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.