’s happened to her. Everything that happened in his life, basically, is Louise’s fault, which is not fair as Louise is a child. But that’s life, I guess. She really has to navigate her relationship with her dad. Her relationship with her sisters is more important to her. She knows that she can be there for her sisters if her dad isn’t.

And that’s a recurring theme as well, Louise as a kind of protector. She’s called “Harlem’s Hero” after her escape becomes news. I mean, she’s not a superhero, but she’s kind of being asked to be superheroic. It really sets up how big of a burden she has in the book.

Yeah, I think it was really important to showcase what she did and how she’s always like, “Oh, anyone would’ve done the same thing, I did nothing, it was nothing.” She really wants to divorce herself from the idea of being Harlem’s Hero because that’s what society projected on her. I feel like society does that a lot, even now. If there is an incredible young Black woman doing something they’ll say, “Oh, she’s amazing, she’ll save our whole society,” even though that’s not true. She’s just a human who is going to make mistakes. I think Lou really wants room to be a person and to make mistakes without being in the public eye and that does not go well for her, obviously.

This is generic, but I thought I’d ask anyway as a final question. What is it like to plan a murder?

It’s fun! I do love planning — hypothetically, I should say — I do love planning a murder. I just think it’s interesting. How would you kill someone if you could do it? Also there’s so many really violent words that are just really beautiful like “exsanguination,” which is death by blood loss, and “defenestration,” which is throwing people out of a window. There’s so many beautiful violent words. I like to say that I’m a generally pretty nice, pretty positive person, but I do love planning a murder.

Do you ever like a word like “exsanguination” so much you try to work it into a plot point?

I’m definitely gonna. [Laughs.]

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Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including Longreads, New York Magazine, Nylon, and Electric Literature.

 

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