Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Much Ado About Street Lit - Part I

Just what does hip hop novelist Black Artemis think of street lit?

As often as I have shared my views on the topic of street lit in online discussions, media literacy workshops, speaking engagements and interviews, I just realized that I never fully expressed them in writing in one cohesive piece. Perhaps this was for the best. While I still hold fast to the same political convictions I had when I first dropped Explicit Content in August 2004, my thinking on the subject has grown more complicated and compassionate over time, and that needed to happen. This is, I hope, a reflection of my maturation as both a political animal and a spiritual being.

Although my concerns for the state of Black literature remain the same, I believe I am better able to strike the balance between being my authentic self and allowing others to be who they are. When Explicit Content first hit bookstores, I waged what felt like a one-woman campaign to educate journalists covering the explosion of novels like Imagine This, True to the Game and B-More Careful as to why they should not refer to genre as hip hop lit. I still feel that novels about street life should not be called hip hop lit.

However, after some time I eventually checked myself and stopped unilaterally referring to novels about street life as gangsta lit. I just recognized the inherent value judgment loaded in the word gangsta. At best, it was elitist and unfair. At worst, it was downright racist. After all, some of this fiction is based on the lives of its authors, and not all of them write to boast about their criminal exploits. For some of them especially the sisters telling their stories was a way to find redemption, take responsibility and start healing.

Some of what follows I have written in other places. For example, some of these words were first posted as messages on the Readincolor listserv or written in the context of an email interview. Culling my thoughts from these difference sources allowed me to do something other than save time as valuable as that is. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on how my views on street lit have changed (or not) and to identify the reasons for that. Most importantly, it showed me what I also I needed to say at this point because one cannot have a meaningful discussion about Black literature without addressing other issues. At least, I cant. Or wont. A discussion about street lit, for example, that doesnt involve an analysis of race in the publishing industry is incomplete and useless.

Let me start where I always do -- with definitions. Granted, these are my definitions. Some people agree with me, and others do not. I believe definitions are important for both understanding one another as well as demystifying power dynamics. I'm not going to front. Yes, I hope people will read how I use certain terms and choose to co-sign on my definitions because I believe them to be considered and informed. And I don't mind if someone challenges my definitions by raising something important that I failed to consider when forming them. That's good shit. That's the point of dialogue. That's how we build unity among diversity and grow as a people together. But at the minimum, I offer my definitions just so you can understand my position. You may use the terms differently and even disagree with my ultimate conclusions, but at least we will both know that our contrasting opinions are not based on misunderstanding.

When I use the term urban fiction, I refer to something much broader than the way the folks at Barnes & Noble, too. For major booksellers as well as other players in the publishing industry (and for that matter other fields of arts, culture and entertainment), the word urban is code for Black (and increasingly Latino, too.) It only takes a second to realize how incorrect that terminology is. Not every Black or Latino person lives in an urban environment. Nor are all people who live and/or work in major cities are Black or Latino. Most of the bestselling titles in the chick lit genre are set in major cities -- Sex in the City, The Nanny Diaries, and The Devil Wears Prada to name only a few were -- yet were about White female characters and written by White female authors. But if I wrote a commercial novel about a Latina growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas who aspired to become a pop singer, you can bet that the folks at Barnes & Noble would toss that onto a table with fifty other titles under a yellow sign that reads Urban Fiction.

A brief aside. Some of you may be asking yourself whats the point of adopting definitions that run counter to popular use? My answer is simple. If the popular use is wrong, we should exercise the power to correct it. We give away a tremendous source of power when we allow other people to define us. We should always choose to self-determine starting with the simple yet powerful act of choosing how we identify ourselves or define the things that impact our lives. If we never did this, people would still be referring to us a coloreds and negros (and with no caps.)

So there's this broad genre called urban fiction that can include anything from a chick lit novel like The Devil Wears Prada to any of my Black Artemis novels to most of the novels sold by the street vendors on 125th Street in Harlem. Many of these novels can encompass multiple genres. Let's use the work of Zane as an example. Many of her titles classify as urban fiction, but clearly they can also be categorized as erotica, too.

The subject of this commentary is the genre street lit. The overwhelming majority of street lit can be classified as urban fiction because virtually all of it is set in a major city. Can someone pen a street lit novel set in rural Kansas? Well, if I can conceive it, someone can achieve it (and I know there's more than one of you out there reading this right now thinking hmmmmm. . . . . Knock yourself out 'cause I'm not gonna do it. Just give me a shout out in the acknowledgments.)

What do I mean when I refer to street lit? I refer to a novel that is set in the underground economy. At least, that's what I call it as many intellectuals and/or activists do. Different people call it different things, and even the same person may call it different things at different times. You may refer to it as the game. Street life. Crime.

And this is why I always have and continue to insist that we not refer to this genre as hip hop lit.

* This commentary remains incomplete and will be written in multiple parts. At this time, I anticipate that there may be three to five segments in total over the next week or so. Therefore, please understand that I will not publish your comments or post my replies until the complete piece is finished. Thank you.

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