Street lit' finds niche locally

By 
Martine Lewis
Jun. 11, 2008

When her younger brother was murdered in the very Dorchester neighborhood they were raised in, Lashonda DeVaughn, 26, says she drowned her grief in a pen and paper.

Her book, A Hood Chick's Story, was released in 2007 and depicts the lives of youths caught up in a whirlwind of peer pressure, drugs and violence.

"I had had enough of what I was seeing around me and I wanted to speak to my peers in our voice and in our language," said DeVaughn.

"My writing is a mirror and I hope to show my community their reflection. I lost my brother in 2005 and that was following my boyfriend's murder in 1999. So I'm asking, 'What is going on here?' But the best way to make my readers feel what I'm saying is to show them that this comes from the heart of one of their own. It's like one sibling saying to another, 'You're slippin. Get it together.'"

DeVaughn's book is part of the growing - and controversial - genre deemed "street lit" or "urban fiction," which many claim fuels the negative stereotypes of people of color. Popularized by authors such as Omar Tyree (Flyy Girl) and Sista Souljah (The Coldest Winter Ever), the books often contain graphic sex and violence within the urban neighborhoods of predominantly African-American characters.

Nick Chiles, editor-in-chief of Odyssey Couleur magazine, says it is insulting and belittling when an author feels they have to speak in slang and profanity in order to reach the black community.

"African-Americans exist in all communities and at all income levels - we are not only in the hood," Chiles told the Reporter in an interview in late May. "We sell ourselves short when we say this is what we need to get our message across."

Chiles is the co-author [with wife, Denene Millner] of six novels including What Brothers Think, What Sisters Know.

"In their attempt to make more money, publishing companies are releasing these [books] at our expense," he continued. "They are allowing street lit to overrun the industry to the point where it is the only thing offered in the name of 'black literature.' We've had a lot of literary intellect in our communities such as Frederick Douglas and Toni Morrison, but now, we no longer strive to reach a level of excellence - it is sad and appalling."

Sara Slyman, librarian at the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library, says street lit novels are in high demand in the community and serve to help youth deal with issues they encounter in their lives. "Every day we get requests from readers ages 10 to 65. Everyone is reading them," said Slyman, whose library offers a wide collection of street lit. "It's a very broad genre which often features the drug dealing, gang violence, and prostitution, but it just as readily - or even more so - highlights the consequences for certain actions. The novels do provide moral parables in a way youth can relate."

"Pure pornography" is how Chiles describes a majority of street lit and says it is inappropriate and "irresponsible" to allow children under the age of 16 to read such novels.

"For the most part the writing is horrible and much too mature for young readers," he said. "I know everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone can be a writer. If you do strive to make a difference through the art of words then make sure to apply redeeming qualities to your work so you won't be exploiting the worst amongst us instead of trying to uplift us."

Boston-based author Nishawnda Ellis asks who else is going to tell a story about drugs, gangs, murders, prostitution and growing up in the 'hood better than someone who has lived it?

"I think street lit novels and authors have a story to tell and when well written, they are powerful and enlightening," Ellis, 30, told the Reporter in an interview this week. "Hip-hop artists have been doing it for years through lyrics, now authors are having their say. I think it's [street lit] well overdue to be written, and to be heard."

Ellis, who began writing short stories at 15, says she published her first book as a junior in college - after a long, hard journey.

"It took a lot of time and effort to get my book noticed so I eventually started my own publishing company, Kindle Eyes Books," said Ellis, who was raised in Dorchester. "While hosting my annual book fair (the Boston Book Bazaar) in 2004, I met Carl Weber who later offered me a two-book deal with his publishing company, Urban Books."

Though she considers her two novels - Snowed, A Lesson in Love (recently renamed Love Me Not) and Wives and Girlfriends - to be of the contemporary mainstream fiction genre [not street lit], Ellis says street lit is an eye opener for all communities and all cultures.

"Everyone has a story to tell. What's so wrong about penning a novel on what many have seen or experienced?" asked Ellis, a Brockton resident. Love Me Not follows four female African-American characters who must learn to love themselves first before they can be in healthy relationships," Ellis says.

"The truth hurts, but it also can be an eye opener for readers and critics to look outside the box and make a change in someone's life. And even though my books are for and about African Americans, I think they can cross over to all cultures because the themes in the stories are relatable," Ellis says.

David A. Jackson, president of the Friends of the Mattapan Branch Library group, says there is a thin line between offensive and effective. "Street lit is effective. Yes, they can be graphic but not to the point where the story has no point," said Jackson. "It is about the context of the story. If an author is cussing all over the place and showering readers with sexual and violent scenes then, yes, it can be offensive. But if a story helps readers conceptualize where they would be in a situation and what they would do… if a story draws you in with its familiar language and scenes to the point where you want to read more books - then it is effective."

"It is ironic that folks have an issue with street lit when novels by well established, award-winning authors are just as graphic," continued Jackson who listed novels such as Killing Johnny Fry and Fear of the Dark - both by renowned author Walter Mosley.

"But there are always going to be those who are offended and are against one thing or the other. In end the question is what kinds of books make an impact. What do readers want? And from what I see, genres like street lit is what the readers want."

"If you are going to catch the attention and the hearts of lost youth (and adults) you cannot speak to them in the same monotone rant that bores them into hardly listening," says DeVaughn, who self-published and promoted her book. "That is the essence of street lit, its not just words - it's about a connection."