Tales of the City

James Norton, Salon.com, Aug. 13

Even within street fiction—a literary genre written by, for and about African-Americans, defined by its blunt honesty, aggression and flamboyance—author and publisher Teri Woods stands out as a hard case.

On growing up in a tough neighborhood: “I didn’t work until I was 25. I lived with a drug dealer. And that was before crack.”

On reparations and reservations: “See, the Indians don’t pay taxes. The Indians get checks cut to them every month because their land was stolen from them. We don’t get diamonds. De Beers doesn’t ship everybody a friggin’ diamond.”

On her role as a publishing pioneer: “There was no one out here doing what I did. Selling books out of my car. Selling on the streets of New York. Standing under the Apollo sign. If I left a blueprint for other people to follow behind me in independent publishing, then I accept that. Bow down to that shit.”

While writers like Woods are beginning to taste mainstream success—their books are filtering into megastores and some are being courted by major publishing houses—most street fiction is still moved on actual city sidewalks. The scene in downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall echoes that of urban centers all over the United States. Two middle-aged black women work a table of books, attracting passersby. Potential buyers browse the table’s 70 or 80 titles as though it were a single rogue aisle escaped from a neighborhood bookstore.

The volumes that line the table six deep and 12 across are assembled from the elemental building blocks of drama: sex, death, conflict, hatred, redemption, forgiveness and betrayal. The Bible, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” sit side-by-side with street fiction titles such as “Harlem Girl Lost,” “Block Party,” “South Side Dreams” and “Homo Thug,” as well as Woods’ “Dutch: The First of a Trilogy.” The cover is black, dominated by red type that rings out in a hard sans-serif font. Below the title is a photo of a hundred-dollar bill, soaked and spattered by blood.

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Yet, according to its authors and publishers, street fiction is not intended as literature—it’s entertainment, pure and simple. The genre is driven by stories and characters, not esoteric themes and avant-garde style; its authors typically self-publish, or sign up with small independent houses that are themselves headed up by working writers. (Woods runs her own eponymous publishing company, and claims to have sold more than 720,000 books over the last 10 years.) The work of authors like Woods is defined by its jagged, direct prose, roughly hewn stories, and a rawness that is as gripping as it is jarring. In “Dutch,” Woods tells a story about characters who, rather than merely playing within or “beating” the system, dynamite and dismember it. Dutch’s father is a soldier on leave from the Vietnam War at the time of his son’s conception. While on the front lines of the conflict, he kills off his “cracker” brethren, blaming them for the insanity of the war as a whole:

“‘See baby, they fightin’ some war for they President, but I’m fighting my own. So, when I lifted my M-16 he ain’t pay no attention, no attention ‘till it was too late. The look on his face, when the nose of that M-16 swung around and stopped on him . . . ’ just then he broke out into a mad liberating laughter which scared and warmed Delores all at the same time . . .

‘That was my first,’ he said proudly as he took a long drawl on his cigarette, then let the smoke out slowly. ‘I lost count after fifty-somethin’.’ ”

During lunch in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, I asked Woods why she sympathetically depicted a serial killer who executes his victims based on the color of their skin. “You gotta understand,” says Woods, whose mother is of white and American Indian heritage. “You want me to tell you why that book sells so well? Because ‘Dutch’ is what every black man feels right now. Go to traffic court, dude. Go to criminal court—it’s fucking disgusting! It seems like white life is excusable, and black life is intolerable. We will not be tolerated! ‘Nothing from you fucking people will ever be tolerated.’ ”

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