My Top 5 Urban Fiction Literary Canon Books
Urban fiction also sometimes referred to as "street literature" or "urban literature" is a fiction story that is usually set around urban or city culture, can include themes on crime, drugs, sexual content and or use characters of marginalized communities. Some have found that grouping such novels as, "urban" unfairly stereotypes the work based on the ethnicity of the writer or socio-economic status of the majority of readers. Moreover, based on sales and content, one might argue these novels are no different than any other fiction books so why should they be categorized as urban. This is a valid argument because usually attaching the word "urban" to anything has a negative connotation. However, I think, in this case, let's celebrate the fact that we have defined a new literary space. Allow me to explain why.
First, the storylines create a realistic fantasy. Certain aspects of the storytelling can appear outlandish or over the top, but by referencing an era in history and including some facts the reader wrestle with the possible vs. impossible.
Second, in urban fictions, the city is a character in itself. The history, population, the sounds, the smells, and uniqueness that separates city, from suburb from town. It reminds the reader of the importance of the narrative space and how it shapes the development of human characters. This is evident when the city descriptions are formed by numerous references to the city environment.
Third, many urban fiction tales challenge heroic ideals. The main characters are often complex in nature trying to rationalize illegal or unethical activities for the greater good.
Finally, September is National Literacy Month in the U.S.A. Many kids who grew up in cities credit their love or introduction to leisure reading to classic urban fiction novels. And that in itself is a BIG win!
Without further ado, here's my top 5 Urban Fictions:
1. Flyy Girl By Omar Tyree
Flyy Girl is the first urban fiction novel I ever read. I was about 14 (1999) and a group of classmates were discussing the book as if it were a movie. I asked, "what movie are you guys talking about?", and they all laughed, and one girl (Zakia) said, "No, girl, the book "Flyy Girl" by Omar Tree. After school, I sprinted to the library to find this book by Omar Tree and found out the author's correct last name and that he is a Philadelphia native. I devoured that book in 2 days. I read it all throughout classes and on the commute to and from school on city transit (SEPTA). I bought the book again at age 30 and reread it out of pure nostalgia and, it did not disappoint.
It's been reported that a film adaptation of this book is in the works by the producers of the film "Dear White People" (a must see!). I'm looking forward to it. Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl book trilogy includes For The Love of Money and Boss Lady.
Summary: An African-American coming-of-age story that follows Tracy Ellison from her sixth birthday party in 1977 to her 17th birthday. Tracy grows up in the middle-class Philadelphia suburb of Germantown. The daughter of a dietitian and pharmacist, Tracy is beautiful, intelligent, and armed with self-esteem and a sassy mouth. Tracy is also boy crazy, which leads to sex in the indulgent, hip-hop 1980s and the effects of the cocaine economy flourishing in black communities.
2. The Coldest Winter Ever By Sister Souljah
After my introduction to the urban fiction genre, I was hooked. I picked up another fan favorite, "The Coldest Winter Ever" by the living legend, activist, and hip-hop pioneer, Sister Souljah. The book read like a film. The character development and intricacies of the plot had me totally lost in the world of the novel. I thought about the ending for days to follow. Then I recommended it to my older sister Korlu, (7 years my senior) and she too was amazed. This was also nearing productions with HBO, Sister Souljah said in an interview, but the change in Executives put the project on hold and she was forced to buy the rights of the book back in order to move forward with production elsewhere. She hopes to release a film adaptation on her own terms in the near future. In the meantime, order this book NOW.
Summary: Set in the projects of Brooklyn, New York, The Coldest Winter Ever is the story of Winter Santiaga (aptly named because she was born during one of New York's worst snowstorms), the rebellious, pampered teenage daughter of a notorious drug dealer. Ricky Santiaga, Winter's father, has attained substantial wealth through his illegal drug empire and lavishes his wife, Winter, and Winter's three younger sisters, Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes, with the best things money can (and cannot) buy. Winter uses her hustling tricks to get whatever she wants. Winter's world is turned upside down on her 16th birthday when her father suddenly decides to relocate his family and his growing business to Long Island, but she is determined not to sever ties with the old neighborhood.
3. True to the Game By Teri Woods
Not many people are aware that I worked as an apprentice at a hair salon from age 13 until college and again during grad school. This is where I was introduced to the book, "True to the Game". The author, Teri Woods, also a Philadelphia native, was a client of my mentor/friend/godmother Kira. While at work, customers in the salon started questioning Teri Woods on the plot of the book and shared their admiration for her work. I had no idea who she was. Then we started selling copies of the book in the salon. I bought one of the copies and read it cover to cover quickly. I later braided her daughter's hair (to whom the book is dedicated to). Teri went on to write sequels, prequels, and other books as well as sponsor other urban fiction authors such as another classic, B-more Careful by Shannon Holmes.
Summary: It's the late 1980s, and Gena finds herself in true-blue love with Quadir, a millionaire associated with the cartel. Quadir is faced with combating the art of extortion and interception masterminded by the notorious Junior Mafia, which reigns from the inner-city streets of Philadelphia. Both Gena and Quadir find themselves caught up in the vicious yet seductive world of drugs and money, only to find that success in this game is no easy win. True to the Game represents life on the streets and is like no other story of its time. There's no way out once you're in, and everyone stays in forever. . . . True.
4. B-More Careful By Shannon Holmes
After reading True to The Game, I originally sought out for B-More Careful because I thought it was also written by Terri Woods. Nonetheless, the story was just as captivating. Set in Baltimore, it was an interesting contrast to Philadelphia. The theme resembled True to The Game but was still very different storylines. I remember really enjoying this book because although I grew up in Philadelphia, I experienced a very different reality than what these tales described. I think that is what is so fascinating about city-life, each area provides a unique experience of the city.
Summary: Growing up on the cold, mean, inner-city streets of Baltimore is Netta, leader of an all-girl clique called the Pussy Pound. With no father and a dope fiend for a mother, Netta learns at an early age how to use her beauty and her body to get the things she wants: money, cars, and jewelry. Chasing the almighty dollar, she meets Black, a local drug dealer with a deep-seated hatred for New Yorkers, who falls head over heels in love with her. With a broken heart, Black discovers that Netta is only after his money and seeks the ultimate revenge against her life.
5. Push By Sapphire
This is the urban fiction novel that brought us award-winning independent film "Precious" directed and co-produced by another Philadelphia native, Lee Daniels. Comedian- actress Mo'Nique won her first oscar for her amazing performance and the world was introduced to the talented Gabourey Sidibe. I first read this book in high school on the recommendation of my friend Lashidah. Unlike other urban fiction stories I read at the time, this had a storyline that touched my heart. The main character came from a broken home and tried to make it on her own in Harlem. The author even phonetically spelled out the character's struggles in learning how to read. It was very powerful.
Summary: This is the story of Precious Jones, a sixteen-year-old illiterate black girl who has never been out of Harlem. She is pregnant by her own father for the second time, and kicked out of school when that pregnancy becomes obvious. Placed in an alternative teaching program, she learns to read and write. This is Precious's diary, in which she honestly records her relationships and life.
Whether you grew up in an urban city or not, can identify with the characters or not; these novels capture unique perspectives and experiences of certain communities. Moreover urban tales are about people of color written by people of color and should be celebrated for their overall contributions to literature.