About a month ago, my publisher got a request for a review copy of A Wish After Midnight. We were pretty excited–Wish was going to be featured in Library Journal! But when I found out my novel would be reviewed in a “street lit” column, I balked—there’s NO WAY my book fits within that category! Just a glance at some of those covers made me cringe. Then I visited their site and found this definition, which helped me prove my point:
Typical elements include a rags-to-riches theme, references to the hip-hop music industry, profanity, urban slang, erotic sex scenes, criminal activity, or violence that escalates to murder. But that’s just part of it. Often the story line is circular so that plot points from the novel’s opening pages come into play at the climax.
I put my foot down but ultimately reached out to the reviewer, Vanessa Irvin Morris; the conversation we had (via email) helped me understand why she wanted to include Wish in her column. We decided not to do the review, but I will be visiting Vanessa’s librarian book club this Friday. I haven’t actually read much street lit, so I thought it made sense to invite Vanessa to share her own ideas about the value of this much-disparaged genre.
Welcome, Vanessa, and thanks for agreeing to share your opinions and insights. Can you begin by giving us your definition of “street lit”?
Well, this is what I am seeking to articulate with my research with my colleague librarians. I am facilitating two (2) librarian bookclubs where we are taking a year to read various iterations of what can be perceived of as “street lit.” So we are looking at – what is this thing called ‘street lit’? What characteristics make a book (fiction or non-fiction, regardless of format) street literature? What do we mean when we say “street” when we couple it with the word “literature?” Are we talking “city?” Are we talking “ghetto?” Are we talking black people? Poor people? Working class people? Criminals? Or all peoples living in urban settings? Are we talking about narratives that detail happenings in streets? Because if that is the case, all communities have streets. So we are still investigating this “definition” of what “street lit” is. At present, I can commit myself to say that if we colloquially understand “the streets” to be specific to urban locations, we can further state that when we’re talking about street lit we’re talking about a colloquial lens through which “street” is perceived, understood, and defined. If we take that to be the case, then we can say that street lit is a literary genre that tells stories, both fictive and real, about the everyday lives of citizens surviving city-fied lifestyles in urban settings.
There has been resistance on the part of some educators, librarians, and parents to the inclusion of street lit in school libraries and/or curricula. Yet the books are extremely popular with many teens. What drives this resistance?
I think what drives this resistance is the same thing that inspires censorship of any other kind of material – fear. Usually, educators (teachers and librarians) and parents are afraid that children will “do” what they read. Understandably, we hold an awesome reverence and regard for the written word. So when our children independently choose to read materials that are beyond what we deem to be morally, ethically, and intellectually “good” or high quality – we become afraid of its impact. However, I believe that what is missing from this clarity of literary power, is clarity of and respect for the intelligence of youth and the sophistication of their intellectual approaches to discerning their own reading tastes and interests.
I believe we also seek to de-emphasize negativity in our readings, be it our readings of books, media, or one another’s behaviors, because we only want to see, recognize and deal with what we deem is “good.” To see, recognize, and deal with what we deem is “not good” is stressful and begs for our responsive action somehow. What is dangerous about this denial, though, is that when we keep children from exploring a variety of experiences in their reading that includes the “dark side” if you will, we limit their potential to practice synthesizing these virtual experiences (imagination ignited by reading) with their own real life experiences, which are encapsulated in memory. So you have a person, regardless of age, who has memory (filed experiences) engaging in readings of virtual experiences via books, and from the intertexuality of reconciling the real with the virtual via the reading experience, a heightened sense of self awareness and understanding emerges. When we censor books from readers, we rob them of this very necessary maturation process, across all life stages. We actually stunt their intellectual and, possibly, emotional growth.
Can you comment on the potential usefulness of street lit in schools or libraries; what does it offer teen readers that they can’t find in other genres?
It has been my experience and observation in working with teen readers of street lit that it instills the reading habit in them. I’ve worked with teens who had never read a book from cover to cover before – until they came across The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah or True to the Game by Teri Woods. If we look at street lit texts as cultural artifacts, they have authentic purpose for schools and libraries. As in any genre, you have your “cream of the crop” and you have your “duds,” so to speak; so educators must choose what is most appropriate, and offer up space for students to also have voice in what they deem is appropriate. I know of one high school English teacher who read Black by Tracey Brown with her English class. This teacher was Caucasian, and was teaching in an inner city high school. Salisbury and Shakespeare weren’t connecting with these students (they didn’t connect with me as an inner city teen during the 1970s and 1980s either). She needed to engage her students in reading text before turning them on to the traditionally canonical stuff. So she used street lit as a gateway to canonical literature, and it worked. Recently, in my librarian bookclubs, we read Native Son by Richard Wright. One librarian said, “Slap a current street lit cover on this book – and I bet you kids will read this, too.” The point is that when you give teen readers books they can relate to, this is a powerful approach to igniting them as lifelong readers and learners. And yes, they do move on from street lit. I have teen readers who are now in college and/or graduating high school, who now no longer read street lit. They read it and enjoyed it when they were in the 7th – 10th grades, and then from there, they moved into other genres, stories, and readings. That’s the power of street lit: the power to make a public that didn’t read before into readers.
