|Willow (the_willow) wrote,|
@ 2008-01-25 20:06:00
|Entry tags:||poc sf carnival|
I Didn't Get A Heroine - (Besieged By Street Lit)
Last year sometime during November 2007, I had the opportunity to meet up with a young author who was writing a black martial arts superheroine . I was so incredibly excited. The whole thing was a fluke. I happened to stop in to the library after a day of running errands, even though going to the library had been my first stop of the day. The librarian on duty happened to remember I read a lot of superhero comics and novels and sent me downstairs; the way older black women will do when they think they've got something special for you.
I walked in late when they'd finished discussing the bulk of the book and the author was discussing why her character was currently celibate. She was discussing wanting to put forth a role model that wasn't all about sex, that she found too many young women getting involved in sexual relationships as if that was all they had and she wanted her book to show something different. As a former fan of Laurell K Hamilton that excited me. As a fan of strong female characters, that excited me. I mentioned the carnival and exchanged contact information with the author.
And then a few weeks later I sat with the book in my hands struggling to read through the first chapters. This bright, articulate young author and her book were the straw that broke the camel's back, the drop that overflowed my cup of tolerance. I didn't even realize there was a cup, or a camel, until things cracked and spilled everywhere.
I've thought long and hard about whether or not it was the style of the book that I disliked. For example, I don't like chick-lit books. Most of the ones I come across give a lot of time and attention to designer shoes, handbags and underwear and set up a kind of superficiality that I find personally distasteful.
I've come to the conclusion that what happened was that I'd picked up the book eager to read superheroics, or possibly just a mystery with a black, female, hero doing a little vigilante work. And instead I got something with a story that seemed poorly formed, disorganized and then on top of that the genre itself seemed more like Street Lit dressed up in leather with a touch of martial arts.
Currently it seems as if the Publishing Industry has decided that Ghetto Lit / Street Lit is a license to print money. Street Lit is everywhere. It took up three shelves at my last local branch library. It's proudly displayed in the 'New Books' section at my new local branch library. I see women on the bus reading it. I see teenagers reading it. I see magazine articles and submission forms on local bulletin boards. It is everywhere.
And remember my local branch librarian is the one who recommended the book and author to me based on seeing me borrow trade paperback after trade paperback of Wonder Woman, Justice League, Superman, X-Men, Bone and more. Not to mention all the novels I borrow that deal with supernatural vigilante/detective types.
And she isn't a young librarian either. She's the kind of librarian with her glasses just perched on the edge of her nose, whose hair is wonderfully colour rinsed and styled and who speaks with the slight smack of old school that can make a person think of church ladies and older schoolmarm aunties.
Maybe it's stereotyping on my end to be shocked that a librarian like that, who smiles when you show your vocabulary in general conversation, would be encouraging her public to read books like this one. Or maybe it's a commentary on how much less reading is getting done as a whole and how librarians are on the front lines trying to promote reading as interesting and worthwhile. But that might be a whole other essay that requires a different line of thought.
The book, which I hesitate to mention by name as I'm unsure of the etiquette of doing so, is published by an in house imprint of Simon &Schuster. Simon & Schuster are not small names in publishing.
As I tried to read, the tense switched; present, past, present again and not in a flashback. Sometimes within the same sentence. There were long descriptions of people and objects that were then repeated, sometimes a few paragraphs later, sometimes a chapter later. And then again and again.
I had the sense that the narrative was unfocused, that things were meandering and when they got back to the original point the side trip had served no useful purpose.
I'm not honestly sure how much I read. I think at least five chapters, possibly a little more. But I had to put the book down when I realized I was getting the life story of a randomly met child, and the life story of her mother, father, stepfather and little brother and I had no idea if the child was supposed to be currently talking out all this personal information that included sneaking out the house after her mother had had sex with her boyfriend or if it was more of the author not realizing the limits of first person point of view.
I was confused and angered and incredulous, because I was reading a first person narrative include information and facts about newly met characters that the point of view character couldn't possibly know. I'm not talking about things that can be deduced via observation like malnutrition if a young child seems shorter than average and is extra skinny. I'm talking family history and the thoughts and motivations of yet more characters that the point of view character had not even met - the little girl mentioned above. And none of it was presented in a form of 'I later learned that...'
The sex and violence of the books were another disappointment. After the meet and greet and hearing some of the author's thoughts about sex, I hadn't been expecting to find a book filled with sexual descriptions. I hadn't expected to find non-consensual sex acts within the first chapter, or a grizzly, gruesome, public murder of the type seen in movies like SAW.
And it wasn't the gore that bothered me. It was being expected to believe that such a thing could happen that directly relates to the main character's childhood but people would forget about it. Maybe I've read too much Batman.
I've heard the publishing industry is a very different animal than what it even was five years ago. I've heard that authors need to spend money sending their books out to separate editors. But blatant tense changes, spelling errors and grammatical errors? These unfocused story telling errors? I found myself asking - is this considered acceptable because it's a black product?
Whatever the author's personal responsibility in finding an editor or editing company to help her catch basic mistakes, and assemble her story coherently, I am angry at Simon and Schuster and their imprint, however independent it might be.
