Tuesday, February 19, 2008

EFRAIN'S SECRET - Another Excerpt from My Young Adult Novel in Progress

I'm grinding away at the first draft of this manuscript, and I have to admit, a sista's tired. The closer I get to the end, the harder it is to finish, it seems. I'm that into and yet I think I need to rest my mind. I thought maybe if I shared a little bit more of it, it'd help me to return to the page. This scene takes place after Efrain's parents discover what he's been doing when he's supposed to be working a cash register at Jimmy Jazz.

I treat myself to that hot shower, washing away the blood, the snot, the dirt, the street, the jail. But even though I lather twice and even wash my hair, I just can't strip the weight of what has happened. And not even holy water could dispel what is about to come. Sometimes I hear my mother and Rubio's raised voices over the hard spray of the shower. Only when I hear the apartment door slam do I turain. I towel off, change into the dingy sweats hanging behind the door and go face my mother.

She stands in the living room staring out of the window. At this hour, I don't know what there is to see. Even the bodega is closed, and Nestor's old crew is gone for the night. "Mami. . ."

My mother turns to face me with eyes swollen with exhaustion and anger. "Did you do it, Efrain? They arrested you for selling cocaine, and I need to hear the truth from you. Are you guilty?"

I knew this would be a hard conversation, but, man. . . I had no idea how deep it would cut. I don't know what hurts more: the fact that Moms still believes enough in me to grant me the benefit of the doubt or the reality of the next second in which I prove to her that I don't deserve it. "Yes."

And as if that single word gave her a push, my mother leans against the window to maintain her balance. "How long?"
I drop my head, tears stinging at the corner of my eyes. "Not long."
With threat behind every word, she presses. "How long is not long, Efrain?"
Damn, if she would just scream, and curse or even hit me, I can get through this. I can handle the rage. I want to take it. But this kind of weight? I can't carry it. I just can't. If I hurt her anymore, it will break me. "I've only been out there a few times, and I only did it to make money for college."
"Don't lie to me, Efrain. On top of everything. . ."
"That's the truth! I wasn't out there because I wanted clothes or jewelry or anything like that, and I had no plans to make it a way of life. Mami, I'm tired." I lift up my head because I know if my mother looks me in the eye, she will understand. "I'm tired of following all the rules and never winning the damn game. You don't want me to lie, OK, here's the truth. Nice guys don't finish last, Mami. Doing the right thing is supposed to be its own reward, but doing the right thing isn't going to pay my tuition. . ."
Suddenly, my mother grabs my chin like a vise. Gritting her teeth, she says, "You don't pay tuition when you go to prison." Before letting go, my mother shoves my head backwards. "And guess what, Efrain? If you get killed, soy yo que va tener que pagar. I'm the one who'll have to pay for your burial plot!"
In all my life, I have never seen my mother so enraged. No matter what he did, she never got this angry at Rubio.

Using Hip Hop Fiction Promote Social Justice: Yes, We Can!


Conscious Women Rock the Page: Activists Team Up to Publish Curriculum that Uses Hip Hop Fiction to Explore Social Issues and Promote Political Action

To support educators who wish to use hip hop fiction in their classrooms to explore social issues and promote activism among their students, four women have teamed up to publish a curriculum entitled Conscious Women Rock the Page: Using Hip Hop Fiction to Incite Social Change (C♀RP.)

C♀RP is based on three hip hop novels praised for their treatment of substantive issues from race relations to dating violence in a genre often criticized for glorifying street life and perpetuating stereotypes. The curriculum contains over thirty lessons which are appropriate for use in middle school classrooms through university campuses. The novels upon which C♀RP is based are:

That White Girl, the debut novel of JLove, inspired by her own coming-of-age as a young White woman in Denver in the 80s which included becoming a graffiti artist and joining the local Crips.

The Sista Hood: On the Mic by E-Fierce is the first in a four-part series about four girls of color at a San Francisco high school who bond across their differences in race, class and sexual orientation through hip hop.

