04 July 2010

Fairytale Grit

These past couple of days, two signs came to me that inspired this post: (1) an email from author friend, Zetta Elliott, pointing me to a radio interview segment from on the media, about urban fiction, and (2) a link sent to me via my best friend, Jeff Bullard, about fairy tales being originally inspired by and written for urban dwellers centuries ago. Zetta and Jeff reminded me of a piece I wrote 3 years ago (and am in the process of re-reading and updating) entitled, Inner City Teens DO Read, which I presented as a paper at a conference at the University of Birmingham (UK), in August, 2007. I am posting the introduction to the piece, below:


Excerpt from "Inner City Teens DO Read" by Vanessa Irvin Morris (2007):

Every society has a dominant narrative that chronicles the lives of its citizens. As far back as the work of the Grimm Brothers’ recordings of German folk tales, stories have been regarded as “reflections of the popular mind”. [1] We hold folklore within our collective consciousnesses, with stories such as The Frog Prince, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel, representative of fictionalized reflections of “the emotions, dreams and desires of every human being."[2] As communities live through history, new stories, perhaps “necessary fictions” of our contemporary worlds are told in various mediums—cinema, television, newspapers, music, art, and literature.[3] It is part of the human condition for us to feel connected to stories, especially to stories that we can relate to.[4] Stories that convey characters, settings, and experiences that represent how we look, sound, and feel, reveal truths about both the young and the old.[5] Our narratives validate our humanity.

In America, with its various class structures and ethnic subcultures, different groups maintain their own fictions, mythologies, legends, and folklores. These narratives reflect the daily lives of urban poor communities in sometimes fantastical yet perhaps relational and cautionary ways.[6] Currently there is a vibrant genre of narratives being published within the African American community that goes by several names: some call it ‘street/urban fiction,’ others call it ‘street lit,’ or ‘hip hop fiction.’ The novels being produced within this genre chronicle the daily lives of poor and working-poor Blacks and Latinos living in America’s inner-city enclaves. This literary sub-genre speaks from a collective memory of surviving the ghetto streets, of life and death in ‘da ‘hood.’[7] Such stories depict characters that experience unpredictable and all-too-often violent lifestyles as a result of choices made due to a lack of education and under- or non-employment. These street fiction novels not only illustrate the dramatic impact of living as a marginalized American, but the stories also communicate the gendered paradigms of womanhood and manhood, as characters try to make sense of the intense relationships illustrated within their fictionalized world.[8]

Outsiders to inner-city American life often struggle to accept that these fictionalized depictions of life in da ‘hood could closely parallel the realities that many Americans face; however my fieldwork in teen readership of this genre confirms that street fiction is largely based in a world that the readers recognize as real. A street fiction book club reader, or ‘clubber’, Angie[9] (age 16) stated: “It’s reality for me.” Another clubber, Tanya, (age 18), said: “It’s all life; non-fiction, fiction. It’s life.” [10] With American street fiction novels typically set in major metropolitan areas such as New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, teen readers often see themselves or someone they know (a friend or relative) within a narrative, and such recognition empowers them to make sense of their own lives.[11] Indeed, as Lily Owens wrote in The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales (Gramercy Books, 1981) of the Grimm Brother fairy tales, characters in oral fictions and folktales based on a parallel reality allow us to further understand the real:

“… however high or low, exaggerated or outlandish, the emotions and experiences of fairy-tale characters have their real-life counterparts … [we are] recognizing our world in theirs”.[12]

This paper is intended to show how young urban readers of street fiction read this genre in order to validate their own existence. There is a connection between the worlds depicted in street fiction novels and the worlds that inner-city teens navigate on a daily basis. Inner-city teens experience unique obstacles within their communities. Because teens are navigating these obstacles at the most intense developmental stage of their lives (adolescence), how they perceive their worlds is all the more intense and amplified.[13] In order to map the connection between the worlds of street fiction and real life ghetto worlds of its audience, it is necessary to place ourselves into the shoes of the reader, so that we may comprehend their localized narratives.[14] This is not an easy or attractive option as scholars studying today’s American inner-city often must accept the same raw and graphic conditions as the environments described in street fiction novels. However, such confrontation with the truth is necessary in order to document why teenagers living in such communities gravitate so heavily towards stories that parallel their experiences, rather than escaping into the polar-realities of other forms of literature.

This paper will also apply literary response theories to street fiction to illustrate how teen readers move beyond this genre to a heightened sense of literacy—one that allows them to employ a more refined reading and more enhanced critical literacy of their own lived worlds. Because the ghetto/inner-city is their primary world, I contend that even before they reach their teenaged years, most inner-city children are profoundly aware of their environments. Having worked with teens on a daily basis for nearly a decade, I have seen how street fiction aides in their overall comprehension of their surroundings. These ‘hip hop generationers’ have learned to combine both street literature and music to empower themselves. Looking at life critically in order to “know what’s going on” is key to their survival and street fiction plays an important role in not only heightening their resistances to the unsavoury people and locations surrounding them, but it also strengthens their resiliencies, allowing them to carve out a sober space within their neighbourhoods.

[1] Lily Owens, ed., The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, Gramercy Books, 1981, pg. xiv.
[2] Ibid. 
[3] Michelle Citron, Home Movies and other Necessary Fictions, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
[4] Owens, pg. xiv.
[5] Citron, 1999, pg. 139; Nathan Ausubel, ed., A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, Crown, 1948, pg. xviii.
[6] Michelle Fine and Lois Weis, The unknown city: The lives of poor and working-class young adults, Beacon Press, 1998; Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner-city, W.W. Norton & Co., 1999; Bonnie J. Ross Leadbeater & Niobe Way, Urban girls revisited: Building strength, New York University Press, 2007.
[7] Francois-Xavier Lavenne, Virginie Renard, and Francois Tollet, “Fiction, between inner life and
collective memory: A methodological reflection," New Arcadia Review, volume 3, 2005.
[8] Vanessa J. Morris, Denise E. Agosto, Sandra Hughes-Hassell, and Darren T. Cottman, “Street lit: Flying off teen bookshelves in Philadelphia public libraries,” Journal of Young Adult Library Services (YALS) 5, 1
(Fall 2006): 16-23.
[9] Note: All book clubbers’ names throughout the paper are pseudonyms.
[10] Book club field notes, 11 March 2005; 21 April 2007; 16 August 2007.
[11] Morris, et al, 2006.
[12] Owens, pg. xiv.
[13] Anderson, 1999; George Dimitriadis, Friendship, cliques, and gangs: Young black men coming of age in urban America, Teachers College Press, 2003.
[14] Dennis Sumara, Private readings in public: Schooling the literary imagination, Peter Lang, 1996; David Barton and Mary Hamilton, Local Literacies: Reading and writing in one community, Routledge, 1998.

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