Friday, March 30, 2007

Black Artemis Interview with Knowledge Bookstore

This is an excerpt of an interview was conducted by Francis McLean of Knowledge Bookstore and was published online on March 1, 2007.

Black Artemis is the pen name of Sofía Quintero, a writer, activist, educator, speaker and comedienne born into a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx. Determined to write edgy yet intelligent novels for women who love hip hop even when hip hop fails to love them in return, Black Artemis wrote her debut novel Explicit Content. Explicit Content - the first work of fiction about female MCs in the hip hop industry - was published by the New American Library/Penguin in August 2004. Booklist said of the novel, 'Fans of Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) will find this debut novel just as tantalizing.' Her second Black Artemis novel Picture Me Rollin' hit bookstores in June 2005 and brought a fresh twist to the home-from-prison tale, Picture Me Rollin' tells of the story of a young woman whose obsession with Tupac Shakur leads her on quest to find self-love. Amidst the controversy over the popularity of street lit, Black Artemis's novels have been hailed by critics of all stripes - reviewers, educators and readers - for being as intelligent and substantive as they are entertaining and accessible. Her third Black Artemis novel Burn will be published in August 2006. For more information about Black Artemis and her work, visit
Please describe your journey from earning a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University and working for years on a range of policy issues, to becoming a writer of Hip-hop fiction. What was the impetus?
Since I was eight years old, I've written stories, but I think many people of color - especially if their parents are immigrants - do not get the notion that writing is something one can do for a living. The message is usually, 'Get an education, and enter a profession.' And that's what I did, and while I enjoyed my years as a policy analyst and advocate, my passion always remained creative writing. Then I realized that, yes, I can marry my creativity and activism and use storytelling as tool for promoting social justice. That instead of leading this fragmented life, I could find a way to make the work that fed my soul to also pay my rent. I never regret those years doing policy work because those experiences gave me the stories I wanted to tell. My latest novel BURN is very much inspired by the work experiences I've had before I became a full-time novelist.

You are proud to proclaim yourself as a writer of bonafide Hip-hop fiction. Your novels Explicit Content and Picture Me Rollin' clearly show the difference between Hip-hop fiction and urban or street fiction, which is often mislabeled as Hip-hop literature. When you were first seeking a publisher, did the book industry understand this difference?
No, they did not, and largely they still do not although I often I feel like I'm waging a one-woman campaign to reeducate people both in the industry and the community. First, let me clarify the way I see it. There's this large category called urban fiction. Now the industry uses the word 'urban' as a code to mean mostly 'Black' and sometimes also 'Latino,' but we all know that (1) not all Blacks and Latinos live in urban environments, and (2) not all people or phenomena that is urban is Black or Latino. So when I think of 'urban fiction,' I think of anything from what I write to the street lit of authors like Vicki Stringer or Teri Woods to even some titles in the chick lit genre like 'Sex and the City' and 'The Devil Wears Prada.'

Then within urban fiction you have subgenres. The reason why I distinguish between hip hop lit and street lit - although overlaps may exist - is because street lit is frequently about street life, particularly about the underground economy. Hip hop can be - and has been - about much more than that. Not all hip hop is about gangsterism, and if we want to be consistent, not all gangsterism is hip hop. Were Meyer Lansky and John Gotti hip hop heads? No! J Furthermore, there are many people in the hip hop generation and community who do not participate in the underground economy or even aspire to that lifestyle. So as a hip hop activist, it unnerves me when the term 'hip hop' is unilaterally equated with 'gangster.' The occasional overlap is undeniable, but the terms are NOT synonymous. Many socially conscious people - especially young people and their mentors - utilize hip hop as a tool to fight injustice whether it's the expansion of prison industrial complex or the spread of HIV/AIDS. To insinuate that they're not hip hop because they're not gangster is not only dead wrong, it's insulting.

When I dropped my debut 'Explicit Content,' I sent a polite but impassioned email to almost every journalist that wrote an article about the rise of 'hip hop lit' as not a single one discussed hip hop as a culture that predates gangster rap with its roots in the Black Arts Movement of the 60s. Any street lit author will tell you readily and proudly that his or her predecessors are Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. But as an author of hip hop fiction, my predecessors are Richard Wright and Piri Thomas. With the exception of The Black Issues Book Review which published my letter to the editor, no one responded to me. Yet over time I started to notice a difference. I still saw articles about 'street lit' that referred to it as such, and I'd like to think that my tiny gestures had an impact.

Was it difficult to convince publishers of the demand for fiction based on Hip-hop culture?
I can't say it was difficult for me personally to sell my books because on the one hand, publishers generally saw them as part of the street lit genre, but on the other hand, they are well-crafted and tackle deeper themes. And the truth is, while there are many, wonderful nonfiction books about hip hop culture, there are very few novels based on it to this day. The international popularity of hip hop has yet to permeate the literary world, and we can theorize for hours about why that is! With the exception of E-Fierce and Linden Dalecki who both are developing a series of young adult novels, I'm the only other author that I'm aware of who consistently writes hip hop fiction. I know authors who may have written one novel that explore some aspect of hip hop in the story who are reluctant to call themselves hip hop novelists or even that single work a hip hop novel, and their reasons are varied. Speaking for myself, I purposefully developed the Black Artemis brand with the intention of representing hip hop in the world of fiction, and I have no fears about limiting myself as a writer because I also publish in different genres under my real name, and even if I had been 'ghettoized' by the publishing industry, I still would've been a happy novelist writing about this culture that I love even when it disappoints and never fearing that I might run out of tales to tell.

To read the rest of the interview, visit Knowledge Bookstore Online.

No comments: