By Mark Allwood
In the world of rap music, street credibility is everything. The same is true in the growing genre of writing known as street fiction.
With titles like “Gangsta Lean,” “Hoodlum” and “Blood Money,” street lit is often written by authors who come from hardscrabble backgrounds, some having served time in jail.
And mainstream publishers have started to take notice of what street vendors and readers across the country have known for several years.
Kwan Foye published his first novel, “Gangsta,” with Triple Crown Publications, which was founded by Vickie Stringer, who penned her first book, “Let That Be the Reason,” while serving a 7-year sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering. Foye’s last two releases, “Hoodlum” and “Street Dreams,” were published by St. Martin’s Griffin Press.
Other street lit publishers include Q Boro Books, Ghetto Heat Productions and Urban Books. A sure sign that street lit is going mainstream is that rapper 50 Cent just inked a deal with Pocket/MTV Books to distribute his G-Unit Books, which will specialize in urban fiction.
Some authors and readers, though, feel the explosion of street lit has been detrimental to traditional black literature.
Violence, sex and drugs are usually at the core of street lit. In “Gangsta,” for instance, two members of the Crips gang move from Los Angeles to New York, one to start his life over as a writer, the other to become a criminal kingpin.
“I was sitting in my house one day and my baby’s mother was yelling at me about something totally irrelevant, so I started to spin this female character in my head,” said Harlem native Foye. “She needed a cast of characters, so I ripped off a piece of a paper bag and I started writing ‘Gangsta.’”
In downtown Brooklyn’s bustling outdoor Fulton Mall, a street vendor who gives his name only as Ray sells street books for $5 a piece. He says he usually sells 200 or more books a day and current popular titles include “Dogism,” “Money, Power and Respect” and “Going Broke.” Street vendors selling urban fiction are also abundant on 125th Street in Harlem.
“They have a lot to do with people’s lives and what’s going on now in the projects,” said Ray, who added that most of his customers are young black women.
Brooklyn resident Shawn Carter bought “Convict’s Candy” for his wife, but he said he does not read street lit. “The story lines are good to her,” Carter said. “She likes most of the ones with drugs, prostitution and gangsters.”
Street vendor Luis Laboy, standing a block from the famous Junior’s restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, said his top sellers were “Grimy,” “Blinded” and “Dutch.” “Mostly street books are what they’re into,” he said of his customers.
About 50 other readers gathered at the Society Coffee Bar in Harlem on a frigid night in early March. These literary fans sat down to hot bowls of chicken tortilla soup, steaming cups of cappuccino and tall flutes of red wine for a reading by author Kenji Jasper, 30.
He read from his first work of nonfiction, a memoir about his grandfather titled “The House on Childress Street.” Jasper’s first three novels, “Dark,” “Dakota Grand” and “Seeking Salamanca Mitchell” deal with the same gritty urban environment that street fiction often portrays, but he is not lumped into the same category.
“On his fiction side, his milieu is very dark, very street,” literary agent Mannie Barron said of Jasper. “He reminds me of a modern day Raymond Chandler in his depiction of the streets and the underbellies, but like Raymond Chandler, he presents it in a very literary way.”
Signed to Harlem Moon/Random House, Jasper has seen firsthand the effect that street fiction has had on traditional black literature.
“It’s eclipsed it almost completely,” he said. “Mainstream authors and traditional publishing are taking a beating right now in the black community. I know authors who had great success three or four years ago but are now struggling or writing under pen names. They’re having trouble penetrating a marketplace that’s overrun. At least ten new [street] books come out a month, maybe more, and they’re being purchased by an audience that doesn’t necessarily read about books in magazines.”
Millory Polyne, who attended Jasper’s reading, said he was dismayed that young blacks were reading street literature. Although he stopped short of criticizing urban fiction because he does not read it, Polyne said that readers of the genre need to understand the foundations of black literature and what came before.
“They should understand how to hustle and how to get your stuff out there by all means necessary, but there’s a long legacy of writers who have worked really hard and their stuff is phenomenal,” he said. “People need to realize that they’ve paved the way and opened the doors for a lot of people to write their own literature.”
Barron, an agent with the Menza Barron Agency, believes that there is room for all forms of fiction and that street lit has actually helped add to the diversity of black literature. He doesn’t buy into the argument that urban fiction is degrading to the black experience.
“Equality gives us a right to mediocrity, so therefore not everything has to uplift the race,” he said. “This is our pulp fiction, and people forget you need to have this full spectrum. Just like in the broad society with a James Patterson or a Danielle Steele, nobody thinks that they are going to be the cause of the decline of the white race. There’s a time and a place for it. There are times when you just want junk food.”