Keisha Ervin wants to move. She shudders and shakes her head and blurts "Ah!" just thinking about it.
Don't get Ervin wrong, her little Eminence Drive abode in St. John, with the walls she painted pumpkin and the colonial-style furnishings, has served her well since she ponied up seven months' rent, and the landlord looked at her funny, like, She's 24 and an author? Yeah, right.
That was 2006, right after a $30,000 royalty check arrived for sales on Ervin's second novel, Chyna Black, which opened like this:
All my drama began when I was fifteen, that's the year that I came out of my shell and broke loose. All of my woman's curves came alive and all of the old heads were peepin' me out. ...I had a banging body to be only fifteen years old. My face was innocent, but that was about it. Shit, by the time I was ten, I was in a C-cup bra. I'm seventeen now and my cup size had grown to a double D, and with my small waist and apple bottom, all the fellas were screaming, "Drop it like it's hot!" ...My stock was high and niggas in every hood wanted to invest.
The baby-mama drama of a St. Louis teen mother and high school dropout-cum-fiction writer named Chyna Black, the book was largely the story of Keisha Ervin's life. And since its publication in late 2004, the 27-year-old Ervin has propelled herself from Shop 'n Save cashier to starlet of the street-lit scene.
Street lit, also known as urban lit and urban fiction, tells the tales of ballers (bad-asses) and paper chasers (gold diggers), playin', dealin', lovin' and cheatin' in the city. The genre is scorned as smut by some, exalted as a savior of literacy by others. Its sway in the marketplace is as captivating as the shimmy of an apple-bottom in skintight jeans.
Ervin was one of the first Midwesterners on the street-lit scene, and her books celebrate St. Louis in a big way. Her characters reside all over the metro area, from Ladue to Country Club Hills. They shop at Frison Flea Market and the Galleria, and frequent some of Ervin's own haunts, like Brennan's, the Delmar Loop and Sub Zero Vodka Bar.
Though her plots don't center on the ins and outs of trick-turning or drug-dealing, the money in Ervin's novels is dirty and plentiful. The sex is steamy and persists for pages. Says Brenda Hampton, Ervin's agent: "She's got this thing with urban romance that makes you go: Wow! Hers are the Romeo and Juliet stories of the city."
Ervin is a pretty young woman, wide-eyed, with a faint round birthmark to the right of her mouth. She speaks at breakneck speed and wears her son's and mother's names in the form of tattoos. She has six novels under her belt, and while she's not yet able to afford the Dolce & Gabbana favored by her heroines, she conveys the carefully assembled look of a woman who's made it: dressed to kill and rocking a new hairstyle almost weekly.
Now Ervin needs a room of her own. She's thinking Lafayette Square or south city. Something with at least one room big enough for all her clothes and shoes. Definitely an office, so she can get her computer off her dining-room table.
In the meantime, the desktop Dell occupies ground zero of her St. John rental, a constant reminder of the hundreds of MySpace fan messages to answer and chapters to write. The pressure is on Ervin to finish her eighth work, State Property, by summer — before the seventh, Gunz and Roses, even hits the market.
Contella Farley, a reference technician at St. Louis Public Library's Carpenter branch, is already anticipating a rush to the counter for that one.
As Farley puts it: "She's very popular with the younger crowd. They know her like they know a recording artist."
Hop online and try to check out a popular street-lit book from any of the city libraries, or those in, say, University City or Ferguson. Ready, set, wait...for months.
To be sure, street lit is circulating throughout much of the metro area. But copies of many titles show up as "lost," "damaged," "missing," "checked out." Place a hold on the one circulating copy and prepare to see: "You are number 25 on the waiting list."
Area librarians spout the same refrain: As much as they replace the disappearing copies, they simply can't keep them available. "The trend in libraries across the country is they get damaged really fast, or they vanish because people never return them," says Floyd Council, manager of St. Louis' Julia Davis branch. "They'd much rather have a big fine on their card or get their card locked up [than not have the book]."