The imprint's website touts itself as "Bringing you the future in minority literature today!".
Are black people deemed so stupid that it doesn't matter if the books they read have mistakes? It doesn't matter if they make sense? It doesn't matter that they get something good?
Are black stories so inconsequential except for the part where writing about the hood, and drugs and sex and violence and child neglect and child abuse, makes the publishers money?
I admit I took this personally. As someone who hopes to be published someday, perhaps I can't help but take it personally. But I was left thinking that someone picking up this book would walk away thinking that perhaps either black authors can't write, or that only black people could possibly understand how the story flows because it doesn't make sense to them compared to all the other books they've read over their lifetime. So for them here's confirmation that black authors don't write for them.
And that pisses me off.
Tananarive Due. I never saw Tananarive Due anywhere in any SciFi section. Ever. I knew Octavia Butler, but I didn't know T. Due, not until this past summer when I was feeling for AA Lit and there staring me in the face in the middle of the slice of life and love stories was my genre. And there Street Lit is eating up the African American Lit sections of bookstores where black authors tend to get stuck no matter what they write or who they write about.
I've mentioned before in a Carnival Millenia Black and her story. She mentions in an August '07 blogpost how being acquired by a major traditional publisher (who subsequently promoted her works as AA) decreased her marketability.
Millenia's struggle, combined with the rise in popularity of Street Lit and my experience with a work I thought was going to expand People of Colour in the SciFi genre, but instead was nothing but dressed up Ghetto Stories, paints an ugly picture to me. It is an ugly picture of not only how work by black authors are perceived, but stereotypes etched into business plans of what black people read; perhaps even at what level they can read.
And that just makes this all the more explosive to me because the superhero book that wasn't a superhero book is not the first time I've expected one thing and got Street Lit instead.
Searching for books for my younger sister last year, I stumbled across KIMANI TRU. And no, I'm not going to link them.
KIMANI TRU bills itself as: The ultimate destination for entertaining fiction for African-American teens. Friendship. Love. Family. School. Life. Drama. We have it all covered from the city to the suburbs and everywhere in between. Reflecting your dreams. Your issues. In your voice.
I grew up with Nancy Drew and The Baby Sitter's Club and Encyclopedia Brown and Sweet Valley High (they had mysteries and adventures too) among many others. The thought of my sister getting to read the same stories, but with black protagonists excited me. She's dealing with very different issues than I had to deal with at her age. I grew up in the Caribbean where I had to be told my best friend was specifically white and just not a Bajan. My baby sister's known what it means to be a black person in a car the police flags to the side since she was four.
Scrolling through the site, I picked one book that looked interesting and sent off to the library for a copy to read. But I was so excited at finding the imprint, I recced the label to my little sister before I read the books. Luckily, by the time I did read she hadn't gotten around to buying them yet and I quickly put a stop to that idea.
And while it was my fault I recced the books without reading any first, I thought these were books about how difficult it is to be a teenager while feeling all alone, never realizing that everyone else isn't actually that different. If you've read Sweet Valley High etc, perhaps you know what I mean - books about cliques and first dates and being popular or not so popular and parental pressures and trying to sort yourself out. In fact I thought the books were for teens ages 14 or so and up.
I picked up The Edification of Sonya Crane. I thought I was going to read a book about a white girl whose mother gets caught up in drugs and thus circumstances force them to move to a black neighbourhood where the girl is mistaken for being biracial.
Yes, her mother gets caught up in drugs. But that can be a fact of life for some teenagers and I didn't think that would or should be an immediate warning sign for graphic content.
Heck I may not have read the books before recommending them to my sister, but I did check out Amazon.com. And I can remember rolling my eyes at one reviewer (of the very book I'd picked as interesting to me) who was in an absolute tizzy because she glanced through the book before giving it to her daughter and was appalled. I remember thinking that person was trying to hide discomfort at certain aspects of race relations perhaps being brunt and honest from a black point of view.
I was wrong.
So. So wrong.
The Edification of Sonya Crane is a book with graphic underage molestation, rape, sex, drug use, violence, more rape, graphically described sex acts, pregnancy - at that point the cussing was passing under my radar cause WTF?
"Reflecting your dreams. Your issues. In your voice."
What was this?!!
It's Street Lit for the Kiddies, is what it was.
To look at the book covers I couldn't imagine that they think modern black teenagers should all be relating to drug lords, physical child abuse, child neglect, drug abuse and grown men forcing themselves onto fifteen and sixteen year old girls. And I really don't care if this is just one book in the whole imprint. They included it in the imprint. They sent it out into the world to represent them; And now it has.
When did I end up the naive one for thinking a book that emphasizes the rivalry between two girls in a highschool setting would not have the scales tipped because one discovers the other blowing a teacher behind the bleachers - with mentions of saliva and penis veins?!??!
Am I just old?
Or is this, part of that unpleasant picture I mentioned before as to what is modern black/ African American literature, what it should be about and who reads it.
Because I'm not liking this picture, not at all. But I have no idea what to do to change it.