Thursday, August 10, 2006

10 Things You May Not Know About Me

Last night I stumbled on a senatorial debate on television. Interestingly, the debate ended in a "lightning round" in which the candidates could only answer the questions with a simple yes or no. Even more interesting, some of the political questions purposely were too difficult to answer with just a simple yes or no. Most interesting of all, some of the questions were lighthearted attempts to glimpse into the candidates' personalities. For example, they were asked things like, "Is rock music better than rap music?" and "Do you watch soap operas?" I think I learned a lot more about the candidates than I did from this simple exercise than their long, prepared statements on the campaign issues.

Then this morning I rediscovered an interesting email. I had joined an online book club, and the moderator asked me to share ten things about myself that were little known. Now that I've reread them and because I believe in synchronicity, I thought I'd share them with you. :)

1. In the recent past, I’ve done stand-up comedy. I was actually good at it. In fact, I had an opportunity to go pro.

2. I couldn't carry a tune if my life depended on it which is precisely why I feel thoroughly qualified and entitled to say, "She can't sing."

3. When friends and acquaintances visit the Bronx for the first time, I love to take them to Jennifer Lopez's block in Castle Hill so they can see just how NICE the so-called "ghetto" she grew up in really is. By the way, Castle Hill is nowhere near the South Bronx. And the South Bronx is being gentrified as I write.

4. I was almost a teenager when I realized that my mother was not Puerto Rican like my father. She's actually Dominican. At the time of this discovery, I said to myself, "Damn, and here I am making fun of Dominicans when I'm one of 'em." Yes, I was that ignorant as a kid. Thankfully, I have learned and evolved. I am allowed to do that, right?

5. I'm a bona fide leftist. No, I'm not a communist. But on most days of the year, I'm a socialist which contrary to popular belief is not the same thing as being a communist. Don't worry, I don't recruit. And some of my best friends are capitalists.

6. I did once date a Black Republican. To this day, I couldn't tell you if he genuinely held conservative principles or if he was just playing the big-fish-in-a-little-bowl game to realize his political aspirations. In the end the problems in our relationship had nothing to do with contrasting politics.

7. My last major crush was on an Asian man who was much younger than I was. The attraction was mutual, but the timing was horrible. I've moved on.

8. With the exception of tuna, I don't eat seafood. Well, I eat shrimp and calamari, but they must be fried. In other words, they can pass for chicken nuggets. I know... so unLatina of me.

9. I wish I was a b-girl (i.e. I wish I knew how to breakdance.)

10. I'm hypercritical. I have an opinion on everything, and they are usually very strong. However, I don't excuse myself from this. On the contrary, I'm my own worst critic, and nothing anyone can say about me (or that I can say about anyone else for that matter) can ever be harsher than what I tell myself. The difference is that I won't put my self-criticism on display. Now if you ask me what I think about myself or my work, I will be unusually forthcoming and transparent. But you have to ask. So while I'm ready, willing and able to critique someone else's work, I much prefer to kick myself in the privacy of my own home.
Just thought you should know. :)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Divas Contest: Are You a Jackie, Hazel, Lourdes or Irena?

I wanted to take a break from work to launch another contest. This one is a thank you for all of you have read or are now reading Divas Don't Yield. Because this is the first Divas contest, I wanted to make it simple and fun.

The deadline is midnight E.S.T. on Friday, August 25th. The prize is a $25.00 AmEx gift card. That's right. Twenty-five bucks for you to spend as you wish with no hints from me. :) All you have to do is write an answer to one question:

Which of the four main characters -- Jackie, Hazel, Lourdes or Irena -- are you the most like in and how are you like her?

Submit your response in 100 words or less to me at by the deadline to enter. Be sure to write DIVAS in the subject line. I'll choose the best response and announce the winner on Monday, August 28th. What is the best way to get my attention? Tell me a story that illustrates just how much you are like the character you identify with most. I encourage you to post your responses here as well so that others can read and relate. :)

And just so you know, you do not have to be a woman and/or Latina to win this contest. When judging the entries, I won't be looking only at the obvious -- race, class, sexuality, etc. I'm much more interested in reading how you relate to the character's personality, experiences, interests, hopes, fears and beliefs. That means this contest is open to anyone and everyone who has read the book.

