With four titles to his credit, L says his latest novel Represent — featuring a character sentenced to life in prison — may be perceived as street lit, but “I feel, personally, it’s not.” He recognizes street lit is often characterized by storylines “about growing up in the streets, or maybe coming out of jail, or getting ready to go to jail, or some type of illegal activity,“ but L, a trained social worker, asserts his plots and characters are born of hours of field research and interviews.
Rather than seeing it as limiting, Tinesha Davis defends the term ‘street lit,’ taking umbrage with the racism and self-hate implied in seeing the label as a stigma. “We [as black people] have this love-hate relationship with ourselves,” she asserts. “As soon as it’s not approved of, [we say] ‘They’re not ‘street lit’ books… I want to be affiliated with the more highbrow, educated writers.’”
But, as a kid Davis loved street lit, listing James de Jongh’s City Cool: A Ritual of Belonging and Ann Petry’s The Street as her favorites “simply because they spoke to the experiences I had when I was younger.” For this reason, though book club and seller Black Expressions bought her novel Holler at the Moon as literary fiction, Davis says wanted it to be classified as street lit. “[The realities depicted in street lit books are] a piece of America’s story and we can’t dismiss it.”
Stacey Barney, an editor at Penguin Group and the editor of Maldonado’s book, says street lit has evolved quite a bit from the days of Iceberg Slim. “There’s something of a redefining going on,” she explains. “There’s something emerging called urban literature.” She further elucidates, “[It] takes place in an urban landscape, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same spree of violence that ‘street lit’ has. But it’s not watered down in any way. It’s very real.”
Maldonado — who also teaches sixth and seventh grade history and has three years’ experience training teachers and administrators to implement conflict resolution programs — adds, “I write my books to present real problems that have people stuck, and then have these characters work out and develop new solutions to create new realities for themselves.”
For bestselling author Victoria Christopher Murray who also sets her books in urban areas, Maldonado’s commitment to moving beyond the hopeless depiction of the struggles of the urban poor is key. “My parents taught me [reading] was to expand my mind; expand my experiences… so what worries me,” she says, “is that [street lit] keeps people stuck in the same place, with the same stories over and over.”
Of urban-themed books that don’t have any redemptive quality, Murray says, “I wouldn’t even call it literature.” She continues, “100 years from now when people look back to what we were writing and what we were reading, I don’t want this to be a representation of who we are.”