Urban fiction gives South Bronx voice

Souleymane Porgo fields a customer's question from behind his book stand at the Hub. (Photo by Stuart White.)

Every day a crowd gathers in the Hub around a sidewalk table spread with paperbacks, nestled between a Halal food cart and a stand selling discount socks.

“Slim, I need that book,” shouted Harriet Stokes, standing in front of the table.

Stokes, a Mott Haven resident, is an avid reader of urban fiction—sometimes called hip-hop fiction or street lit.  She tears through the books, which offer an unvarnished depiction of life in the inner city, in as little as two days.

She says she started reading the genre in the 1970s when Donald Goines—a black novelist who drew from his own experiences as a pimp and drug addict—helped to popularize it.

Stokes says she sees the Bronx in the books—the “drama, action, and the suave they have with the guys and girls, and the real-life stories that go on in the hood.”

She reads the books so quickly the authors can’t keep up with her.

“I’m mad they don’t have the books out one right behind the other,” she said.  “I need Part  2, Part 3 yesterday.”

Urban fiction—which is frequently serial in nature—is available everywhere.  Publishing giant Simon & Schuster even has a division it calls G-Unit featuring novels co-written by rapper 50-Cent.

But the books go beyond traditional bookstores and online sellers, often being sold in stands on street corners like the one run by West African immigrant Souleymane Porgo, or “Slim” as he’s know to his regular customers.

On a recent day, there were three stands like Porgo’s in the vicinity of the Hub, and they seem to be successful.  Porgo says he sells at least 15 to 20 books a day, enough to make a living.

“It’s like entertainment,” said Porgo, explaining the books’ popularity.  “It’s like movies.”

There is a movie-like quality to the books.  Many of the novels explore the drama of the urban black experience, complete with gritty details.

“Robbery, murder, prostitution,” said Mott Haven resident Marian Martinez, who favors gritty crime stories over the genre’s equally widespread romantic melodramas.  “I’ve got about a thousand books back home.  I’ve got so many books, I don’t know what to do with them.”

Customers line up at Porgo's stand. Fridays, like this one, are his busiest days. (Photo by Stuart White.)

Nichell Tucker of Morrisania also enjoys what she calls the books’ “scandalous” qualities.

“It keeps me excited,” she said.  “I used to read V.C. Andrews,”—a writer of horror stories—“then I think I just graduated to this.”

Urban fiction not for everyone

By Stuart White

Some educators view the popularity of urban fiction as a way to get people in areas like the South Bronx, where 45 percent of the residents over the age of 25 lack a high school diploma, to become readers.

But others, like Maria Cronin—the director of SoBRO’s adult educational programs—don’t think the books belong in the classroom.

Cronin works to promote adult literacy, and says preparing students for the workplace is the program’s top priority. Urban fiction, she says, doesn’t factor into that goal.

“Urban fiction, the books that I’ve looked at, every other word is a profanity, and there’s a sexual component to it, and there are drugs and guns,” said Cronin. “It’s the stories of the street.”

Where Cronin sees the glorification of the street life, urban fiction author Julie Ojeda Nin sees an alternative to it.

“I can’t speak for others, but I don’t think that I glorify it,” said Nin. “I want to express to the youth, that if you are angry, you can write about it instead of doing it in real life. Once you figure out where your pain is, you can get over it.”

Nin acknowledges that her work can be violent, but says it is also meant to depict growth.

“I write very raw, brutal stories. I capture my people in a feeling of pain, and also a feeling of gain,” she said.

“It’s a learning process, and we can better ourselves,” she added.

Content aside, though, Cronin has another objection to urban fiction that’s pretty important to a literacy educator.

“The grammar: we’re trying to teach them proper grammar,” she said. “That’s not proper grammar in those books.”

Unlike other styles of fiction with broad fan bases such as fantasy and sci-fi, urban fiction isn’t about escapism.

“I don’t sugarcoat anything,” said Michael Evans, author of the “Son of a Snitch” series.  “I purged myself on these pages.”

Evans’ books, like many in the genre, deal with redemption.  Evans himself was three-card monte dealer on the streets of Times Square in the 1980s.  Now he’s written four books, one of which—the autobiography “It Was All in the Cards: The Life and Times of Midtown Mike”—was a finalist for ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year.

“I have the voice of a southern preacher, the hands of a magician and the gift of gab of a pimp,” said Evans, who not only publishes his books himself, but markets them in person on the streets of Mott Haven.

For some readers that do-it-yourself ethos is half of the appeal.

“I just read off and on,” said George Byers, who lives on the Grand Concourse, but comes to the Hub to shop.  “But when I see a brother doing it himself, I support it.”

According to author Julie Ojeda Nin, doing it herself was the only option.   The first 3,500-book printing of her “Friends ‘Til the End” cost her approximately $,4000 of her own money.

The gamble paid off.  Nin estimates that Part 1 of “Friends ‘Til the End”—which sells for about $15 on Amazon.com—has sold approximately 10,000 copies. Part 2, which was released last August, has sold around 3,000 copies so far.

For Nin and others like her, self-publication is a way to get around a system that she says isn’t always fair to minority writers.

“It’s more of a way for minorities trying to get ahead in life, doing it one-on-one with people, because we aren’t always given a chance to make it big,” said Nin.

Nin says that her stories are inspired by her experiences growing up on 143rd and 3rd, just six blocks from “Slim” Porgo’s stand.

“The book is definitely set in the hood, in drug-infested areas, and the main character makes friendships that are very everlasting and very painful because everyone has problems,” said Nin.  “A lot of people tend to fall for that character.  The pain is what they go through, and the gain is what comes out of it.”

According to Bahiminin Ben Dah, another West African immigrant who helps Souleymane Porgo with this book stand, it’s important for readers to identify with their favorite characters.

“They look for stories they can relate to,” said Ali.  “They may not live that life anymore, they’ve been educated, have good jobs, but they know that background.”