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11/11/2013 10:35 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Definition of Street Lit With Omar Tyree & Keenan Norris

In the 1990s, Street Lit became a phenomenon that was controversial yet rooted in the urban African American experience. Best-selling authors like Omar Tyree were the forerunners in the modern day storytelling of Street Lit. This November Scarecrow Press is publishing "Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape" edited by emerging novelist and scholar Keenan Norris. Recently, co-contributor Kimberly Fain had a conversation with Omar and Keenan about the history of Street Lit and the importance of the genre to the African American community and beyond.

KF: For those who are unfamiliar with the term Street Lit, how would you define the genre?

OT: I've never used the term Street Lit in my life. When Sister Souljah wrote her book "The Coldest Winter Ever" that's when you started hearing the term Street Lit. In 1992 and 1993, my books were called Urban Classics from day one. I suppose the new generation wanted to be more hard core. I'm a professional. I took that term "urban" from the radio. I was a college educated dude who had respect for the black community. Urban is a catch word for black people who live in the big city. It doesn't have to necessarily mean poor or degenerate.

KN: Street Lit is best defined around a set of landmark texts like Stephen Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets," Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Sport of the Gods," Richard Wright's "Native Son" and "American Hunger". In the 1970s, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines are a part of the wave of black authors who were on the fringe of the Black Arts Movement. More recent Street Lit books would be Omar's "Capital City," Sister Souljah's "Coldest Winter Ever," and Terri Woods "Deadly Reign" Trilogy. As far as subject matter, Street Lit is rooted in black migration to urban centers in the Northeast and West Coast. The de-industrialization of those areas resulted in urban decay, fragmentation, and the disillusion of family and community structures.

KF: Early in your writing career, who were your main influences?

OT: I had a voice and my classmates challenged me to write a book. I didn't really think about the predecessors like Ice Berg Slim, Donald Goines, and Chester Himes. But, once I started reading them, I did give them, along with Richard Wright, their proper respect. I had a whole list of 9 of them after writing "Capital City". None of them really influenced my writing. But, I did give them a shout out because they were my predecessors.

KN: I learned a lot about writing from Faulkner and Ellison. The deeper I get into my writing the less I think about my original inspirations, yet I'm drawn to experimental writers. That's why I was so interested in your essay on Whitehead and your larger project on Whitehead. Then, there is Matt Johnson who is doing a lot of different things with the African American experience in the contemporary world. Street Lit is like the antithesis of American Literature which is what drew me in most. The edges of Street Lit, authors like Omar and Sister Souljah are pressing up against the typical discussions around African American art and African American culture such as issues of black masculinity.

KF: What inspired your involvement in this groundbreaking collection on Street Lit?

OT: I met Keenan years ago and this was more of friendship thing. I really wanted to work with Keenan because he did the research. A lot of people don't know the depth of my involvement. But, when you're talking about Urban Lit; I'm one of the Godfathers. A lot of people think of Godfather in a negative way because of its association with the Italian mafia. But, I'm okay with that term. Now that I've had the opportunity to write the foreword of Keenan's book "Street Lit", the audience can really learn my perspective on the differences between the terms Street Lit and Urban Lit.

KN: As I read more and more biographies of writers, I found that I was most interested in black biographies. Historically, the struggle to get published is linked to our story in America as misunderstood and deemed unintelligent. For instance, David Walker had to pay for the printing, binding and distribution of his "Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World" because William Garrison's Liberator wouldn't even publish it. When you look at early African American writers desire to have blacks, whites, slaves and free citizens reading their work, this mirrors the whole democratic process woven into the American experience. Then, there are contemporary black American writers such as Omar, who are doing their own thing. Those writers have a unique relationship to the publishing industry. So, I took my dissertation idea to Scarecrow Press because I knew they were interested in African American topics. Often times, the connotation of Street Lit was so negative and so binary. I wanted to highlight the complexity and the history of the genre. Omar's journey of initially self-publishing his own work and growing his own audience from the grassroots is the modern day example of this African American journey.

KF: How do you dispel some of the generalizations and stereotypes about Street Lit?

OT: A lot of times people make comments about Urban Literature and they don't even know the work. After I wrote "Flyy Girl" that seems to be the only book anyone ever wants to talk about. "Flyy Girl" was about elevation and the materialism of the 1980s. I was addressing the sex, drugs, and violence in America at the time. Remember Madonna's "Material Girl" and the decadence of that era in pop culture? But as black people, we're part of that American culture. Those social issues don't just affect blacks. But, I addressed black people because I was trying to help fix some of these issues that plague the community. I have plenty of other books that show the diversity of our community like "Single Mom" and "A Do Right Man".

