Friday, January 13, 2006

Ghetto Fiction: Don't Get Me Started...


I wanted to comment right away on Nick Chiles' New York Times Op-Ed "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" , but I was busy working on my own book, which I suppose will be lumped in with my skinfolks in the 'colored section' on bookshelves one day, regardless of genre.

I never liked the way some bookstores separate all books by black authors into one section (Where is the Indian-American or South Asian section, by the way?) I don't see what the problem is -- if you want a book by an author by the name of "Leroy", look under "A" for Albert.
Okay, so there are better examples -- you get the point.

I think it's reasonable to group books by genre (Romance, Mystery), so I don't understand why the "street fiction" titles are lumped into "African-American Literature". It's one thing to group books under "African-American Studies" (but even that can be problematic, as some non-fiction books by black authors on a topic like surviving in Corporate America will be grouped under "Sociology" instead of "Business".) Street fiction writers don't seem to shy away from that label -- so why not have a "Street Fiction" section in bookstores? Or, better yet, no labels at all!

Chiles states in the piece: "defenders say that the main buyers of these books, young black women, have simply found something that speaks to them, and that it's great that they're reading something."

I hate when that is said about young black readers --- as if they are just so stupid, they couldn't possibly start off with reading a contemporary book like Veronica Chambers ("Mama's Girl") or even James Baldwin or Maya Angelou because it would be "too hard" or would not "speak to them" because it's not set in the streets. Puh-leeze! I was reading Baldwin and Angelou when I was 12 years old. Did I understand everything? Of course not -- but that is the beauty of reading. You can discover a book at age 12 and understand it as a 12 year old. Then, you can pick it up again at 17 and understand it as a teenager. At 27, you will have an entirely different perspective, based on your life experiences and other things you've seen and read. That's the way it works. If you live in the ghetto, fine -- there's no rule that says you can't visit other places in the world of literature. It doesn't always have to speak to your exact experience for you to relate to it. It helps -- Maya Angelou's autobiographical books are some of my all time favorites -- but it's not necessary.

For an interesting perspective on this debate (explored through fiction) try Percival Everett's novel Erasure. Written in 2002, it's about a black writer who is sick of being accused of "writing white" -- so he pens a parody of "ghetto fiction" called My Pafology under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. He is stunned to get a six-figure book advance and millions for the film rights for what turns out to be a runaway bestseller.

I guess all of the "literary" folks can read Erasure itself, and all of the folks that people are "just so glad to see reading anything" (those "po' ignorant chilluns" -- it's the best they can do!) can skip to My Pafology, which is actually included (in the center) of the book.

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