Hip-hop poet and author Camika Spencer says that assuming a male voice in her first novel, "When All Hell Breaks Loose," was a cinch.
"I think men are simple," says Spencer, 27, on the phone from Dallas, taking a break from her job at a computer company.
"I think women are complex, but men are simple. They see things one, two, three. We see things one and a half, two and three-quarters. . . . I just had to remove all my complexity."
So the book's hero, Gregory Alston, is lovably clueless about his upcoming nuptials, while his mother and fiancee always remain a few fractions ahead. That is, of course, until all hell breaks loose during a Jerry Springeresque climax--hence the book's title.
Getting the novel published demanded a capacity for complexity. Publishers were unimpressed with Spencer's earlier attempts. After getting her "feelings hurt," she decided to self-publish.
In 1997, she moved back in with her mother and spent her savings to print 5,000 copies of "When All Hell Breaks Loose." To market the book, she says, "I got my hustle on."
Her best friend printed up red fliers with black letters reading, "All Hell Is About to Break Loose in April." Her company, Akimac Publishing, sent 150 of them to black bookstores across the country with no contact name, address or other identifying information. Closer to the book's release date, Spencer sent out full publicity packets about herself and the book.
Getting her hustle on also meant crashing a book fair in Chicago wearing an Akimac Publishing T-shirt. There, she managed to schedule book-signings and even took several orders from booksellers. The final hustle was throwing a huge release party at a Dallas museum in April 1997, which helped create a buzz around the book--and where she sold 300 copies. Just 800 of her books were left when Random House picked up the novel and re-released it this year.
Spencer says she's part of a new generation of artists who are creating a black renaissance in Dallas. "I've never seen so many young, talented black people in Dallas before in my life," she says, noting that Dallas is the home of singer Erykah Badu, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and a host of entrepreneurs who have opened clubs, bookstores and restaurants.
"All of these people are 30 and under. We all interconnect with each other for our different talents. We are building a foundation."
One of the attributes that characterize this generation of artists is being adept at several art forms, Spencer says.
"A lot of us are multifaceted. A Chicago Tribune headline said 'Hip-hop Poet Turns Author'--they were talking about me!" Spencer is also a spoken-word poet who performs, under the name Emotion Brown, with her group, Ordained in Lyrics, composed of Spencer and male partners GNO and Judah the Black Rose.
"All this blending is going on with all these artistic elements." she says. "Our whole generation, we're blurring those lines, because we're realizing that expression is expression."
Throughout her childhood, spent mostly in Dallas with a couple of years in Hagerstown, Md., Spencer dabbled in various types of art. "I was always into expression, no matter what form. I used to sing, dance, you name it."
After receiving a degree in radio and television broadcasting from East Texas State University, Spencer worked for a black bookstore in Dallas. For the past few years, she's been working on computer system support staffs at various Dallas high-tech companies.
Since she began writing, Spencer has been inspired by a variety of black writers. Pearl Cleage is a favorite, as well as contemporary authors such as Terry McMillan.
Spencer says that because she came of age during the boom in lighthearted contemporary black fiction, her work doesn't delve as deeply into the human psyche as that of venerable black writers.
She says that rather than Richard Wright's "Native Son" and "Black Boy," she grew up reading McMillan's "Mama" and "Disappearing Acts." Her influences, she says, include popular culture and observing regular people doing regular things.
"A lot of people are just excited that I've created a simple book," she says. "It's not overly narrated. Sisters don't have a lot of time to read. They've got their five minutes in the bathroom, 10 minutes on the bus. I'm just finding a niche for something that is quick and entertaining. Nothing that will hurt them but that will help them look at some things."
Spencer is now beginning to see the fruits of that frantic hustle. Just last month, she moved out of her mom's house and into her own place. And she's also working on her second novel, "Cubicles," about black life in corporate America.
She says she wouldn't want to be coming of age as an artist at any other time in history.
"I think the creative forces that be are looking at us and saying it's time," she says. "I see young, single sisters running things. Sisters are like, cut the B.S., let's get some things done."
Spencer will read from "When All Hell Breaks Loose" Sunday at two Karibu Books locations: 1 to 3 p.m. at 2103 Brightseat Rd., Landover, and 4 to 6 p.m. at 3500 East West Hwy., Hyattsville. Admission is free. For more information, call 301-559-1140.
CAPTION: Camika Spencer invested her savings in printing "When All Hell Breaks Loose."