Unheardwords of Writers of Colour

In 1992 Urban Fiction Began - Khome

Editorial: In 1992 Urban Fiction Began

In 1992, whilst enjoying a drink with a clutch of buppie friends in a modern winebar (CJs) in London’s Brixton, I was unaware that something had changed. The Brixton renaissance, the winebar, the bottled larger - drunk from the bottle, the term buppie and a flyer dropped on our table all signified change. Of course, it’s never - during - that you realise the things around you will become part of legend. And, as we each picked up the A5 flyer, looked at the brash ‘shot-em-up’ depiction and scowled at the word ‘Yardie’, we didn’t realise anything particularly significant was taking place.

The ‘X press’ publication Yardie by Victor Headley was about to herald a wave of new black authored ‘telling-it-like-it-is’ fiction upon the inner cities. The X Press itself was a breakthrough business venture, a UK-based specialist publishing house. And, over time the term ‘urban fiction’ would be adopted by some to describe this genre, and perhaps a phenomenon able to transform myths about the lack of a market for black fiction.
(2016 update: I used to have a link here to the X-Press site but can no longer find it; I'd recommend 'Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture' By Alison Donnell which features Xpress publications).

So what is this thing called urban fiction? Is it really the preserve of black authors? And, what does it mean for contemporary writers and new writing?

Pete Kula, author of several novels (including: 'Yard Dogs', 'Diary of a Househusband', and 'Black Star Rising') says, “…the opening up of the term ‘urban’ provided a new signifier that covered many of the bases of the old terminology [i.e. black, black & Asian, black British].” So in his mind, there is good reason for linking black and urban. “It is true in the UK that black people (old sense) have coalesced around major cities. So it is hard to conceive of a use of the term ‘urban’ that does not import some ‘black’ resonance. I often find among younger people a sense of multi-identity that finds ‘urban’ an easier term to identify with, than black.”   www.peterkalu.com/

Another broad view, focuses on the changing perceptions of the city and the way in which this has resulted in more diverse sources of fiction. These changes can be summed up by seven ideas:

Thus, (Adapted from Bart Eeckhout & Bart Keunen, Urban Fiction, November 2000)

These ideas suggest a new urbanism, one result being the rise of new styles of black fiction.

Of course, the quality of these new styles of writing is something that evokes a very traditional debate which concerns the nature of art itself; art encapsulated as popular entertainment verses real art.

"Some books will not sustain the test of time and be revisited by our own childeren in the future. What books do I think will be classics? Three novels by E. Lynn Harris, also, 'Waiting to Exhale' (by Terry McMillan), 'Tempest Rising' (by Diane McKinney-Whetstone). And more, 'Coldest Winter Ever' (by Sister Souljah), 'Addicted' (by Zane), 'Waiting in Vain' (by Colin Channer), 'What Looks Like Crazy' (by Pearl Cleage ), but not many more. It is not because of their writing style, prose style or genre, it is because their story will teach our past to our future in styles that contract but bring forth knowledge, even some without redeeming factors." Cashana Seals, Aug 2004.   www.imanivoices.com/

In the United States a lot of urban fiction is immediate, street, written and meant for quick consumption by a very local audience. Other classes of this writing have a lot in common with mass market popular fiction; it is thematic (crime and passion, love and betrayal, power and corruption), repetitive and highly accessible.

A recent press release (January 3, 2005) ‘Urban Fiction Gets Wake Up Call’, for a new book by the author Alan Cramer (entitled ‘God Helps Those...’) claims, "...the most common complaint starting to grow among urban fiction readers is the stories are all the same." Crammer himself is quoted as saying, "The problem is a couple of major players in the drug game told their story, and now you have imitators retelling the same stories over and over again. How many times can you read I sold a lot of drugs, had a lot of girls, shot a lot of guys, made a lot of money, blah, blah, bling, bling…."

At the - high - end of the spectrum, literary awards like the Hurston/Wright Legacy, given every year by the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation - celebrate great attainment by black authors. Examples are; 'Leaving Atlanta' by Tayari Jones (2003 debut fiction winner); 'Purple Hibiscus' by Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie (2004 debut fiction winner); 'The Polished Hoe' by Austin Clarke (2004 fiction winner).   www.hurstonwright.org/

This begs the question 'What is literature?' As asked by Cashana Seals of Imanivoices (see above). "It is debatable. All I know for sure is that 10 years ago, books by us for us were virtually nonexistent. Now we have a choice of some good, some bad. We are free to choose what we want and have opinions about our choices. How do you know that you don't like a book unless you read it?"

Perhaps the positive thing about this 'urban fiction renaissance' as Triple Crown Publications (one of the new bread of publishers) describes it, is the opportunity it represents. Maybe at the beginning of every great innovation, there is a period of rough edged but excillerating breakthrough. Such pioneering eventually giving way to a more even and progressive wave of consistency. The good news is that we may be witnessing the ground work that will result in a comtemporary and plentiful heritage of new black literature.
{2016 Update: Triple Crown also used to have their own site but can only find reference to them here now.)

One more note: urban fiction is known by many names, including; urban culture, urban creative writing, hip-hop fiction, hip-hop lit, ghetto fiction, and afro-urban fiction.

© Khome, February 2005 (all rights reserved)

2016 Reflection; and I'm wordering - is the term 'Urban Fiction' still contemporary?