Black History Month – Interview with Nekesa Afia, Author of Dead Dead Girls; On Writing a Historical Mystery & Centering Queer Black Women

Black History Month - Interview with Nekesa Afia, Author of Dead Dead Girls; On Writing a Historical Mystery & Centering Queer Black Women

One of my favourite things about historical fiction is that I get pulled into a world close to what someone in the past lived through. Though I don’t depend on historical fiction to educate me, it is also a pretty cool opportunity to learn about periods in time that existed and shaped lives and history, and to also get a perspective into the past and how it led to society today. Books like Homegoing, that explore Black and African-American history are phenomenal, and I always want more.

We know that I adore historical fiction, but I have never considered myself a mystery fan. However, when I read the blurb for Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia, I stopped myself: but what if I haven’t given it a chance? Cue Dead Dead Girls, with its intriguing hook and about a young queer Black woman solving mysteries set in the Prohibition Era? Sign me up immediately, because this book sounds absolutely phenomenal and I cannot wait to read it.

I have such an exciting author interview with Nekesa to share with you all today. I love all the interviews that I do with authors, but I especially love this one. I was excited for Dead Dead Girls before, but I think after reading this interview, my excitement grew tenfold. I hope that you’ll love this interview as well.

Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

The start of an exciting new historical mystery series set in 1920s Harlem featuring Louise Lloyd, a young black woman caught up in a series of murders way too close to home…

Harlem, 1926. Young black girls like Louise Lloyd are ending up dead.

Following a harrowing kidnapping ordeal when she was in her teens, Louise is doing everything she can to maintain a normal life. She’s succeeding, too. She spends her days working at Maggie’s Café and her nights at the Zodiac, Manhattan’s hottest speakeasy. Louise’s friends might say she’s running from her past and the notoriety that still stalks her, but don’t tell her that.

When a girl turns up dead in front of the café, Louise is forced to confront something she’s been trying to ignore–several local black girls have been murdered over the past few weeks. After an altercation with a local police officer gets her arrested, Louise is given an ultimatum: She can either help solve the case or let a judge make an example of her.

Louise has no choice but to take the case and soon finds herself toe-to-toe with a murderous mastermind. She’ll have to tackle her own fears and the prejudices of New York City society if she wants to catch a killer and save her own life in the process.

Find this book on:
Goodreads | IndieBoundBlackwellsBookshop | Penguin Random House

Author Interview with Nekesa Afia

CW: Hi Nekesa! A warm welcome to the Pond – it’s so wonderful to have you visiting us today for Black History Month! For our friends out there who might be only meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Nekesa: Hi! I’m so glad to be here. I’m Canadian, I’m a millennial and Dead Dead Girls is my debut novel. Aside from writing, I’m an avid sewist, and I’ve been making my own clothes for four years now. I also swing dance, or used to before a pandemic. I’m always trying to keep myself busy and trying to learn or do something. I’m clearly a history fan; my favourite eras are the 1920s and the 1950s.  

CW: I was so delighted to learn about your book, Dead Dead Girls, which is an adult historical mystery about a Black woman who gets caught up in a series of murders. This book sounds so awesome – can you tell us a little bit more about it and what you’re most excited for readers to discover in your book?

Nekesa: I’m excited for readers to explore another version of the prohibition era.  It’s typical to look at this era with rose coloured glasses, and think that it was all Gatsby parties and raging til dawn. And while that’s mostly true, there was still major injustice. Louise Lloyd, the protagonist, is just a woman trying to find her way in the world, and with that, I think her story still resonates and is quite modern. 

CW: I know that you worked really hard on Dead Dead Girls – which makes me even more excited to read it when it comes out in June 2021! What sort of research did you do for Dead Dead Girls, and how can we expect the historical setting – 1920’s Harlem – to shape the protagonist, Louise’s, story?