Still, it's tough to quantify the popularity of the trend. Essence magazine's monthly bestseller list is generally regarded as a benchmark, but the publication only collects data from roughly a dozen U.S. and Canadian black bookstores. Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based trade news and research company specializing in the African American market, says better data will be available soon. "We're actually working with [Nielsen] BookScan to develop a system that will count sales figures, because there're clearly more business opportunities to be had."
Followers of urban fiction trace its advent to ex-cons-turned-scribes Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) and Donald Goines, whose tales of pimps and hos from the 'hood earned notoriety and acclaim in the late 1960s and '70s. "What we're seeing now is a latter generation of black gangster and gangsterette novels," says Calvin Reid, senior news editor of Publishers Weekly. "It's neo-Blaxploitation literature."
Contemporary ghetto lit began to crop up in the mid-1990s. Many authors self-published initially, taking a page from aspiring hip-hop artists, many of whom achieved success with a similar strategy. Those writers who broke through excelled at self-promotion, explains Troy Johnson, founder of Aalbc.com, an online bookstore specializing in African American literature.
"They were willing to do anything, whether it was literally setting up a table and selling books on a busy street corner, going into a bookstore and putting their books on shelves, taping fliers to trees. I've even sat with authors who've gotten up from dinner in a restaurant to hand-sell books to people who were dining," says Johnson.
In 1999 the well-known civil rights activist Sister Souljah published The Coldest Winter Ever, a tale about the disgraced daughter of a New York City drug lord trying to find her way after the feds locked up her father. Highbrow publications like The New Yorker and Salon.com published positive reviews. Some say it was the book that launched a thousand copycats.
Two years later an Ohio ex-con named Vickie M. Stringer self-published Let That Be the Reason and launched Triple Crown Publications, named after her old drug crew, the Triple Crown Posse. Columbus-based Triple Crown swiftly became, in the words of Publishers Weekly's Reid, "the Random House of street lit."
Triple Crown has since shepherded numerous Essence bestsellers into the marketplace, with an author lineup that has included Nikki Turner, Tu-Shonda L. Whitaker, Wahida Clark — and Keisha Ervin. Many Triple Crown authors, including Stringer herself, later scored contracts with blue-chip publishers such as Random House and Simon & Schuster.
"It has a weird, inspirational character to it," Reid says of the genre. "It makes people want to write their own books. Now, this drives some people crazy. But the fact of the matter is, I think, a category that not only makes people — and particularly black people — want to write, is fabulous."
By all accounts, street lit's biggest fans are female, anywhere from ten years old to fifty on up. Julia Davis' Council likens the phenomenon to the wild popularity enjoyed three decades ago by daytime TV shows like General Hospital. "To be honest, I haven't seen a movement of this sort since my mother and aunts were watching soap operas in the 1980s," Council says. "Some of the scenes are just as powerful as when Luke and Laura got married!"
Keisha Ervin got to Normandy High School, and, as she puts it, "lost my mind." Then again, she adds, if it weren't for all the messing around she did back then, "I wouldn't be where I am today."
Ervin's parents were separated and had been pretty much since Ervin's birth. She lived with her mother, who labored long hours at two jobs, relied on public transportation and often slept at work. On her own for all practical purposes, Ervin started skipping a lot of school.
She became sexually literate, you might say, at fifteen. At sixteen she fell in love with a cute boy "who did some illegal things but still went to school every day." He was her third sex partner, and the first time they did it she got pregnant.
Patricia Poe, Ervin's mother, says she was devastated and agreed to fund half the cost of an abortion. The family of the baby's father promised the other half, but on the day of reckoning he didn't show up. Recalls Ervin: "He wanted the baby, and he thought that by not showing up I wouldn't go through with it. Come to find out he was cheating on me."
And so ensued months of teenage drama — she took him back; he cheated again — until Ervin met an older drug dealer who romanced her by picking her up from school one afternoon. "It sounds terrible to say, but I dated him to make the other guy jealous. It backfired. Because I got pregnant. Again."
