Friday, July 12, 2013

Urban Fiction (Street Lit) Thoughts and a Review

Recently I used a portion of some grant funds to increase the size of our urban fiction collection. It circulates well here and we get a lot of requests for it. There are some core lists and resources for ordering urban/street lit, but not a lot. And those that do exist are often out of date. I relied heavily on Amazon best seller lists (and the "customer who bought this item also bought") feature.

This week as I pulled books that were no longer new from the new books into the general collection, I decided to read an urban lit book. The last one I read was The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. That bestselling book is one of the best known of the genre. I suppose it would be like someone reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and declaring themselves done with romance novels. In other words, as an urban librarian, it was time for me to revisit the genre.

Let's talk about urban lit or street lit. Both terms are used frequently. I prefer the term street lit, but always seem to find myself typing urban lit. There are many ways to be urban and the lifestyle reflected in this books is only one choice, hence I prefer street lit. Some of my patrons ask for the "black books" and they don't mean Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. That bugs me and I'd rather not think too hard about it. So Street Lit it is!

For me there are several barriers to street lit. I'm not the intended audience and I know that. However exaggerated and extreme the storylines are, there is some basis in truth and that truth makes me uncomfortable. I have worked with urban and economically disadvantaged populations for over a decade. I comprehend the challenges they face, but I don't understand. Though I read all the articles, all the studies, talk to people, work with families, and even do home visits, I still go home to a nice place to live and a pantry full of food. I don't go home to a government subsidized apartment wondering how to make food stamps stretch through the end of the month while I divert my minimum wage paycheck to gas to get to that job. Comprehending is not knowing and I've never lived that life.

Reading urban lit is an uncomfortable experience as I am forced to confront the privilege afforded to me by my skin color, my education, my socioeconomic class, and my family. I am blessed to have a safety net a mile wide. If I lost my job, my savings, etc., I would not be forced, as the main character in this novel, to prostitute myself or sleep in my car. It's hard for me to evaluate a character's choices (and isn't that why we read literature to evaluate their choices and think what we would do) when her set of circumstances are so widely different than my own. My current book filled with upper and middle class characters making hard choices in Italy during WWII is some how more relatable than that of a lower income urban character in my own country and time. There is something wrong with that or perhaps something wrong with me. As I said, I've worked within those communities, but I've never lived within them. This is why the Vista program (the branch of Americorps that fights poverty) pays their volunteers at the poverty line so they can begin to understand the people they are trying to help.

And of course the most common criticism of street lit is the glorification of guns, drugs, and gang life. That's there. Absolutely. And I haven't read all of street lit, two books is hardly a statistically valid sampling, but the two I have read have had definite moral warnings against all of the vices they spent the first 2/3rds of their books glorifying. A bit of a mixed message or a very classic morality story (I did these things, they were fun, but then I paid for it).

Enough general blathering and on to the review.

Shattered by Kia DuPree. Published in 2012 by Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

Bottom Line: Recommended for a library with a street lit collection. Strong female protagonist and likely to appeal to women readers. Definitely will appeal to fans of Sister Souljah. (I don't know enough of this genre to know more of the cross appeal.)

When Kiki's partially deaf mother loses custody of her children, and Kiki enters the foster care system her life begins to crumble. She runs away from the foster home and into the arms of a pedophile, abuse, and prostitution. Even as an adult reunited with her family, those patterns continue for her and her family. As she struggles against a life of pimps, boyfriends, drugs, gangs, and violence, she makes hard choices about her future.

Most obvious thing about this book: it is written in vernacular. To me the grammar feels wrong and it is grating. It is an intentional choice. To the credit of the author, the character and plot was enough to keep me engaged through the first twenty pages. After that the speech patterns and grammatical choices felt natural and organic to those characters and that setting. As such they faded into the background and allowed me to enjoy the book. This is a great triumph for the author since the first 20 pages I was itching to grab a red pen.

Please note I don't have perfect grammar either. So I definitely should not be judging harshly. It is just that this dialect of English is different similar enough to my own that instead of seeing it as a different dialect, I see it as a series of mistakes. That the author brought me past that surprised no one more than me.

Beyond all the general issues mentioned above, my biggest problem with this book is that it is "abuse titillation". "Abuse titillation" is the term I use to refer to the joy we all take in reading of gross misfortune endured by others. This primarily seems to be a female trait. Elementary school girls read about the Holocaust, middle school girls read A Child Called It, high school girls read V.C. Andrews, and adult women read true crime. Even Law & Order had a SVU spinoff just for their "special victims unit", capitalizing on this country's fascination with crimes committed against our most vulnerable.

For me one of the hallmarks of this abuse genre is lingering descriptions of the abuse. Shattered includes rape, pedophilia, prostitution, and consensual sexual acts. All of them are described in blunt, crude terms. However the abusive acts are described in noticeably greater detail than any of the consensual (and supposedly pleasurable) sexual acts. That speaks volumes about which parts the author expects the reader to find interesting.

The last problem I want to discuss with this book is faux feminism. (Warning this paragraph and the next contain a lot of spoilers.) In theory Kiki transitions from weak scared little girl to strong woman capable of handling herself. She almost does. In the pivotal scene where the bad guy is struggling to kill her, her fingers touch the gun (almost) and just as she is about to turn and defend herself, her boyfriend kills him. As she is shaking and crying in the aftermath, she has her great emotional reveal. In one paragraph she tells him and the reader (TELLS NOT SHOWS, one of my pet peeves) just exactly how she has emotionally grown. Her boyfriend's response? He tells her she is really a "grown up girl" now. I almost threw up when I read that. It completely cheapens any emotional growth she had and minimizes her as a character/person. (Also that paragraph of emotional reveal denies the reader any joy of discovery and instead hands them a conclusion on a silver platter. I prefer a more subtle handling of catharsis wherein the reader has to do some of the work and thus shares in the emotional journey instead of being a voyeur watching a completed tableaux.)

At the conclusion, Kiki has her grand moment wherein she tells her story to a group of at risk teen girls at a charity fundraiser. It's always a nice trope for our heroine at the advanced old age of 21 to be a role model to younger teens. However I still can not find any evidence of where she is extremely admirable and strong. There's a great moment at the airport where she breaks away from her captor and that's it. She was strong to survive, and I'm not downplaying that, but only one moment of self-rescue. Even her new suburban life is courtesy of her boyfriend not due to any education or job prospects of her own. She pulls herself out of trouble but can't rise above her circumstances. I felt a little bit that without her boyfriend she would be back to part time shampoo girl and part time call girl. And that hurts the feminist in me, especially because it is subtle enough to be missed in what is trying desperately to be a strong woman story.

That's a lot of overthinking for a book review. If you want to have a street lit collection, this would be a good choice. Overall it looks better than Welfare Wifeys, but I haven't read that tome so I can not really say. It has circulated well at my library.

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