Tam Lin Neville is the author of the full-length book of poems, Journey Cake (BkMk Press, l998). Her poems and reviews have appeared in Harvard Review, Mademoiselle, American Poetry Review, Ironwood, and Threepenny Review. She is an editor of Off The Grid Press and works for Changing Lives Through Literature.
This post is the second in what’s to be a three-part series. In the first, “Street Lit: A Hot Topic,” I reported on what other readers and educators have said about the subject. Today, I plan to do some reading myself and get some idea of what “street lit” or “urban fiction” is all about. I went to my local YA librarian and asked him for a representative title. He gave me The Coldest Winter Ever by writer, activist, and hip-hop star, Sister Souljah. Published ten years ago, it is now a classic in the genre.
The story is told in the voice of Winter who is in her teens when the story opens. She is the spoiled, mouthy daughter of the neighborhood’s foremost drug dealer, Ricky Santiaga. From an early age, she knows exactly how and why her bread is so richly buttered. This is how she describes it: “By the time I was seven I understood the rules perfectly. Keep the family’s business quiet. Most things were better left unsaid. . . My Pops’s operation was steadily building . . . People knew he was headed to being the next Big Willie by his style. He was respected for his product, which was never watered down, always a fair cut for your money. So me and my moms would catch these jealous glances, but we threw those shits right back. Our attitude toward other females was: ‘Hey, your man works for my Pops, now bow down to the family who puts food on the table for you and yours.’” Ricky Santiaga is riding high and he never uses the drugs he sells. The future for Winter and her family looks clear and bright.
I read on. By about page 26, the novelty of black/ghetto slang had begun to wear off and I could see where the plot was going. I skipped ahead to a section on Winter’s racy ways of learning everything she could about sex, all behind her father’s back. He is determined that “No lowlife is gonna make a trick out of my flesh and blood.”
Despite Santiaga’s strength and style, after many fast twists and turns, his reign slowly unwinds and he ends up with two consecutive life sentences. Winter herself gets deep into the world of drugs and becomes a savvy business woman, living in a very tough, dangerous world. At this point, everything in the novel was moving too fast for me. There was more suspense than I could handle, the realism was getting too real, and my stomach and chest were starting to get tight. But I kept on to the novel’s final pages to find Winter, at age 25, in prison, having served 7 out a 15-year jail sentence.
The edition I read came with a Reader’s Guide by the author. Relieved, I turned to the back, curious to see how Souljah would present herself and her work. I was impressed with what I found. She had grown up, not in the lowest realms of homeless destitution, but one rung up, in the world of “project poverty, welfare, section 8 and Medicaid.”
A sensitive child, she became an avid reader at an early age. At five, as she was led by her mother around the project, she noticed that the things she saw – needles, addicts who couldn’t stand up – weren’t in any of the picture books she got from the library. She saw what drugs did to people and, as a child, was so afraid of them that she slept on her arms at night, so no one could inject her with heroin while she slept. But she was determined to learn and grew up knowing that if she could tell her story in well, she could free the thousands who romanticized drugs, seeing them as an easy road out of poverty. She wanted to give the lie to the “drug deathstyle” glamorized by movies like The Godfather and Scarface.
In her Reader’s Guide she lists the objectives of her novel, and to her credit, I imagine that she made this list after, not before, she wrote The Coldest Winter Ever. Her intentions for the book are noble, heartfelt and directed at a specific audience. It’s a long list but among other things she wanted to “put drug use out of style,” “to get youth to recognize their talents,” “to redesign the black female identity,” and “to put the black family together again.”
Would any of the books I use in my CLTL class accomplish these objectives? It’s a hard question to answer. These are not my objectives and . . . you can’t compare apples and oranges. Personally, I think it benefits my students to see the themes of success and failure, love and loss that weave through everyone’s life – to see these life patterns in books about people from backgrounds very different from their own.
One of the stories I like to use in my class is “Girls and Boys” by the Canadian writer Alice Munro. It is about a brother and sister who grow up on a fox farm in the wilds of Canada, which couldn’t be farther from my students living in predominantly African American, urban Dorchester. As this story’s spirited girl grows, we see how her world becomes more and more circumscribed, because she is a girl. Do my students see themselves in this character? Yes and no. And though, on the other hand, they may see themselves reflected in Winter and her story, her story isn’t new to them and I think it opens their eyes to see how women in completely different circumstances live and make choices.
“Girls and Boys,” as well as all the literature I have my students read, moves at a slower pace than the one dictated by Souljah’s hip, urban style. I think it gives my students space and time to reflect, to back away from their own lives and enter a more meditative, imaginative world, a world where more things are possible. Its ending is not predictable; it’s not an “agenda driven” story.
At this point, my thinking is only theory. What will happen when I use “street lit” in my class? Will my probationers see the same distinctions I do between “good” literature and “popular” literature? My students are bright and passionate and I’m sure they will approach the issue with their own wisdom, born out of their own experience. See my next post to see what that is.