You advocate for broadening the street lit genre to include literary novels about the city. Can you explain your rationale for combining what many people consider to be two very distinct kinds of writing?
For me as a librarian, it is not about the writing, it is about the story. There are many literary novels that I do not understand or connect to because I don’t understand or cannot appreciate the writing, be it dialect that is not from my experience or background, or writing style that just doesn’t vibrate with my tastes. This doesn’t mean that that book is not literary and/or not of value. So who is to say that there aren’t street lit novels that are “literary” in the traditional sense? I really want to know – who is to say? The stories told in street lit are real, moving, jarring, interesting, exciting, crazy, zany, and everything in between. There are street lit novels that are “well written” (whatever that means) and coherently packaged in such a way that they can appeal to a mass audience. Authors like Wahida Clark, Shannon Holmes and K’wan come to mind. And regardless of what today’s educators say, Coldest Winter Ever is canonical, and WILL become an addition to the literary canon. This is my prediction. If you dig Anne Petry, you’ll understand the importance of Coldest Winter Ever. If you dig Zora Neale Hurston, you’ll understand the authenticity of Coldest Winter Ever. Push by Sapphire is another street lit story that is canonical – considered literary, and yet, let’s be honest, it’s virtually unreadable. But again, I believe that all writing is purposeful. I “git” why Sapphire wrote the story the way she did, as obviously, so do a lot of other people, since the novel has now been made into a movie. So it’s not about the writing per se – it’s more about the story. Street lit stories are just as literary as any other genre’s stories.
How do you respond to critics who claim that street lit reinforces negative stereotypes and/or glamorizes illicit, dysfunctional behavior? Does street lit speak to the possibility of urban life, or only the (bleak) reality?
Negative behavior reinforces negative behavior. Literature aids in negotiating, navigating, and synthesizing life experience. Thus if the behavior is already embedded in a person or community based on life experience, literature may reflect that, but it is still the human, or community, that chooses to reinforce or evolve beyond negative behavior. Some people reading a street lit novel might say that the genre does not glamorize negative behavior. Some might say it tells it like it is. Whatever street lit is doing, I think the more important challenge is to listen to what it is saying. This contemporary phase of the genre is telling us something. It is documenting a time in American history when urban life for some residents was more intense than what mainstream culture may have realized. What is street lit trying to say to us? It is definitely shouting, because it is an incredibly prolific genre. So it keeps coming and coming – we are a decade into this literary renaissance. Why? There is a reason. What is it saying about urban life? Perhaps for those who write the stories and for those who read the stories, urban life is bleak, and reading the genre helps to validate and make some sense of chaotic real life experiences: again, synthesizing memory with the imaginative to further self understanding.
What question do you wish more people would ask about street lit?
I wish people would ask, “What can we learn from these stories?” “What are these stories trying to tell us about ourselves as a culture? As a people? As a nation?” It would be especially useful if Black people did not ostracize one another with this genre. It is not about “this shows us in a bad light” and that tired old song. That song denotes that we’re singing for an outside audience (i.e. mainstream culture). I believe that it’s healthier for us, as a people, to look at the genre more thoughtfully and reflectively (and sing to the choir, if you will), listen to the genre, and critique it in terms of aiming to make sense of what the authors and readers are telling us about ourselves with the prolific writings and readings of these stories. A clarion call is being made about the state of Black America via this genre, and the genre is also historicizing critical realities that many people live with on a daily basis. When we denigrate one another over the merits of this genre, we miss the bigger question, the bigger conversation, about who we are as a culture. I say let’s not be ashamed of street lit. Let’s embrace these stories as a representation of an aspect of who we are as a human family whose life stories interweave across the entire spectrum of human experience, imagination, and memory. When we accept all of who we are, that is when we begin to love all of who we are, and then we are empowered to evolve. This is my view. Thank you for listening.