Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Sisterly Letter to a Street Lit Author

The following is an actual response to astreet lit author who sent me a friend request on MySpace. Because I have yet to receive her response, I chose not to reveal her identity. If she does respond to me and gives me permission to give her name, I will do so.

Peace, sister,

First, apologies for taking so long to add you to my network. You probably haven't noticed anyway because you're quite popular, LOL! Anyway, now that I have honored your request, I felt compelled to be honest about what took me so long.

For quite some time, I've had quite strong and often conflicting feelings toward street lit. I've written and talked about it extensively, mostly about my issues with it. As a hip hop activist, my primary issue has been with street lit being synomously referred to as "hip hop fiction" when I felt that it rarely had anything to do with the subculture I love so much and even perpetuated the kind of thinking and behavior that I use hip hop to resist. There are other things, but that was and continues to be my biggest problem.

So when you sent me the friend request, I hesitated. On the one hand, I appreciated your reaching out to me. I don't know you, but I found myself assuming that you -- another Black woman writing urban fiction -- was genuinely extending your hand in friendship. It truly never crossed my mind that you were just reaching out to me just to increase your network even though it may be just as simple as that. And that thought -- and the fact that the positive interpretation came to me first -- made me feel good.

But then I wondered if honoring the request would make me a hypocrite. Should I add her and let her find out where I stand on the genre she writes, and let the chips fall where they may? Or should I deny the request without any explanation? Or do I deny the request AND explain when I have not yet read any of her books to know if she is one of the genre's truly talented writers?
See, despite all my issues with street lit as a genre, I have always said that the authors deserve to tell their stories because no one should be censored or silenced, but that readers should demand excellence from them. "If you're going to read it," I always say, "then identify the best writers in the genre and support them. Don't put your money behind any and all mediocre authors who don't think enough of you to tighten their craft." I say this about every genre and every medium in popular entertainment -- books, television, music, film.
Then I realized the reason why I hesitated to accept your friend request was because I haven't walked my own talk about this. That is, I haven't made much of an effort to read street lit in order to find out who is the genre's leading talents so I can champion them. I know that you're one of the genres most popular and successful authors, but I have yet to read any of your titles, and it's certainly not because I have so little time. That is true, but we make time for the things that matter to us, and I haven't made the time to read street lit because of my problems with it.
And this has been true even though I know that at the core issue of the controversy surrounding street lit, or the debate over whether a bookstore should segregate Black books or the arguments about what makes a book Black anyway and why and/or should it matter, is the fact that we are battling each other for opportunity in an industry where very few of us have the power to make our stories -- whether they take place in a housing project, on a university campus or at summer home in Martha's Vineyard -- grace the page and make it into the hands of readers.

These days I have been reflecting a lot on the nastiness aimed at authors for no other reason than that they write in a particular genre, the assumptions that are made about a person's moral character, intelligence, politics, etc. simply because they write for the masses instead of the elite. I definitely have been and will continue to be a victim of it. I don't want to be a perpetrator either, but some degree I have been. Now I won't back down from forging my critiques of what is problematic, but I realize that I, too, have to be much more conscientious about finding what is promising. I have to make a greater effort to befriend authors in this genre and get to know them as people beyond what they write. I have to engage them in honest yet civil debate and be willing to ask as well as answer some hard questions.
So with that revelation, I accept your friend request, will find a copy of one of your novels and actually read it. In fact, I will find and read it even if you're offended by criticism of street lit and choose to delete me from your network after all.
And if you knew about my issues with your genre and decided to send me this friend request anyway, well, I thank you for being a bigger woman than I.
Sofia aka Black Artemis

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