Nekesa: I always say that I could have written this story in the 2020s, and the only thing that would have changed was the fashion. I’m a huge Historical Fiction person, and part of my longing to write a period piece was to see myself as the main character and not the side character, villain, or victim, if we even exist at all. Part of writing in an era that you don’t live in is accepting the fact that you’ll never be able to get all of the details correct. It’s impossible. For me, it was a lot of reading, and a lot of scouring the internet for extant garments and patterns for clothes. I’m also lucky to have brilliant siblings who don’t mind being asked weird questions.  

CW: I love that Dead Dead Girls is a queer historical mystery. Often history is told in heteronormative ways, so I love that Louise is, as you describe, is a ‘tiny, tired lesbian’. What does writing queer characters mean to you?

Nekesa: That description was supposed to be a joke, but there is a lot of truth in it. I tried to write someone like myself. I wanted to see myself in pages of a book. That was my main goal. Writing characters who are unapologetically themselves in every way possible was what I wanted to do. Another major component to queer stories is that there is an element of shame or disgust, and I wanted a character who was proud of herself. The 1920s was not a great time for LGBTQ+ people, or Black people, or anyone who wasn’t a straight white Christian man. But making someone up who has come to terms with herself and has accepted who she is, really helped me love myself.

CW: As my co-blogger best put it in her interview last year with mystery author Naomi Hirahara, race in mystery novels featuring characters of colour often add another layer to the story, because of the complicated relationship people of colour, especially Black people, have with the legal system. In the blurb for Dead Dead Girls, it sounds like this complicated relationship is explored, especially when Louise is given a choice to either help them solve the case or be prosecuted. How does Dead Dead Girls, as a mystery novel, interrogate the justice system and the injustices that Black women face?

Nekesa: This is a really, really good question. The thing about Dead Dead Girls is that Louise is put into an impossible situation. No spoilers, but her reason for arrest is minor, and the ultimatum she’s given is a little ridiculous. But she is in a position that’s very different from the white men who are investigating this case. She’s a Harlem native. She’s able to go to clubs and get the respect of the girls. She’s clever, scrappy, and street smart. She’s the police scapegoat and she realizes that. 

Louise only takes the case because she doesn’t want to go to jail. That’s it. It’s self preservation.  But she finds that her position is unique. Louise is the person who cares about these girls, wants to solve the murders and is the one standing up for lives that the police are indifferent about.  

I put her between a rock and a hard place, and she will thrive through the novel.

CW: Mystery novels sound so complex to write, and I take my hat off to anyone who writes mystery stories! What was your biggest challenge while writing the mystery aspect of Dead Dead Girls? And what are you most proud of?

Nekesa: I was coming off of writing a romance novel when I started writing the project that would be Dead Dead Girls. The hardest thing was patience. With mysteries, you have to reveal the right information at the right time, and not jumping the gun, so to speak, was so hard.  

I’m proud that I managed to write something complex that I’m proud of. I was always a fan of mysteries and writing one felt like the biggest mountain to climb. Within the story, I’m so happy with the fact that I managed to create characters that readers love, and that I gave new life to a distant decade.

CW: I cannot wait to read Dead Dead Girls! What are you working on next? 

Nekesa: Dead Dead Girls has a sequel coming out in 2022! That’s what I’ve been focusing on. I’ve been exploring different aspects in Louise’s world for this one, and I’m very excited about it.

CW: And my last question is one that I like to ask all of our friends! What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?

Nekesa: Macaroni and cheese! It’s my favourite comfort food. I usually try to make it myself, but there’s a place near me that makes it perfectly with pulled chicken on top and it is the perfect way to pull myself out of a bad mood.

About the Author

Twenty-four-year-old Nekesa Afia just finished her undergrad degree (bachelor’s in journalism, with a minor in English) and is a publishing student. When she isn’t writing, she’s dancing, sewing, and trying to pet every dog she sees. She’s been writing since she was a child and this is her debut novel.

Find Nekesa on: Website | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Newsletter


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