For good or for bad, street lit is eating up the African American book world at the moment. Walk into the Karibu bookstore in Prince George's Plaza and you'll see. It used to be there were just one or two small shelves of "street life" books. Now there's a whole section.
The titles of the paperbacks pretty much say it all: "No Way Out" by Zachary Tate, "The Last Kingpin" by Relentless Aaron, "Payback's a Bitch" by Marcus Spears, "Thugs and the Women Who Love Them" by Wahida Clark, "Bad Girlz" by Shannon Holmes and countless more. In the same way rap music muscled melodious soul tunes off the charts, street lit is altering the equation of African American publishing.
What is a street lit novel? The telltale signs usually include a shut-your-mouth title, straightforward sentences, vast amounts of drugs, sex and rap music and varying degrees of crime and punishment. An exemplary tale is a mixture of foul language, flying bullets, fast cars, a flood of drugs, fallen angels and high-priced frippery. It venerates grams over grammar, sin over syntax, excess over success.
Street lit, says Karibu co-owner Simba Sana, "is the hottest thing going right now."
The paperback fiction bestseller list at Karibu -- a local five-store chain featuring books by and about African Americans -- is dominated by street lit, aka urban lit, gangsta lit or hip-hop fiction. "Do or Die" by Washingtonian Darren Coleman is at the top, followed by Keisha Ervin's "Me and My Boyfriend," Thomas Long's "A Thug's Life" and "A Project Chick," the second novel by Nikki Turner. Karibu stores have sold nearly 3,000 copies of Turner's first novel, "A Hustler's Wife."
Both of Turner's books are also among the top-10 favorites on the Essence magazine August paperback fiction bestseller list. A Richmond resident, Turner is near the top of the street literati hierarchy. So are Vickie Stringer and Shannon Holmes. But there are scores of other hip-hop novelists cranking out rough-hewn, rumble-tumble stories.
Until now, the books have mostly been self-published and sold by the authors on sidewalks and in music clubs. But street lit is such a happening thing that big-time American publishers are catching the fever. Simon & Schuster has signed Stringer and Holmes to its Atria imprint, and Random House has tapped Turner for its One World division.
"This whole street lit movement is recent," says Carol Mackey, senior editor of Black Expressions, a book-of-the-month club for African American readers. "I consider it a trend."
Mackey, whose club boasts a membership of 400,000 nationwide, says people are buying street lit because they identify with the harsh realities in the stories. Most Black Expressions members are women and all, she says, are black. They are buying street lit titles by the thousands, Mackey says. "There's so much coming out and there's so much out there."
She adds, "They are being sold on every street corner. They are selling like hot cakes."
First, the 'Iceberg'
The new street lit is not to be confused with the classic naturalistic style of Richard Wright or James Baldwin, some critics say. That would be a little like comparing P. Diddy to Duke Ellington. Street lit lacks the literary ambition -- and the power -- of great writing. Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and Nichelle D. Tramble are literary fiction writers -- in the tradition of Wright and Baldwin -- who write about the streets. Their novels, however, are not street lit.
E. Ethelbert Miller, who teaches creative writing at Bennington College and runs the African American Resource Center at Howard University, says of street lit authors, "I might teach these writers in a sociology class, but not in a literature class."
Street lit has always been more of a social than a literary movement. It can be traced to 1969 when Iceberg Slim, aka Robert Beck, published "Pimp," a memoir of his professional life. He was born in Chicago in 1918 and lived most of his life in the Midwest. Between the ages of 18 and 42, he worked as a procurer of prostitutes. He did some jail time.
While in solitary confinement in 1960, he decided to go straight. When he was released, he moved to California and wrote his memoir. He went on to write a lot of books, including "Trick Baby" and "Death Wish." The books were groundbreaking in their real-life, close-to-the-bone accounts of life, sex and death on the streets. And they were packed with urban patois, such as using "jasper" for lesbian and "macking" for pimping. Iceberg Slim died in 1992.
In the 1970s, Donald Goines picked up the thread. A former heroin addict and chronic convict, Goines produced in short order a slew of books including "Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie" and "Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp." The books came along with the rise of blaxploitation movies and hip-hop music. For a while, street lit fell by the wayside, but it returned in the late '90s, with a bullet, when Sister Souljah published "The Coldest Winter Ever."
Today's street lit has its champions. Many of the novels have a moral, says Mackey. "In most of them it's about people who have made wrong choices," she says. "The authors are making a conscious decision to say these people made bad choices and you don't have to. There is a moral fiber running through the whole book."
Plus, she says, "There is a blessing in all of this: African Americans are reading. They've picked up a book and they are reading."
Poet Sterling Plumpp, who taught at the University of Illinois for 30 years, says that contemporary hip-hop writing "is the most inventive thing happening to the language in a long time."
He believes it is more successful in fiction and poetry than in rap lyrics. "I'm not sure the music is there," he says.
Eventually, Plumpp says, great writers may emerge. "What you have is a very difficult situation for a lot of young African Americans," Plumpp says. "They did not inherit the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois or Frederick Douglass in terms of literacy."
But, Plumpp continues, these young folks have life experiences that they want to express. "They have almost developed an African American language that is as estranged from the educated African American world as it is from the white world."