This time Ervin decided to keep the baby, a boy, who was born in December 1999. With no help from the child's father, Ervin quit school and went on welfare. She flashes a disgusted grimace as she describes her first trip for food stamps: "I felt horrible. I was so embarrassed."
Ervin worked toward her GED and got a day job, first at Walgreens, then Shop 'n Save. On weekends, while her girlfriends hit the clubs, Ervin stayed in with her son, reading. "You can only watch so much SpongeBob SquarePants," she says.
Ervin got hooked on street lit after finishing True to the Game, by Teri Woods. "I came up with the idea for Me & My Boyfriend and started writing in the basement of my mother's house," she recounts. "Nobody knew what I was doing down there. And in the beginning I wasn't really even thinking about getting published. I just wanted to see if I could do it for myself."
Ervin made it halfway through a draft and got stuck. She put the manuscript away for a year. In October 2003 she mustered the courage to submit four chapters to Triple Crown per the submission guidelines she found online.
Her mother laughs at the memory. "The next thing I know, she gets something in the mail from Triple Crown Publications, and I'm like: 'What is this?'" Poe recalls. "She was at work. I open it up, and I'm like: 'What? Somebody likes the first four chapters of her book and wants to read more?' I'm like: 'Keisha is writing stuff? I didn't even know she could spell!'"
That was December 2003. The following month Ervin and Triple Crown signed a two-book deal. Me & My Boyfriend came out in February 2004. To spread the word, she handed out postcards for the book to all the customers she rang up at the grocery store.
The book made a respectable splash, appearing for a time at the bottom of the Essence bestseller list, and Ervin stepped up her self-promotion. "I called Bill Beene [of the St. Louis American] every day till he would do an article on me, and I got my own book-signings set up," she says. "St. Louis really supported me. When Chyna Black came out [later in 2004], I sold 10,000 copies in the first two weeks."
When Chyna took over the No. 1 slot on the Essence list, Patricia Poe, who had just learned how to drive at age 45, got personalized license plates that read, "CHYNA 1."
"Just before it came out, I clearly remember Keisha saying, 'I'm not writing any more books, I'm done,'" recalls Tu-Shonda L. Whitaker, a New Jersey writer and one of Ervin's closest friends. "I'm thinking, OK, Keisha, I'll let you vent. Once she was done, I said, 'When you're ready for the next book, we'll talk.' And it was probably a week later she was working on Mina's Joint."
It's standing-room-only in Contella Farley's urban-lit workshop at the St. Louis Public Library's professional-development day on a frigid Monday. Forty librarians, mixed in gender, age and ethnicity, have gathered in the downtown branch's third-floor gallery, a stately space painted in deep green and trimmed with mahogany — and a somewhat counterintuitive backdrop for Farley's subject: a new reading public that once only pictured libraries as "a very prim place filled with Yeats."
"These are people who never came into the library, or only stopped by for tax forms, or maybe to send a little e-mail," she begins. "Now they want books. And we have to know how to treat them."
One question circulating among library directors concerns shelving: Should street lit cohabitate with general fiction or have its own separate area? "Last week I had a lady who was so frustrated," says Farley. "She didn't know how to find these books. She says, 'I want a "drama" book.' Well, now, The Count of Monte Cristo is pretty dramatic! 'What kind of drama are you looking for?' People like this woman, they say, 'I want Triple Crown! Triple Crown!' They don't even really know Triple Crown is a publisher."
The fortysomething Farley is an animated gesticulator with a high-pitched voice and a huge enthusiasm for her craft. You can tell she has a rascal's charm when she giggles while explaining how library patrons at Carpenter "have to walk past everything else to get their hands on [street lit]."
Farley, who has worked at Carpenter since 1997, started the city library system's first urban-fiction book club two years ago. Her group draws a handful of regulars on a monthly basis. Farley also invites authors from around the nation to visit and discuss their work, events that draw local readers in droves.
