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.


Anonymous said...

Sister Writer!

First of all, thank you for your thoughtful comment on my blog. I love the level of discourse you sparked with your ideas. And thank you for the empowering work you always do with our young people. I remember meeting you at BAAD! in The Bronx, and I was so happy to sit with other women authors who work closely with the next generation of readers and writers.

As you know, my novel, Crystelle Mourning, is a novel with an urban setting. A young man is shot and killed in the prologue, and the issue of out-of-wedlock pregnancy emerges about halfway through the narrative. I think one of the consistent themes apparent in the work of younger writers of color is our attempt to grapple with the very real problems our community faces. Indeed, I think that it can be argued that this is the kind of focus we should have as writers of color.

And this places some of the best writers of our generation squarely in the Black literary tradition. Our finest writers always entered the lives of real folk. Think of the canonical work of Hurston and Hughes, Baldwin and Wright, Morrison and Walker. We can only hope to begin to honor their legacy by striving for the best we can achieve in terms of craft.

I think the question of what constitutes literary fiction, regardless of setting and themes, is a compelling one. Bridgett Davis asks it in her essay, "Break the Street Lit Habit," and Linda Villarosa begins to move us toward an answer in "Books in da Hood" on

I hope these public conversations will help us begin to develop a clearer understanding of what is literary and what is popular fiction. I think we all know Street Lit when we read it. :)


Anonymous said...

Brath will chime in after others but always know you will have something thoughtful to say when u speak or write

Kalisha Buckhanon said... beautiful and what an honor that I am mentioned here. As far as "literary fiction" is concerned, that is a term invented by the elite. Most Black writers (dead or alive) could not squeeze into their tiny box, period. With the exception of a consecrated and token few, the most exceptional Black writers toil for decades before anyone who decides what is and is not "literary" will crack the spines of their books. The struggle continues.

I think what is ultimately important is the recuperation of all Black literature, regardless of genre, as a practice. If anything, we should not seek to divide or eliminate any one literary typology because all evolves and exists for a reason; however, we should increase recognition and exposure for those practitioners who are committed to the TOTALITY of an existence in the arts and letters (as educators, editors, lecturers, conference directors--in short, the nation-builders). I don't think the arguments that have sprung up are so much validated in terms of content; the beauty of America and art is freedom. What needs to be remedied is the imbalanced amount of exposure being given to "street lit" at this time, at the expense of other forms. Some of our most beloved (and violent) classics (Native Son, The Street, etc...) were mass-marketed, pop-cultural, cinematic and episodic bestsellers. On the contrary, the more "literary" The Bluest Eye only sold 3,000 copies when it was released in the early 70's. So really my people not much has changed- except Toni simultaneously KEPT WRITING and championing Black literature as an editor (as many of us currently do as educators), long past many of her peers. So WRITE ON my sisters...and let this debate over genre roll of our backs. Time will tell... Love you all, Kalisha Buckhanon

Unknown said...

Hey, Eisa,

It was Linda's piece that compelled me to write this. I very much appreciated that she at least posed the question, "But what about the between?" My hope in writing this is that we discuss that more.

I certainly agree that we know street lit when we read it. For me the issue is clearly about both intent and craft. However, too many times people dismiss a book simply because of its storyline. There are compelling tells about people living on the margins or surviving via the underground economy so stories about such shouldn't automatically be cast aside without any consideration. We'll know right away if the author has the goods, but some of our folks are being too elitist and lazy to take the time. I'm certainly guilty of that at times, but then I make an effort to temper any wholesale criticism of work that I have NOT read.

One specific example is Monique Morris's TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR WORDS. Such a lovely book about a young man whose mother is a prostitute, his father her pimp. In fact, it also reminds me of Bridgett's challenge with her trade cover. The hardcover for TOO BEAUTIFUL featured a beautiful Black boy reaching for the sky. The trade cover is not only misleading as to the novel's depth but also downright unattractive.

I think some folks who aspire to write literary fiction have forgotten just what you have said and done yourself: that some of greatest writers have and continue to document the experiences of everyday people and grapple with the issues that face us a community. That when it comes to these issues, we employ an "us vs. them" mentality at our own peril.
That some of our literary icons gave visibility to the least fortunate among us and were skewered by Whites and Blacks alike for it.

And just to be fair, this amnesia is not confined to the African American literary community. You see it as well among women as literary novelists chide chick lit authors as if there were no feminists among us.

Well, I have to get back to my manuscript, but thank you so much for your continued openness and insight, Eisa. I think the materials that RingShout have compiled are wonderful, and I hope they fall into pervasive use! :) I know I'll be referring to the kit in my own work with youth.

Unknown said...

Kalisha, thank you for blessing my blog with your thoughts. Congratulations on the new book CONCEPTION. My kids are dying to read it as they loved UPSTATE. All I can say, sister, is I co-sign, LOL! And that I hope to see you soon! :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you!!!! Things are going well so far so we shall see....I appreciate the support. At least we are both actively championing the literature we love and exposing youth to the versatility of the written word, rather than sitting around complaining about what they are reading....!