'Street lit' has a following in Oak Park

As the genre evolves, local readers explore its possibilities

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Toccarra James, 33, works as a security supervisor at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where she lives. The mother of two boys, 13 and 15, James is planning on pursuing a master's degree in criminal justice and eventually starting her own security services firm. But in her down time, she writes. 

So far, she's completed two self-published novels titled, You Think You Know But You Have No Idea (2014) and the sequel, I Thought I Knew, But I Had No Idea, which will come out later this year.

"My books touch on real life events that could happen to anyone. I have to explain to people that it's not about my life or what I went through, but what I've seen others go through and [what I imagine] people would do," she said in a recent interview.

The books center on Candi Thomas, a 20-something African American woman who must reconcile her aspirations of obtaining a master's degree and following a successful career path, and maintaining bonds with friends and acquaintances whose lifestyles threaten to derail her from that path. 

James sells her novels at night clubs, local bookstores, local sporting events and community fairs. The books also sell online on Amazon and other websites. James said she estimates her first book has sold over 2,000 copies.  

She is one of the thousands of authors, many of them self-published, who populate the genre called "street lit," or "urban lit." It's a branch of literature often overlooked by traditional publishers and readers of more established genres, but it's swiftly becoming a force to be reckoned with — even if its magnitude is largely felt in the subterranean world of the informal economy.

Locally, the books are so popular they make salacious targets for would-be thieves. Book Table co-owner Jason Smith doesn't carry James' works (at least not yet), but he does have dozens of urban lit titles listed in binders that hangs on a shelf near the front of the store. He said the actual books are now stocked behind the checkout counter — along with the universally theft-worthy works of Dr. Seuss.

"In the original store the books were out and when we first moved here they were out, but it got to the point where we were losing $200 a week to theft, so we moved those titles aside," Smith said, adding that the thieves were stealing copies of the books in bulk. 

"I've always described it as books that are easy to sell on the el," Smith said. "It's very easy to sell a Sister Souljah book on the train," he said, noting the diversity of urban fiction. 

"You're talking about sort of the pimp and gangster world mixed in with the erotic world," Smith said. "They are theoretically different books and yet there's a ton of crossover, which is why they are all grouped together." 

The labels 'urban' and 'street' lit are limiting but necessary from a commercial standpoint, he added.

Although the genre dates back at least to the gritty fiction of Chicagoan Robert Beck, better known as Iceberg Slim (copies of a recently published biography of the pimp-turned-novelist sit on the Lake Street bookstore's new-arrival table), experts say it was Sister Souljah's novel, The Coldest Winter Ever, that sparked the genre's renaissance and present boom period. 

The works of both Beck and Souljah demonstrate the close alliance between street lit and hip-hop. After he retired from pimping — a move that may have been helped along by a 10-month period of solitary confinement in Cook County Jail — Beck went on to publish a semi-autobiographical novel aptly titled, Pimp, in 1967. The book would help launch a body of work that ultimately influenced a generation of rappers like Ice T and Ice Cube — who owe their stage names to Iceberg Slim.

But the timing of Souljah's Coldest Winter Ever, published in 1999, was more felicitous.

"When Sister Souljah wrote her novel, it had the exact same flavor of hip-hop music, [which] was telling stories about what was happening in the streets and in inner cities," said Vanessa Irvin, an assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who wrote a definitive guide to the genre in 2011. 

"[Souljah's] novel came out at the same time as Fly Girl by Omar Tyree and True to the Game by Perry Woods. That was the renaissance period of street lit," she said.

"The Coldest Winter Ever was one of my favorite books," said James in another nod to the novel's influence. "When I read that, I really wanted to go ahead and finish my own book because it hit on a lot of things that go on and that people don't talk about." 

The genre has evolved since that early 21st century flourishing and, as with hip-hop, has achieved a level of acceptance that even flows into academic settings. As Smith noted, it has spawned a rich variety of offshoots and connecting branches that are stretching the genre's categorization.

Irvin, for instance, said she wouldn't necessarily categorize African American erotica as street lit — even though settings and themes do overlap. There's even street lit-style fiction (with all of the urban intrigue) that is set in black churches. For her part, James is branching out of the urban lit box. She's currently working on a children's book centered on a child with a disability. 

"Street lit has a rich history, and a unifying quality of the genre is that it addresses African American concerns and problems of city living," OPRF High School librarians Amber Hooper, Ann Carlson and Rachael Bild wrote in a joint email statement.

They said violence and sex, staples in street lit geared toward adults, is less explicit in the books that have been popular among OPRF students in recent years. Smith said most people who purchase urban lit titles at Book Table are at least in their 20s and James said her fiction is for adults at least 18 years old. 

Some of the most popular urban lit titles checked out at OPRF's library range from Coldest Winter Ever to Walter Dean Myers's Dope Sick, the librarians said.

Hooper noted the interest in urban fiction titles is such that she's given what she calls "booktalks" in English classes on the novels. Bild said the books allow teens "to see themselves or people they know in print by reflecting experiences often ignored by more mainstream books." The books, she said, get kids excited about reading. 

For OPRF students, however, there isn't exactly uniform agreement on what urban lit, or street lit, constitutes. When students in OPRF English teacher Peter Kahn's Spoken Word Club were asked to name some of their favorite works in the urban lit genre, the titles ran the gamut:

Alex Haley and Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul; Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here; in addition to more predictable titles by Myers and Souljah. 

"I've come to think that words like urban have become another name for black people," said freshman Morgan Barnado, 14. "My friend once saw in the newspaper an article on how to get 'urbans' out of your neighborhood. I think people nowadays, since racism has become such a bad thing, use other words to hide it."

Senior Heavenly Harris, 17, said although she's not necessarily a fan of the genre, she is a fan of the stories themselves. 

"I definitely think it's a label that sucks to me, because 'urban' means city, but people think that everything bad that happens, happens in the city because the suburbs are these peaceful places or whatever. But I think that 'urban lit' is a good thing because stuff that happens in the city, or with minorities, should be written about," she said. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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