Let the fun begin!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Much Ado About Street LIt - Part III*

Many Black people have expressed concern over the saturation of street lit on the market (and, to a lesser extent, erotica.) One notable rant by novelist Nick Chiles was published by the New York Times on January 4, 2006 under the scathing title Their Eyes Were Reading Smut. Chiles speaks for many, and for every person who agrees with him, there is another who adamantly defends street lit. Defenders say it only matters that our people read, we should support our authors regardless of what they write, and the popularity of certain genres is a reflection of what we truly want to read.

These folk are right, and they are not. The truth usually lies between the extremes. We should hold our artists and entertainers accountable for the images they perpetuate because, despite popular belief, they do matter (more on this in Part IV.) However, such accountability should not occur as a wholesale attack on the genre and its authors as if no diversity exists among their talents, intentions and impact.

Censorship can never be the answer, least of all for a people with a history of being silenced. There was a time in this country when Black people were killed for learning how to read and write. Literacy equaled death. The last thing we should ever do in this day and age is emulate the oppressors of our ancestors and deny anyone the powerful gift of the written word.

And allow me to be the first to own up to my own self-interest as an author of commercial fiction. I read literary fiction. I understand literary fiction. I dig literary fiction, and have tremendous admiration and respect for those who write it. I just have no desire to become one of them.

Nor should I have literary aspirations to have a place in the publishing industry. As a human being, I have the right to tell my stories. As a person who belongs to multiples communities misrepresented if not silenced by "isms," I have to tell my stories and find my audience.

Something those who unilaterally dismiss street lit must remember and should honor is that many authors in this genre are literally telling their stories. This particular genre is dominated by Black people who are fictionalizing events that they have actually lived. For some of these authors who have both suffered and perpetuated neglect, abuse and violence, writing their novels has been a path toward healing and redemption as they find their voices. This is particularly true of the women. Whether we like them or not, their stories are our stories, too, if for no other reason than that these authors are our people. Terri Woods is no less one of us than is Terry McMillan so fuck what you heard from Bill Cosby. If we want to enjoy a literary novel about a college-educated wife and mother struggling in the 'burbs because that story speaks to some of us, we have to allow for the popular novel about the single mother who dropped out of high school struggling in the 'hood because that story resonates with others among us. Indeed, the more diverse the stories, the more opportunities we have to discover our commonalities as well as understand our differences.

Nor should we jump to the conclusion that the only reason why street lit novels are so popular is because they tend to be full of explicit sex and gratuitous violence (and in some of the most disturbing titles, both occur in the same scene.) Instead we should ask why gratuitous sex and violence is so appealing, perd. It sure as hell isn't because sex and violence are somehow essential components of the Black aesthetic. On the contrary, exploitative sex and gratuitous violence are key components of the American aesthetic, and we need not look far past the entertainment produced and consumed by Black people for evidence of that. I've said this about hip hop, and I'll say it about street lit; it is neither right nor effective to solely hold one thing accountable for what are undeniably universal problems that predate the existence of that thing.
Does this mean that Black readers should support anything and everything that a Black person produces? Absolutely not. For some reasons that are understandable, and for others that are ludicrous, people of color place each other under tremendous pressure to adopt a herd mentality. We should be allowed our individual tastes and to express our preferences with the expectation that are opinions are informed.

For example, while I am not a fan of the street lit genre, I do make occasional attempts to read it. I already have read at least one work by the most notable writers in the genre, and I do this because rather than dismiss the genre as a whole, I want to identify those who among them actually have writing chops and/or something meaningful to say. But I do the same with romance and horror which are also not my preferred genres.