Picture Me Rollin’, the second of three novels by Black Artemis, brings a feminist twist to the “felon-come-home” tale as it follows a young Latina who is obsessed with Tupac Shakur in her uphill battle to rebuild her life.

C♀RPcontains lessons on multiple subjects and disciplines including English, social studies, ethnic studies, race relations, women’s studies, criminal justice and health and sexuality to name just a few.

is a collaboration among four women known in socially conscious hip hop circles: Jennifer “JLOVE” Calderón, author of That White Girl; Elisha “E-Fierce” Miranda, author of The Sista Hood; Sofía “Black Artemis” Quintero, author of Picture Me Rollin’; and Marcella Runell Hall, co-editor of The Hip Hop Education Guidebook. They have also enlisted a diverse team of activist educators to design lessons. The activities in C♀RP spark discussions on issues such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation and more.

Conscious Women Rock the Page
will be available in late March 2008.

The creators Black Artemis, E-Fierce, JLove and Marcella will release the curriculum and demonstrate a sample lesson at the annual Women, Action and the Media Conference in Cambridge, MA, March 28-30, 2008. For more information about the conference, visit the WAM! website.

Committed educators are always searching for ways to strike the balance between meeting students where they are yet bringing them to a higher level academically, socially and even emotionally. As a result, many are incorporating hip hop in their lessons from using rap songs to teach metaphors and similes to looking at the recording industry to impart lessons in economics.

Street lit – often called “hip hop fiction” – is immensely popular and credited for getting reluctant students to read. However, conscientious educators hesitate to use it as it frequently glorifies street life and perpetuates negative stereotypes. Whether they are middle and high school teachers, after-school program facilitators, community activists at grassroots organizations or college professors, C♀RP is a curriculum for educators who want to introduce popular media in their learning environments to engage their students on meaningful social and political issues, facilitate their empowerment, and inspire them to take action.

That White Girl, The Sista Hood and Picture Me Rollin’ each possess a commercial sensibility that will appeal to students of all backgrounds yet also raises substantive issues in a non-didactic manner. That makes these novels ideal for classroom use. C♀RP shows educators exactly how.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sitting on the Literary Divide

Sitting on the Literary Divide

For the longest time I have been struggling with this idea that there is distinct line between commercial and literary fiction because I view my own work as a hybrid between the two. It is commercial because the genres in which I have written to date are popular, I employ a great deal of urban vernacular and my storylines are set in contemporary times among working-class characters of color living in New York City.

However, the themes I attempt to tackle and the issues I deliberately raise are the kind often confined to more literary works. Furthermore, I don't see myself just as storyteller but also a craftswoman. I believe most anyone can be an author, but only few authors are actually writers. I'm a writer.

So as the controversy over street lit rages on within the Black literary community, and lines in the sand are sharply drawn, I find myself increasingly reflective about where I stand. Or more like where I don't. Because on the one hand, I have been vocal and varied in my critique of the proliferation of street lit, and yet on the other hand, I get the distinct feeling that the literary set ain't having me.

Recently, a group of Black writers, editors and booksellers who call themselves RingShout have formed to recognize, reclaim and celebrate �excellence in contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction by black writers in the United States.� Of course, the creation of RingShout has generated numerous responses from the BackList's Felicia Pride's RingShout, Breaking Street Lit and Why Complaining Ain't Cute
to Mosaic's Ron Kavanaugh's LOVEHATE/ Old Man River to name just two. I found myself compelled to post the following comment on the RingShout blog.

Brothers and Sisters at RingShout,

As a writer and activist, I definitely support your efforts, but I do have a question, a sisterly pushback if you will.

I am one of those writers whose work lies in the middle. As an activist, I made a conscientious decision to write popular fiction as a way to raise socio-political issues among an audience of readers that might not otherwise engage them (and yet has the most to lose by their lack of engagement.) Indeed, one can employ the urban vernacular (not to be confused with the profane, least of all for its own sake) and still write deeply about the human condition. However, it is this ambition to grapple with substantive themes and a respect for craft that makes me identify with those who squarely place themselves in the literary camp. Quite frankly, I am adamant about distinguishing myself from street lit. Indeed, as a hip hop activist, it infuriates me when street lit is referred to as "hip hop fiction" in an effort to unilaterally equate hip hop with criminality and promiscuity and that criminality and promiscuity with "authentic" Blackness.