"The kids loved it," Farley says of Keisha Ervin's last author visit. "The way they packed the lecture hall, questioned and listened. They really like [her] Cinderella-type story."
Farley's 40-minute workshop for fellow librarians is equally impassioned, at times calling to mind a revival, with some in the audience mmm-hmming and interjecting with an enthusiastic "Yes!" She fields questions about how to keep patrons from stealing the street lit ("Good luck!") and how the genre is evolving ("It's not just about getting killed and being on drugs; now there are stories that have to do with religion and redemption").
"One question I heard the other day from somebody was: 'Why would you rather read this than Toni Morrison?'" The impish grin appears. "It's about entertainment," Farley says. "It's no different than Danielle Steel, no different than Harlequin romances."
Farley says she has found translated versions of popular street-lit books on websites all over the world. Even the American Library in Paris, she says, keeps some titles on the shelves.
One pressing question surfaces several times: How do you address the books' sensitive contents with parents? Farley replies by telling how she got over her own such concerns: "Look," she says, "I tried once to talk to a parent, because this young girl, all she kept wanting was Gettin' Buck Wild. Well, the mama was right behind her, saying, 'I want my baby to keep it real!' For some parents, this is real.
"Talk to teens and ask them why they don't read," she goes on. "It's because there's nothing they can relate to! Harry Potter is a wonderful story, but how many kids do you know from Carpenter [Library] who can relate to a school like Hogwarts?
"You know, it'd be wonderful to have a Jamal Potter book!"
Although he doesn't read it himself — "My wife forbids me!" — Julia Davis branch manager Floyd Council loves the way urban lit absorbs readers. "People get addicted to social networking, gambling, porn, blogging, right? Well, there are also people who have an extreme addiction to these characters in street lit. Believe it or not, you have people sitting in book discussions crying. Take [Keisha Ervin's] Finding Forever. People are leaving that book feeling like they just came out of a movie where somebody got shot in the head."
Amazon.com reader reviews of Ervin's sixth book, about a relationship decimated by cancer, reveal some pretty emotional responses:
"I am most definitely a sucker for love stories and this one tore me up! It was off the hook!"
"This book was so GOOD!!! I cried like a newborn baby."
"I WAS BLOWN AWAY WITH THE RAW EMOTIONS THAT I WAS EXPERIENCED [sic], BUT WHEN THE FIRST TEARDROP HIT MY CHEEK I KNEW THAT I WOULD READ THIS LOVE STORY OVER AND OVER AGAIN!!!!"
Some readers left personal notes:
"Keisha you did ur thing as always."
"Dear Keisha, I personally would like to see Koran come back in another story."
"Key, you're my girl! I been down for you from jump and I understand that sometimes we have a writers block or a moment of silence. I would have rather for you [sic] to chill for a year or two and came back [sic] with that fire!"
Ervin loves the feedback, especially when she hears from fans in foreign countries. Most of those who write want to know if she is plotting a sequel or how she creates her characters.
Although Ervin's personality often diverges from her protagonists' — she has never learned to drive, for instance, but her heroines roll in tricked-out Escalades — you see a lot of Ervin and her life in the novels.
Supporting characters Destiny and Darryl in Me & My Boyfriend are based on one of Ervin's best friends whose boyfriend beat her and on Ervin's uncle, who stabbed his wife to death. Torn starred another girlfriend — Ervin didn't even change her name in the book — and related the saga of the woman's conflicted efforts to end a ten-year relationship with a rich drug dealer who constantly cheated on her.
Then there's Mina's Joint, which features a closeted gay man, Andrew, who was loosely inspired by a close relative. Mina, Andrew's fiancée before she finds a more-deserving dude, is plus-size and proud, like Ervin.
"Having my son, I went from a frail little thing to having meat on me, wondering and worrying whether a guy would ever want to date me, to finally realizing that I could exercise to be healthy, not skinny, and dress myself in a way that flattered my figure," she says. "A lot of girls don't know how to do that, and I wanted to show them you can be plus-size, confident and dating."