Granted, I push myself to read outside my preferences because it would be impossible to evolve as an author unless I did. Good writers are broad readers. But even if I were just a person who reads only for entertainment, I would never unilaterally belittle an entire genre that I refused to engage the way author Sharazad Ali seems to have done the entire category of urban fiction. With the act of engagement comes the right to critique. We have the right to not engage any genre we choose, but by doing so we also forgo credibility in our criticisms. I often wonder how many of the relentless critics of street lit have actually ever read a single novel in the genre (or worse, read only just one and concluded that they were all the same.)

If we're going to tug the coattails of Black storytellers, it should be on the grounds of quality, context and diversity. Regardless of the medium or genre, we have both the right and responsibility to demand these three things. With respect to fiction, quality entails a decent command of the elements of character, setting, plot, dialogue, etc. More often than not in fiction, it is context that distinguishes between a character and a stereotype. And just like not everyone who lives in the suburbs is a well-adjusted, law-abiding citizen, not every resident of the "ghetto" is a violent, anti-social nihilist.

Interestingly, this is precisely why my personal affection for crime stories and noir tales has not transferred to street lit. I don't mind at all reading about characters who are in "the game." It so happens that one of favorite novels is Clockers by Richard Price (I adamantly urge you to forget the lousy movie and read this excellent book.) One of the main characters in Clockers is a drug dealer named Strike. Price takes care to humanize Strike, a young African American man who peddles rock in his Jersey housing project. Even though I do not agree with his choices, I understand why Strike makes them. Price's attention to craft is the ultimate difference between perpetuating a racist stereotype and creating a compelling character with whom I can sympathize.

Unfortunately, I feel that the typical street lit novel fails at this because the command of craft is weak, and there is no context to the characters' behaviors. If that proverbial alien visiting Earth were to be gathering intelligence about life on urban streets by reading this genre, he would conclude that all young African American males sell drugs and pimp women simply because that is inherently their nature and that they have no desire or ability to do anything else. Not only is that a very dangerous image to perpetuate, it's a racist lie. Without context that shapes these characters' choices or other young African American male characters who make different choices, what starts as description easily transverses into stereotyping and maybe even results in glorification.

Now some would rush to claim that such depictions are just "keepin' it real." To that I say, the circumstances that lead a person into such a lifestyle and the consequences he endures when he pursues it are no less real, so why not include them in the story as well? The street lit author who treats the ugly aspects of "the game" with as much social and emotional honesty as s/he revels in the visceral details of its material and sensual delights is the exception to the rule. Rather too many of the novels in this genre reflect some of the deepest internalized racism I have seen outside of gangsta rap.

This is the primary reason that street lit is not for me as an author or reader. But for the reasons I outlined above, I could never advocate for its censorship. I do call, however, for the readers of the genre to only support the best authors that it has to offer and for the authors to step up their game to be among the deserving of this support. If a given author proves to be lazy with his or her craft, readers, plunk down your cash for the novelist that will pull out the stops to give you the well-written book to which you are entitled. Buy what you like, but don't settle for mediocrity, and trust me, several authors will rise to the challenge. To borrow an idea from poet and professor Tony Medina, I would advise street lit authors who want to improve their storytelling acumen to forsake Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim for Louise Meriweather or Piri Thomas as their literary role models.

The truth is we should demand quality, context and diversity whether the genre is street lit, romance or thrillers or the medium is books, films or songs. But we as a community are woefully derelict in our collective responsibility to hold anyone in entertainment accountable to these criteria regardless of medium, genre or even race. Because of this, racism within the entertainment media including the publishing industry goes unchecked, and this is why the more we spend, the less we are offered.

* This commentary remains incomplete and will be written in multiple parts. At this time, I anticipate that is the third of a five part series to be completed over the next two weeks. Therefore, please understand that I will not publish your comments or post my replies until the complete piece is finished. Thank you.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The E! Hollywood Story Behind "Divas Don't Yield"

Not! If anything, the story behind my chick lit novel Divas Don't Yield reflects the lip service that Hollywood plays to diversity. To read it, visit Backstory at