02 March 2011

The Author and the Teen Reader in Street Lit

An excerpt from my essay, “Hermeneutical Understandings: Urban Teen Readership in Hip Hop Fiction” (2006). Parts are edited for clarity; such as “Hip Hop Fiction” being more accurately described as “Street Lit.”

When we think about the themes and plots of Street Lit, we see stories about a day in the life of the ‘hood where inner-city people are experience daily living struggles, navigate intense personal relationships, maybe participate in illegal activities, and all too often dying at the hands of someone’s gun. Name brand clothing labels, cars, and accessories are detailed in the stories to create a clear picture of what characters are wearing and driving. Amidst the chaos of abuse, violence and hustling, the characters are portrayed as looking very expensive.

When inner-city teens read these themes and plots over and over again, book after book (which they do), such reading ignites the imagination of the reader such that they are able to locate themselves within the context of the stories  (Morris, etal, 2006). Dennis Sumara (1996), a reader response theorist and educator, advises us that when we read, we respond to the text based on the social and cultural context in which the reading occurs.

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Just by the act of reading in and of itself, there is an “indeterminacy filling” (per Sumara), that occurs when the imagination is invoked. The gap between the imagination and reality is filled when we read text, creating heightened thinking by the reader. Thus, when inner-city teens read Street Lit, their imaginations re-create their worlds inside their minds, thus filling the gap between the imagination and their reality.

Just the pure act of reading Street Lit validates the readers’ reality of urban inner-city life, because it connects the fantastical (the sheer trauma of the drama in ghetto life) with narratives that say, “Yes, this exists, yes, this is real.” This validation empowers the reader to be open to negotiating their reading of their worlds, with an entry into critical analysis and evaluation of their environment, the people in it, as well as their own location and interaction within their own world. In Street Lit, it is the streets telling its stories back to the people of the streets.

This is powerful stuff. Street Lit has affected urban teen readers in a significant way because the pure act of reading ignites a magical connection between what was previously viewed (or read) as frivolous entertainment, to a more critical lens of hermeneutical interpretation. Once this bridge has been made, the reader’s worldview broadens and they are then asking harder questions like, “Wut about doze video gurls?” Through a gaining of critical analysis with a slower reading of their lived reality (via fiction), this new skill of critical analysis is now a part of the reading of their worlds.

When an author publishes a text, a contract (if you will) is formed between author and reader where a relationship is formed based on what I call "textual trust." When the reader decides to go past the book cover and the title, their choice to read the book infers that the reader trusts the author. Stories that relate to the reader in some way inspired "textual trust." This trust is hermeneutic-ally invested so that the reader reads through the book.
While this trusting bond may not have been the intent of the writers of Street Lit (after considerable reading and research of this genre, I posit that many authors write to be heard; to claim voice to the reading of their own worlds), this trust is an important caveat for teen readers in particularly, due to the developmental stage of life they are in, and how they process information based on their lifestage of adolescence (Appleyard, 1991).
In a world (the inner-city) where it is hard to have faith in stability or consistency due to the ever impending threat of confusion, chaos, violation and/or physical violence, to be able to trust what one reads within the ignited hermeneutic imagination of the environment of a Street Lit novel can be a significant contributor to enhancing the literacy of inner-city teen readers.
For teens to read narratives that play out the dramas of their everyday lives without them having to suffer real-life repercussions, wounds, or consequences of those dramas serves as a cautionary reconciliation of “yes, this is life in the ‘hood,” and “been there, done that, I don’t have to go out like that.” (Meaning, “I don’t have to end up like that, that doesn’t have to be me.”) Just as contemporary young adult fiction helps teens make sense of their worlds; Street Lit serves the same purpose for teens living in the same settings as those stories.
In any book, the author writes the book to talk to the reader. The reader listens to the author by reading the text. This is not a one-way monologue from the author to the reader; there is a dialogue here. With Street Lit, teens read these books in common, sharing their readings, and the books themselves (Morris, et.al., p. 2006). Eileen Landay (2004) tells us that reading fiction and biographies engages dialogue in three (3) ways: 1) within oneself (the author to him/herself and the reader to him/herself), 2) between the reader and the author, and 3) when text is shared between readers (p. 112).
Image Source: Vanessa Irvin Morris
In all these realms, we see Street Lit as a powerful conduit for readers finding authentic voice within the elements of their lives. The same happened for Hip Hop music, Spoken Word poetry, as well as the dance and art of Hip Hop. Where there was no voice for inner-city youths in mainstream culture, inner-city youths cried, “WE ARE HERE!” and found voice from their own streets to create their own culture.  The same has happened with the continuing proliferation of Street Lit.
Street Lit is a further reading (and re-reading) of inner-city voicelessness, storytelling from the streets into written text, to be re-read and re-told to the imagination, bridging lived/witnessed reality with the reality of the mind, validating the truth of one’s existence. Thus said, Street Lit is necessary for teens who seek the genre because it informs them that they are literate readers of their own worlds, and that they have a voice and place in life's reality. After all, the books are talkin'.


Appleyard, J.A. (1991). Becoming a reader: The experience of fiction from childhood to adulthood. MA: Cambridge University Press.

Landay, E. (2004). Performance as the foundation for a secondary school literacy program: A Bakhtinian perspective. In A.F. Ball and S.W. Freedman (eds.). Bakhtinian perspectives on language, literacy and learning. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Morris, V.J., Hughes Hassell, S., Agosto, D.E., & Cottman, D.T. (2006). Street lit: Flying off teen bookshelves in Philadelphia public libraries. Journal of Young Adult Library Services (YALS) 5(1), 16-23.

Sumara, D.J. (1996). Private readings in public: Schooling the literary imagination. NY: Peter Lang.

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