Chyna Black, Ervin's most prolific seller, is "75 percent" autobiographical, and perhaps the book she's proudest of. "The only thing I'd change is the ending," Ervin says of her decision to have Chyna reconsider taking back the baby's father. "I'd have left her by herself. That would have left a better message."
Most of Ervin's protagonists do go from victim to heroine, breaking free from unworthy jerks. "I know so many girls — and I've done it myself — who take the guy back for fear of being alone, not having anybody and because of all the time you've already put into him," she says. "But what I want to show is that in love, you don't have to work that hard."
Ervin covers some heavy territory, especially in her characters' physical relationships. Practically every book features overly macho men who beat up their women. "To the critics, I would say it's not glorification, it's real life," she explains. "I'm writing this because it's true. It's been my life, my friends' lives, the lady down the street's life."
The sex scenes — especially the make-up-sex scenes — are equally intense. "It's actually getting harder for me to write [them]," Ervin admits. "I've done so many, it's gotten to the point where I now save them for the end."
Her mother cringes every time she arrives at a steamy moment. "I call her and say, 'Wait a minute!'" Poe says. "'Now, how do you know about stuff like this? I don't even know about stuff like this!'"
Family — especially older relatives — are strikingly absent in most of Ervin's books. Why? "Because," Ervin asserts, "no matter who tells you — your aunt, your grandmother, your mother — you're gonna do what you want, till you learn on your own."
Four years ago Publishers Weekly editor Calvin Reid was assembling an editorial package on street lit, and before he'd written the first sentence, detractors were lining up. "I got all these e-mails from people saying, 'Oh, no, you're not doing this, are you? Why are you giving this stuff more attention?'"
Critics have many complaints: poor editing and bad grammatical usage; glorification of violence, both domestic and in the streets; repetitive plots; strong language; graphic sex.
"Urban fiction threw out African American family values and rituals, and it makes older people in the community invisible," contends Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, a member of the faculty at Spelman College in Atlanta who specializes in African American literature. "There are exceptions, but most of this fiction is of the very brief now. It's not born to be read ten years from now. There are no [James] Baldwins, no [Ralph] Ellisons, no Toni Morrisons, no Ernest J. Gaineses. What is this [genre's] value, other than to make money?"
For a time it was taboo to malign street lit. Then, in January 2006, Nick Chiles, an African American fiction writer, penned a New York Times-syndicated op-ed titled, "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut." Beneath a headline that plays off Their Eyes Were Watching God, a preeminent piece of fiction published in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston, Chiles condemned the way major bookstore chains were promoting scads of street-lit titles — with their often racy covers — under the heading "African American literature."
"As I stood there in Borders, I had two sensations," Chiles wrote. "I was ashamed and mortified to see my books sitting on the same shelves as these titles; and, secondly, as someone who makes a living as a writer, I felt I had no way to compete with these purveyors of crassness."
The floodgates opened, with literary types debating street lit's merits in private tête-à-têtes and at public events. At one panel in Washington, D.C., in 2006, recalls Reid, "the hall was packed with 300, 400 people, and long lines of people waiting to get up to the microphones to say how important these books and these authors were to them."
Bridgett M. Davis, a journalism professor at Baruch College in New York City and author of the novel Shifting Through Neutral, chimed in early last year with an essay in The Root that called for a reorganization in the market: i.e., conferences and book fairs for "black literary writers," bookstore sections called "Black Literary Fiction."
Davis calls librarians' "but it gets people reading!" argument "condescending."
"Go to a [non-African American] school and suggest a fourth- or fifth-grader ought to have a steady diet of Danielle Steel," says Davis. "I don't think her parents would be that pleased. I don't think the school would support it. And I don't think the librarians would say, 'At least they're reading.'"
