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. 

02 October 2012

New Reads: For Your Fall Collection

This article focuses on women authors telling women's stories in the hood. These titles will make nice additions to your fall collection for urban literature / street lit.


Miller, Karen Quinones. An Angry-Ass Black Woman. Gallery Books/Karen Hunter Publishing. NY, NY, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-451607826 | 288 pages | Paperback | $15.00 USD




Annotation (from back cover): This sassy, shocking autobiographical novel captures the racial tensions, the hardships, and the bonds that formed between families and neighbors growing up poor in Harlem.

Review: Karen Quinones Miller gives us an inside view of what it was like to grow up poor in Harlem, NY, during the 1960s and 1970s and emerge into womanhood with a rare courageousness for overcoming some dark adversities. Miller's story chronicles the hardships she experienced to pull herself up and out of poverty to become a renowned author.  The protagonist tells her story in a series of flashbacks captured as memories of a comatose Karen lying in a hospital bed. Immobilized, Karen's memory soars as she vividly recounts days growing up poor, and how that poverty affected herself and her siblings. From drug addiction and drug dealing to incest, rape, mental illness, and domestic violence, the protagonist Karen has seen it all, and thus has every reason to be an angry-assed black woman. Reminiscent of the classic Manchild in the Promised Land, Miller's story will appeal to young adult and adult readers who can relate to the harsh experiences that Karen was able to overcome. Highly recommended for all public library collections.

McGill, C. HBIC: Head Bitch in Charge - A Series. Synergy Publications. Brooklyn, NY, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-975298091 | 256 pages | Paperback | $14.95 USD


Annotation (from back cover): Take a walk in the shoes of Elle Mitchell. She came up in the church but quickly became fascinated with the underworld. The youngest sister of three, Elle has something to prove. Street smart and book smart, she will stop at nothing to get rich quick. Determined, Elle sets out to be the Head Bitch In Charge. 

Review: Caroline McGill is author of the popular tale, A Dollar Outta Fifteen Cent" (2004). In this first volume of her new series, HBIC, Elle is an ambitious young woman who grew up in the church, but forms a drug crew of herself, her sister Twyla, and their cousin, Needra, to make it big in the world. The three girls made a fearsome trio of drug dealers better known as HBIC. The group is determined to rule the streets and own their profit. However, they run into some ruthless competition, from the demonic Chelsea who enjoys torturing women, to their own cousin, Olan, who they eventually must leave behind. Laced with some violence and graphic sex scenes, HBIC, is a well-written and crafted novel that will gain the attention of adult readers of the genre. Recommended for adult collections in public libraries.

Todd, Cori. THE RED IN HER EYES. XLibris Corporation. 2011. ISBN: 978-1-465357175 | 210 pages | Paperback | $17.99 USD


Annotation (from back cover): All it took was one pleasure-filled dream to get Trystan's fantasies twisted around the man who once stood as the center of her life and the man of her dreams, Trey Armstrong. Now that he has resurfaced, she can't seem to shake the feeling that something just isn't right ... a feeling that only Trey can explain.

Review: This is a love story about college sweethearts, Trystan and Trey, who try to reunite years later when they have grown to become different people in a different place and time. The author,  Cori Todd, frames this novel around R&B love songs. Each chapter is themed with a different song that helps to shape the context of the story as it unfolds. For example, chapter 32 is entitled "How Do I Breathe?" a song by the R&B singer, Mario. Todd's use of familiar music titles is an effective device that entices the reader to create background music in their mind as they read each chapter of the book. This technique makes reading the story more engaging and helps to keep the reader aware that they are in another world, a dream world, a fictional world of story. Older teens and adults will enjoy the passionate love story that is full of ups, downs, and turn-arounds. Recommended for older teens and adults in the urban literature collection; could also fit for the romance genre.