Yet I don't know if -- based on what I write alone -- if the literary crowd would embrace me. I don't know if solely based on my titles, covers, storylines and pen name, any of its members would even read a word to discover that, no, I'm not trafficking in the stereotypes and gratuitous sex and violence. That I truly am striving to meet readers where they are and take them some place better.

I can't tell you how many times I have sat on a panel with literary kin who seem just as surprised as white folks by my ability to speak the King's English and substantively even fearlessly discuss politics. Indeed, I think some of these folks have been upset with me for publicly shattering their prejudices about what a hip hop novelist is because it disrupts the false "them vs. us" dichotomy in which they are so deeply invested. One of your members,
Eisa Ulen, has been a distinct exception to what has been an ongoing and increasingly disheartening experience.

Beyond the books I write, I have made genuine efforts to walk my talk on this. Currently, I have teamed up with
Jennifer "JLove" Calderon, Elisha "E-Fierce" Miranda, and Marcella Runell Hall to self-publish a curriculum based on our books called CONSCIOUS WOMEN ROCK THE PAGE: USING HIP HOP FICTION TO INCITE SOCIAL CHANGE. I have worked and hope to continue to work with Felicia Pride of BackList to create discussion guides that will support educators who want to bring their students from street lit to classics. Indeed, we had decided that perhaps the best way to do this was to identify "bridge novels" from writers such as Ernesto Quinonez, Kalisha Buckhanon, Kenji Jasper and myself to name a few; work that we feel will appeal to fans of street lit, yet because of the command of craft and the depth of themes, can move them closer to the works of, say, James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston. Elisha Miranda and I co-founded a nonprofit organization in East Harlem to support women of color who want to seize the power of entertainment to promote social justice. (By the way, is there room for Afro-Latin@s in your cipher or is your movement only about African American literature?)

So if there is such a sharp line between the commercial and literary, where do writers like me and my peers belong? Does such a line serve any of us - writers and readers alike in general, and specifically those of us from communities that have been long underrepresented or misrepresented?

In any event, let's dialogue and make change.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sisters Talking Politics at the Dunkin' Donuts

When I jump off the Bx4, there's no Bx19 in sight so I head into the Dunkin' Donuts on the corner of Westchester and Southern Boulevard. The middle-aged African American woman ahead of me in line sports an OBAMA '08 button on the lapel of her church-nice coat. One of the young women behind the counter - an African American in her early 20s - sports a black wrap under her Giants cap. �Yeah, you voting for Obama?� she says to the customer.

Her coworker - a fair-skinned Latina - asks, �And who're you voting for?�

�Me? Clinton, baby,� she says, wagging her finger. �Last time under Clinton, I had a good job making $52,000 a year. Then Bush comes in, and now I'm working at Dunkin' Donuts.� All of us smile appropriately. Like we understand that it's funny but not that funny. OK to smile, foul to laugh.

The older woman says, �The reason why I'm not voting for Clinton is because it's time for a change. Her husband was in there before, and so she's made connections and deals, and you know they owe people. So if Hillary gets in, she's going to be paying them back, and we don't need that. Same with Bush. First the father, then the son, the same nonsense. At least with Obama, we start fresh.�

Never thought of it that way, and I guess there's something to that. Not that Obama won't have some cronies to grease for helping him get into office if he becomes president because that's just not the way things work, but, you know. . .

�I just made up my mind last week,� I say to the woman, �and I'm supporting Obama, too.�

The cashier says, �No more Republicans.� I laugh, agreeing with that. Seems we all agree on that one. As she hands the woman in front of me her coffee and change, she adds, �They're not for us.� We all agree on that, too. �At least, the Democrats are for us.�

IIIIIIIIII don't know about all that, but I understand why she feels that way.

The woman heads for the door with her coffee and change. Before she steps out onto the street, she stops �Vote for whoever you want,�she calls over her shoulder. �Just vote.