KN: I have to agree with Omar. Street Lit propagates the myth that black males are always oversexed, violent, and involved in criminal activities. Truth is, there is a lot of this in Street Lit. The irony is that herein lies its power. The younger audience is attracted to these themes. The black experience isn't really being chronicled anywhere else except for in elite black studies journals which lack broad appeal. Focusing on these themes allow Street Lit to address issues such as mass incarceration. The US has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Impoverished youth and marginalized youth are given sustained interest and they are chronicled by Street Lit writers.

KF: According to Harvey Weinstein, one of the producers of The Butler, Fruitvale, and Mandela, he claims that the "Obama Effect" is causing a Black Renaissance in film. Do you think that there is a Black Renaissance in terms of literature?

OT: Absolutely not . . . there is no new interest in black literature. The bookstores are going out of business. That's why I established ebooknationinc.com because the E-book thing is becoming so popular. We had a golden age in the 1990s. Back then, big time book publishers would send you out on tours around the country. In the 1990s, there were lines around the corner at book signings and hardback books could be sold for $23 and $24. But now, you have superstores like Walmart selling paperback books. People are reading differently. But, by no means is there a Black Renaissance in movies or literature. The 1990s was the new renaissance period. Now, we have more slavery and Tyler Perry movies.

KN: No, there's not a Black Renaissance in terms of literature. Books are a very intimate experience. Obama's accomplishments in politics are more evident in the public sphere. I can see Weinstein's point more in film. Black people in politics is inspiring films such as Lee Daniels' The Butler. I might be missing something and I wish that were true. But, I really don't think so.

KF: Is there a need for Street Lit books in a color blind or post-racial society?

OT: Post-racial society? What? Since Obama has been in office, Chicago has become more vicious. We still have people who live in these hardened areas. Issues of racism are still a problem in society. I'm going to leave it up to the younger people to address these issues of violence in the inner-city.

KN: Most blacks and many whites know that we're not in a post-racial society. Unlike Street lit and hip hop, the post-racial discussion that occurs in reference to Obama and politics is about the black elite. Street Lit is about people who are still marginalized and alienated. There's power in the discomfort. Street Lit forces discussions around inequality around ante-black sentiment in housing and employment which is critical. It needs to be published and it needs a voice. Not lauded and celebrated but looked into.

KF: Do you think that our Street Lit collection goes beyond the academic audience?

OT: Academic people are always concerned about the deeper level. People have a lot of problems when people talk about the cultural significance of books. I've had a couple of good conversations with Sister Souljah. She's intelligent and educated. But, she doesn't try to push the community like I did. That was my mistake. People don't want to hear about where we're at and where we need to go. After all, I'm from Philadelphia and that's the way we are. But, this book offers the truth and a comprehensive look at the community and the literature that speaks about it.

KN: There are some accomplished writers in our collection such as David Bradley who is a PEN/Faulkner Award winner, and he also had an early hand in the Malcolm X script. Then there is Jaqueline Lima Santos and Ana Lucia Sauza who are two prominent Brazilian scholars who have a piece on hip hop and graffiti. Even some of the lesser known contributors are of equal of value. Kemeshia Randle who speaks on the rift between Street Lit's audience and the academic audience. Your piece on Colson Whitehead goes beyond the academic audience. "Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape" is a wonderful blend of hip hop and poetry. The works in the book remind readers that Street Lit is not narrow in scope. We attempted to bring in a wide variety of writers and literary forms; we not only have academic essays, but we have essays that are editorial in nature. Our Street Lit collection is a wonderful blend of hip hop and poetry on the page. The anthology manages to chronicle the Street Lit that comes out of Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, and beyond.

That concludes my interview with Omar Tyree and Keenan Norris. I would like to thank them for taking time out of their busy schedules to speak with me. Listed below is a few of our current projects.

Kimberly Fain is an adjunct professor at Texas Southern University and Houston Community College. Her current projects include "Colson Whitehead's Zone One Postapocalyptic Zombies Takeover Manhattan" in "Street Lit" and her forthcoming book project on the "The Literary Works of Colson Whitehead". Follow Kimberly Fain www.twitter.com/KimberlyFain

Omar Tyree, the author of the foreword in "Street Lit," is the bestselling author and founder of ebooknationinc.com which features his recent novel "The Traveler". Recently, Codeblack bought the rights to his hit book "Flyy Girl". Visit Omar at Omartyree.com

Keenan Norris is a professor at Evergreen Valley College. He is also the editor of and a contributor to "Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape". His most recent essay "Coal, Charcoal and Chocolate Comedy" is featured in University of Mississippi's Post Soul Satire Journal. His most recent novel "Brother and the Dancer" won the James D. Houston award. Visit Keenan at keenannorris.com