The Calgary Academy Learning Commons is a magical place with books lining the walls, where if you sit down with the right books, you can read powerful stories written by an alum who stood in the same building years ago.
Dead Dead Girls and Harlem Sunset are two novels written by CA alum Nekesa Afia (’12). Known as the Harlem Renaissance Mysteries series, these novels follow protagonist Louise Lloyd in the 1920s as she helps solve murders in her local community.
Nekesa spent five years at Calgary Academy, where she honed her passion for writing, made countless memories, and learned lessons she still follows today.
The Beginnings of an Author
Nekesa wouldn’t say CA made her a writer, but the school certainly fostered her interests. Writing filled the gaps in the school day between and often during classes. She remembers drafting one-act plays in drama class (and performing in school musicals like The Lion King) and quickly writing down notes during class to capture new ideas in her head. She would sit in her classes thinking, “I have to write this down.”
After graduating, she pursued a degree in journalism at the Toronto Metropolitan University (then Ryerson University), where the diligent notetaking and study habits she learned at CA helped her thrive. After completing her degree in 2017, she pursued a certificate in publishing, fully intending to become an editor and work in children’s literature. Little did she know she would have a book deal by that summer.
Reflecting on her time at CA, Nekesa remembers how impactful the REACH principles (respect, enthusiasm, altruism, commitment, and honesty) have been in her life and career—she tries to exemplify them whenever possible. Commitment has been at the top of her mind as an author of multiple books.
“The REACH principles are the most important thing I took from Calgary Academy. I’m in my 20s and will still think, ‘let’s commit to this.’ Once I start something, I have to finish it, no matter what.” – Nekesa
Bringing 1920s Mysteries to Life
While Nekesa now has multiple published books, the experience of her first still feels like a dream. She remembers rewriting the novel countless times until a friend convinced her to focus on pitching to publishers instead, committing to receive as many rejections as necessary until her idea was accepted. While rejections were inevitable, she received a book deal a few months later.
After many submissions to agents and working with her publishing house on edits and proofreading, Dead Dead Girls hit the shelves in 2021.
While Nekesa’s books are captivating and loved, she never saw herself writing mysteries. The idea for Dead Dead Girls first came to life in one of her university history classes focused on 1800s London and New York. What started as a thought of “what if Jack the Ripper was in the 1920s” became multiple novels.
“It was so crazy that I wrote this book thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can write,’ and people saw the potential in my work. It’ll always feel so surreal.” – Nekesa
After many glowing reviews (including from the New York Times), Nekesa wrote the second book in her mystery series, Harlem Sunset. Looking back, she didn’t believe she would be where she is in her career now if not for her persistence—one of her biggest challenges was pushing through to her goal despite her worries.
“Learning to write was hard, but getting over that fear was everything… Learning to ignore reviews helped too.”
Nekesa encourages anyone interested in literature to read as much as possible from different authors. The more experiences someone has, the sooner they’ll find what inspires them. When writing, she believes everyone should write for themselves first—everything else will follow.
“I think that’s most important—writing genuine and authentic things. The ideas someone truly wants to explore.”
You can find Dead Dead Girls and Harlem Sunset at local bookstores or visit Nekesa’s Amazon store. Her next mystery, A Lethal Lady, releases on July 30, her third novel in the Harlem Renaissance Mysteries series.