“Where is your non-fiction section?” is one of the top five most frequently asked questions to booksellers, as common as “Where is the bathroom?” and “Where is your African American fiction section?” African American fiction is most well known by the name of ‘urban fiction’, but street fiction, or hip hop literature are also common names for what the writings of K’wan, Nikki Turner and Deja King and Kiki Swinson among others have evolved into.
Afraid of a noticeable cringe surfacing as I hear someone ask where ‘urban fiction’ can be found, a question generally posed by a disheveled individual in a two piece velour sweat suit that reads ‘Juicy’ or ‘Phat’ across the back, I find myself torn between two distinct thoughts as I explain that there is no separate fiction section for African American writers. The obvious joke to make here is that we don’t segregate our authors, but that may be in poor taste.
The first thought rises, I suppose, from having been educated in private schools and perhaps not experiencing the variety and wonder contemporary society has to offer; as well as a fascination with and drive to educate myself through literature, is, “Is this the best you can do?”
In a store that stocks over 100,000 titles and has millions more at its disposal though its network of warehouses, available sometimes in less than a week should one chose to order it, and sooner for those available to download, are books titled Road Dawgz or Hood Rat really the best you can do?
Having only shuddered at these titles as the forerunners of ‘urban fiction’ and not actually read them, I can only imagine how engrossing a read they are. I’ve always believed the most powerful aspect of literature to be its ability to transport the reader into another world, albeit one firmly rooted in reality and not necessarily one of science fiction or fantasy. With this in mind what then is the draw of ‘urban fiction’ for its obvious target audience?
One explanation can be found in a review of K’wan’s Gangsta which explains how the novel “not only glorifies the gratuitously violent lifestyle of gangster culture, but…draws a very derogatory picture of women… [placing] them in a category inferior to their male counterparts.” In this way ‘urban fiction’ serves only to further the stereotypes and culture, or lack thereof one could say, made popular in rap music that, despite however intelligent, educated, or well spoken a particular artist may be outside of his or her ‘gangsta’ persona, is dominated by an exaltation of “violence…promiscuity, misogyny…street gangs…crime [and] drug dealing.…”
As in the music industry, it is the image of this that creates the artist, the reputation that is projected in order to sell the album and the record label. It is this image that lends credibility and furthers the negative stereotypes that fans and those who market these genres feel give their lives and the circumstances in which they were raised legitimacy so much so that the degradation of the English language verbally that has become Ebonics and the more formal designation African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has crossed over as well into the written word.
I suppose in carrying forward this vein of thought, ‘urban fiction’ can in fact be considered escapist literature in its own right in that it leads its audience to escape the reality that they could possibly live a life other than one that is portrayed in a music video involving bikini clad models of the King and XXL magazines variety and imported sports cars they could afford if only the cars could be paid for with a WICK.
The second thought that comes to mind as I lead what is typically a small group towards the fiction section, since the fans of ‘urban fiction’ rarely travel alone, allowing them to comment to one another, “Yo, I knows dey’d have dat,” is, “Well, at least they’re reading.”
At least they’re reading. I find myself almost laughing as I consider writing 50 Cent a thank you note for reaching out to this youth and encouraging them to pick up a book, even if that book, written with K. Elliot, is titled The Ski Mask Way about an ex-con named Seven (who in fact was the seventh child in his family) who has to support not only his “slammin’ girlfriend” but the female corrections officer he seduced in prison as well, and the baby they have together. As the title implies, it’s anything but honest work that Seven pursues in order to do this.
But at least they’re reading! Despite the violence, rapes, glorification of prison, promise of easy money in both drugs and robbery, and the ideal that any dream is yours, as long as you rip off the right drug lord and live, the important thing to remember is that the printed world is the most thorough way of educating oneself, and in reading (regardless of what) one is expanding his or her mind, right?
Perhaps not, however, when one considers that in seeing the dialogue in these novels, the typical ‘urban fiction’ reader will then consider that degradation of the English language a legitimate form of verbal communication.
In one customer review for K’wan’s Gangsta, the long-time fan of Triple Crown Publications begins, “Yooooooo…dis book is hot,” to which I was instantly hooked and had to keep reading, “when I hollered out loud in class ‘ WHY???!!’ when dey shot lou-loc, erebody was on my book.”
This is, without a doubt, an engaging and informative review that shares, not only, the critic’s own passion for such literature while displaying its universal appeal as a true art form, but the ultimate power of peer recommendations.
Or something like that, I guess.
But I suppose it is only fair to mention that in this particular customer review, ‘Zandi’, when given the option to recommend other books, said, “all books are good for da soul.”
Just for the record though, non-fiction is a “literary work other than fiction,” stop asking where it is.