Street lit, he says, "should be promoted."
The big-time publishers are seeing to that. With visions of profits dancing in their heads, they are scarfing up the street literati right off the curbs. Melody Guy, head of Random House's multicultural imprint, One World, says that Nikki Turner's novels are mostly about "young women who are surviving in this urban world and how they ultimately persevere. There is a lot of sex and lot of drama. People seem to be responding in an amazing way. People want what she's doing."
Turner is also riding a wave within the wave. The great sub-boom of the nano-moment is in street lit written by women. The first to achieve legendary status in the genre was rapper Sister Souljah with "The Coldest Winter Ever."
"She's the modern godmother," Guy says.
Souljah's brutal story about a drug dealer's daughter "is one of my most favorite books ever," Nikki Turner says.
The Black Library, a Boston-based Web site showcasing African American literature, features scads of street lit volumes written by women and bearing titles such as: "Loose Ends" (by Electa Rome Parks) and "Dime Piece" (by Tracy Brown).
Simba Sana is not surprised that women have embraced street lit. "Most of our customers are women," he says. And at the publishing houses specializing in street lit, "most editors are women."
With Souljah's book, Sana explains, black women who have not been reached by writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan finally had a story about people like them.
He adds, "Sister Souljah showed people we could really do this."
Sana is not convinced, however, that street lit is here to stay. "I don't know how long that's going to last," he says of the genre's dominance of African American publishing. "On the downside, you have to deal with the quality of some of the books."
He says, "Some of the writing is not so good."
But the stories can be gripping. Here's the opening of "Imagine This," a new novel by Stringer:
I had a beautiful two-year-old son named Antonio. And I was in the Franklin County Jail being held without bond for federal drug trafficking offenses.
I had been left for dead, abandoned by my so-called peeps. Sad and embarrassed to admit it, even my baby's dad, Chino, was still getting his hustle on -- slangin' them "thangs." Chino continued to get his grind on for that cheddar even after the feds laid me down like fresh tar on pavement.
Stringer is a former cocaine dealer from Columbus, Ohio. While serving a sentence in a federal prison, she wrote a street lit insta-classic, "Let That Be the Reason." In 2001, she set up a small company, Triple Crown Publications, to publish the novel. Eventually she took in other writers. Today Triple Crown publishes more than a dozen authors, including Turner. The company sold 300,000 paperbacks during a recent 16-month period, Newsweek reports.
Several of Triple's Crown's authors are moving on to large publishing firms. Stringer herself has signed a deal. "Imagine This" is being published next month by Simon & Schuster's Atria Books.
Turner's first novel, "A Hustler's Wife," published in spring 2003, is a gritty tale of death, deceit and a woman's love for a criminal. It has sold more than 37,000 copies through traditional outlets, according to Nielsen/BookScan. Her second, "A Project Chick," was published last fall.
Always an avid reader, Turner, 30, grew up in Richmond. She discovered her love for writing when a seventh-grade teacher gave her a journal. She still keeps a journal. She graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1996, then took a series of jobs -- at a pharmacy, as an interior decorator, at a cookie factory and as a travel agent. She is the mother of two young children.
Eventually she wrote "A Hustler's Wife," about a character named Yarni and her beau, Des. Here's an excerpt:
Everything was going fine until one Saturday when Yarni was visiting Des and he asked her to make the ultimate sacrifice. He wanted her to put her freedom at stake. He asked her to smuggle heroine into the prison to him so he could sell. He said she could do it one of two ways. She could put it in her panties or put it in balloons and swallow it and she could throw it up in the bathroom in the visiting room. She felt like the sharpest knife ever had just stabbed her through the heart.
Turner's favorite writer of all time is Jackie Collins. "I like her stories," Turner explains. "They're all so cinematic."
"A Hustler's Wife" is spangled with brand-name bling bling, such as David Yurman diamonds, Cristal champagne and Stacy Adams shoes. There are three more Turner novels in the queue. "Girls from Da Hood" will be published in October by Urban Books. Her first Random House/One World book, "Diamond in the Rough," is slated to be published in 2005. Her second, "I-95," in 2006, also by One World.
Raised in the Baptist church, Turner writes her stories for a reason: "I want young girls to be forewarned about the vicious street life. They only see the glitz and the glamour. They don't see the dark side."
She adds, "I want all my books to have a message."
James Fugate, owner of Eso Won Books, an African American shop in south-central Los Angeles, believes street lit is more than a trend. "I think it is here to stay," he says.
And he is no fan. "To me," says Fugate, who has been a bookseller for more than two decades, "people can read what they want to read. I've never been opposed to books by Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. Those books were bridges to other literature."
But times have changed, he says, and the street lit being written -- and self-published -- today is mostly "mindless garbage about murder, killing, thuggery."
He says that when you read street lit, "nothing happens to your mind."
The characters, the plot and the language serve only to glamorize and reinforce antisocial behavior, Fugate says. Some of the books upset the bookseller so much, he doesn't even sell them. "It amazes me that people want to read them," Fugate says. "Ghetto literature is disturbing to me, really disturbing."
But, he says, he does understand why major publishing houses are taking an interest: "They are reaching an audience they didn't know existed."