The Transformative Power of Urban Literature

By Becca Sorgert


As we move beyond Restorative Justice to explore Transformative Justice in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) with programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature, it is great that works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness have been published where colorblindness and the racial caste are exposed. When readers are engaged through Urban Fiction in the PIC, transformative benefits such as solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are achievable. Through the lens of Transformative Justice, we can reframe current views of Urban Fiction to validate this genre that is deemed inappropriate by gatekeepers in our current carceral state.

Contemporary Urban Fiction plots focus on life in neighborhoods of major cities, such as Chicago or Philadelphia, where, as Vanessa Irvin Morris states, “specific cultural groups live and thrive;” specifically African American or Latino neighborhoods. The main theme of Urban Fiction is of survival, especially “[h]ow to survive on the streets by circumventing pitfalls.” Scholar Megan Sweeney states “Perhaps the most popular genre in the women’s prison is African American urban fiction.” By understanding themes of Urban Fiction, one can see similar values comparable in prisoners’ lives, such as survival.

Vanessa Morris, scholar and librarian, eloquently proves that there are more themes than what is traditionally critiqued with Urban Fiction (crime, drugs, sex). The most critiqued aspects of Urban Fiction are themes in literature that are not isolated to Urban Fiction and contemporary writings. Morris shows that Urban Fiction functions in many different ways beyond the criticized violence and criminal behavior. Instead, what makes Urban Fiction unique are the following literary themes: a fast moving story with background stories, descriptions of living life from living situations to income, the nature of street life and how it operates, how personal relationships work through tough situations involving abuse and disloyalty, style featuring specific products, and how to endure street life and escape from it.

Solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are common benefits that run through the published research of why reading Urban Fiction in prison is beneficial to prisoners; Urban Fiction highlights these benefits because the genre is primarily written by, and for, people of color, some whom have experience in the PIC. Morris suggests that Urban Fiction “appeals to readers because it offers an opportunity to investigate, validate, and/or make sense of city life.” It is necessary to be able to do this when Alfred Tatum, scholar on black youth reading, brings to light that “[m]any poor black males are too preoccupied with thoughts of their own mortality and the day-to-day energy required to survive.” The inclusion of Urban Fiction for PIC readers provides counter-narratives to literature that is considered the norm and creates, as Amy Bintliff points out, “the freedom to incorporate stories and themes that reflect who they are and what they want to investigate.”

While imprisoned in the white power structure of the PIC, readers find solidarity through text. Sweeney suggests, “Imprisoned fans of urban fiction occasionally emphasize their identification with this spirit of resistance to dominant white power structures.” The novels of Urban Fiction provide a shared experience of living in a white supremacy, being imprisoned under white law, and being kept under white surveillance. Sweeney’s work suggests that Urban Fiction is a counter-narrative that shows how colorblindness and the racial caste system affect non-white people.

When Urban Fiction is not included in collections, it is an attempt to silence and control the transformation of readers who experience a further understanding of their situation in relation to others’ similar situations. This transformation challenges the current operating system, whether it is the PIC or society in general. This solidarity expands to resistance which then spirals to further reform or transformation of power structures at play. Sweeney proposes that the “penal institutions’ fear of urban books seems to stem from the conception of power and agency that many of the books espouse in depicting characters’ efforts to attain and maintain power.”

An essential part of Sweeney’s work is her highlight of readers becoming authors. Some women prisoners expressed that Urban Fiction “inspire[s] a lot of us to write our own books, and tell our own stories.” When the reading of Urban Fiction is combined with creatively sharing one’s own thoughts through writing, these acts further challenge the PIC structure. Anne Fowell Stanford, professor and author on imprisoned women’s experiences, who explored prisoners’ writing offers: “With dehumanizing social practices in jail, writing becomes an act of resistance, sometimes obvious, sometimes masked. […] This writing is dangerous because it proclaims a making and remaking of selves despite state attempts to confine, fix, and stabilize identities as ‘inmates’.”.

The significance of the cyclical culture of Urban Fiction, one that creates writers from readers, is that it breaks the culture of silence and creates power, resistance, and a means of survival through expression. Creating more writers shows powerful and transformative actions, which is why there is such a threat from multiple and uncontrollable dialogues between the author and their own work, characters within their novel, and between the reader and the author. As a reader, these options for inner dialogue or with other readers allow for self-criticism and positioning oneself in various roles such as the reader, author, main character, as the perpetrator, and / or the victim, etc.

The time has come to engage with the readers and writers in the PIC through authentic dialogues to shape the collection development policies on Urban Fiction. Building relationships with readers through a dialogue technique that embraces feelings and expressiveness will build an effective and inclusive reading collection (such as in a PIC library) that functions, like Urban Fiction, on multiple levels for imprisoned patrons. The transformation from an arrogant to loving perception of Urban Fiction allows readers access to desired literacy and solidarity from their community. Access to this community and genre creates an authentic dialogue between readers and writers to formbonds of support, resistance, and exploration that are essential to survival in the PIC and the white supremacy we live in.

Becca Sorgert is completing her masters of Library and Information Science and is a volunteer jail librarian. You can follow her at her blog (and find more Urban Fiction resources) at Exploring Prison Librarianship. She can be reached by email at beccasorgert@gmail.com.

Further Reading:

Bintliff, Amy. Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education

Morris, Vanessa Irvin. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature

Standford, Anne Fowell. “Lit by Each Other’s Light: Women’s Writing at Cook Country Jail.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States

Sweeney, Megan. “‘I lived that book!’: Reading Behind bars.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States

Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons.

Tatum, Alfred. Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap.

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7 thoughts on “The Transformative Power of Urban Literature

  1. Pingback: Check out my guest blog post! | Exploring Prison Librarianship

  2. Pingback: An Author’s Perspective on Urban Fiction: Hermes Hanover | Exploring Prison Librarianship

  3. Pingback: The Transformative Power of Urban Literature | Resource on juvenile (in)justice

  4. Thank you so much for a wonderful review of my book and a thoughtful approach to street literature / urban fiction. It is needed and your article adds nicely to the ongoing discourse surrounding the genre and its readers.

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