09 October 2012

Clarifying Street Lit (Again?)

Photo Credit: Vanessa Irvin Morris, 2012.
Greetings. I have been a bit quiet with blogging about street lit for the past few months because I been thinking about my evolving stance on the genre. To me, it seems that street lit is changing, and this is not a bad thing. Many authors are evolving into offering their stories as eBooks and have been very successful with this approach. I really like how authors offer chapters at a time in electronic format for their readers to read and give feedback. I feel that the major strength of street lit is its ongoing dialogue between authors and readers. I see major authors in constant communication with their readers via social media; asking questions about what readers want to see in their books, fielding questions that readers ask, even hosting online book talks, readings, and book clubs. Make no mistake about it; street lit has a very loyal reader base and these readers are prolifically sophisticated in their approach to the genre.

However, I do feel that I need to offer some clarification on what I believe street lit is and what it is not. As the contemporary iteration of the genre is entering its 14th year in 2013, I believe street lit has outgrown some things, but at the same time, it has not become "everything". Let me explain.

In my book, The Readers' Advisory Guide to Street Literature (ALA Editions, 2011) I define the genre as being location-specific ... stories specifically set in lower income urban settings. I still believe this to be true. However, I now believe there is an added element to this definition: the element of risk. The reason risk is an important consideration for street lit is because every urban story ain't street lit, but every street lit story IS decidedly urban. Essentially, street lit stories are urban stories that communicate a level of ill: illegality, illicitness, ill-will, and/or immorality.

In other words, these narratives illustrate characters who risk being subversively productive in an underground society in order to create productivity for themselves, by any means necessary. To me, this means that there are some events, activities, behaviors, and social codes that are specific and unique to hood living. The pimp's story lives in street lit, the prostitute's story lives in street lit. Additionally, strippers, drug dealers, drug addicts, street urchins (children who live on the streets), urban gangs, and even the homeless - their stories are decidedly street lit stories, because it's about people literally living (and sometimes thriving) on the streets.

These kinds of stories convey how human beings risk their safety, sanity, morality, and often their very lives, in a quest to conquer the streets. Indeed, in my book I also talk about "the street" as an antagonistic character that has life and pulsation that drives behaviors and events. I see the street as a stage upon which people act out their inner and outer battles to survive the streets, which means that to survive, there is rarely time or room for redemption or for crime to even pay off. That - to me - is what defines street lit as a uniquely and specifically defined literary genre: street living that survives and perhaps overcomes poverty in drastically raw ways.

This means that human stories that can be transferred across the boundaries of space, time, access, culture, and/or socio-economics, are not necessarily nor automatically street lit. These kinds of stories include unfortunate realities that humanity contends with regardless of socio-economic status, culture, or geographic location. Bad relationships, domestic violence, various crimes, prison experiences, and overcoming the odds happen everywhere, not just in low income urban neighborhoods. Although in street lit, we do see how poverty can fuel survivalist behaviors.

I do not believe that street lit narratives are necessarily rags to riches stories. I do not believe that street lit is necessarily redemptive (in fact, I groaned when some street lit authors succumbed to industry pressure to clean up the stories). I do not believe that street lit is necessarily Black, African American, or Latino stories. I've said it once and I'll say it again: EVERYBODY is in the hood. EV-VER-REE-BOD-DEE. And everybody who's doing street shit in the hood are people coming from all over the world.

I do believe that street lit gives us an angle to street living that we may not have considered before. Street lit can teach readers about everyday realities that we didn't know before when connections are made between what's happening on the streets and what's happening in the broader world. Street Lit holds a tremendous power for illuminating the universal law of "as above, so below." In the tradition of Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, and Chester Himes, contemporary authors like Ashley & JaQuavis, K'wan, Treasure E. Blue, Wahida Clark, Kiki Swinson, and Teri Woods consistently bring us stories that do this.

Street Lit is not just about bitches and hoes, niggas and OGs. If you see street lit like that, then you are looking at it myopically. Sharpen your focus and peer closer. Street Lit is about the stories behind the stories about bitches and hoes, niggas and OGs. Street Lit reminds us that bitches and hoes, niggas and OGs are PEOPLE who were once babies, and have mothers and fathers, and reasons for why they live the way they live.

Let's not box every woman who's angry into street lit; yes, there's angry women in the hood, but there's angry women all over the planet, and for good reason. Let's not box every man who is an OG into street lit. The biggest OGs in the world right now are in Mexico and they are doing some serious street shit. So it's not just about poor black people in the hood acting out their poverty-ridden frustrations. Street Lit is more nuanced and complicated than that; street lit involves deep and oftentimes dark lifestyles that carry unusually high levels of risk in order to live out a capitalistic need, desire, goal or dream (i.e. making money).

In sum, what I am saying is that street lit doesn't need to be cleaned up, moralized, nor editorially grade A approved in order to be considered an acceptable literary genre; at least not in my book. I really want educators and other stakeholders in this genre to accept the genre as it is, as it's always been: a no holds barred, raw, gritty, fuck-you-it-you-can't-take-a-joke genre that keeps it real about the risky realities out here in these streets. That's how street stories have always been and will continue to be, until ... well: until.

And these stories have a place on our bookshelves and in our libraries. They have a place in students' backpacks and back pockets. They have a place in literary tradition that includes stories of lumpen-proletariat from all cultural locations, all over the world. We must deal with street lit as it is and stop trying to make it something "packaged", something "acceptable", or something "palatable" for mainstream sensitivities. That's the whole point of street lit, it is not easily packaged, it is not easily acceptable, and it is not easily palatable for mainstream sensitivities. With street lit's sheer oppositional stance as mainstream's polar reflection, the genre in effect, boldly tells mainstream society's story too, by showing what mainstream society is ... on the other side of itself. 

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