Finally, last summer, popular street-lit author Omar Tyree — who prefers to call his canon "urban classics" — announced in an essay in the Daily Voice that he was getting out of the urban-fiction game because he felt like he had "created the monster Frankenstein." He professed to be tired of "gold-digging, ghetto girl, gangster love, drug-dealer stories." Asked Tyree: "Don't we have some other things to write about?"
Vanessa Morris, a librarian and assistant professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, counters that street lit deserves a place alongside classics like Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Morrison's Beloved. "There's violence in quote-unquote traditional literature, too," says Morris. "I mean, come on, I had a visceral reaction to the scene in Beloved where the mother takes a machete and goes to kill her children. It's intense and graphic and uncompromising, and that book is listed somewhere among the top 25 novels of all time."
Morris compares the criticism to attacks against William Shakespeare, who was derided for casting women in his productions, and Zora Neale Hurston, whose use of black dialect was maligned by lions of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes.
"And what about at the turn of the last century — all the stories about Irish immigrants?" Morris adds. "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was the first book written by Stephen Crane, and he couldn't get it published! It took place in the 'hood, [Maggie's] mom and dad were alcoholics, her brother was on the corner selling and drinking, she becomes a prostitute and dies, and it's all written in Irish slang!" Today the book is hailed as a classic.
Morris coauthors a monthly column on street-lit books in the trade magazine Library Journal. The column debuted about a year ago; Morris has long been a fan of the genre. She says story lines have evolved to include more moral compasses in older characters, plots have become more sophisticated, and characters are better developed.
Bottom line, says Morris: "There's sex and misogyny in every genre. So if we can make James Patterson rich, what's the problem? If we can make Stephen King and Danielle Steel rich, what's the problem?"
Out on Dames Park Drive in O'Fallon, 30 miles from the Wellston neighborhood where she spent her childhood, and Hazelwood, where she got expelled from high school for fighting and birthed her first kids (twins) at age seventeen, Brenda Hampton spends her workdays poring over manuscripts.
Her McBride & Son home, nearly identical to all the others on the new, seemingly treeless street, with their wrought-iron mailboxes, picket fences and white siding, is admittedly "a long way from home," but it offers everything Hampton ever wanted in life: "Peace!"
Parked out front is a Ford van crammed with books. Called VOICES Books on Wheels, it's a home-delivery service Hampton launched last year after noticing how hard it was to find contemporary African American fiction in St. Louis bookstores.
The 41-year-old mother of three was selling insurance back in 2001 when she read Terry McMillan's Disappearing Acts and was inspired to write her own novel. After self-publishing that book, Hampton could not catch the eye of a competent agent or publishing house. So she started her own imprint and released her novels herself.
In 2006 Hampton drew the attention of Carl Weber, a New York Times-bestselling author and owner of Long Island-based Urban Books. She inked a deal with Weber and is now at work on The Naughty Series, whose second title comes out this month. Hampton has also become a literary agent. Last year she picked up Keisha Ervin and landed her a contract with Urban. (Says Hampton: "She was an easy sell.")
Hampton has strayed from street lit in her own writing, and as an agent she has taken on authors in other genres, but she has found them tough to move in the current weak economy. "What's hot right now is the urban lit," she says. "These books are selling 125,000 copies in a year. Keisha, she has a name, she puts out a book, she can definitely hit that 100,000 mark." (Triple Crown declined to provide sales figures for any of Ervin's books.)
Hampton acknowledges the controversy over street lit, particularly complaints about the strong language. "I got copies of Keisha's Finding Forever and Gunz and Roses and saw a lot of the N-word and 'bitch.' And I called her to say, 'Keisha, let's tone it down just a little. That way you can pick up more readers.'"
Ervin says she hopes to attract a broader audience. She describes the forthcoming Gunz and Roses as "a black Devil Wears Prada." Her first title with Urban Books, it will be released on August 25.
And then there's State Property, the novel she's racing to finish now. It will be her first story set outside St. Louis. "Very high-society," Ervin says. "There's no street element at all."
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