Saturday, February 28, 2015

JCUF VOL 2 NO 1 (2015) - "The History of Urban Fiction" by Stacey Marie Robinson

The term “urban” exists with some underlying controversy, at times. When using it, one must have full recognition of its geographical, cultural, and racial significance. So taking the task of classifying—and even claiming—an entire genre of fiction is also a challenge in itself. While “Urban Fiction” exists and has been used as a classification of Canadian literature in various circumstances, it is the goal of Kya Publishing to highlight “Canadian Urban Fiction” as a culturally specific style of writing and content that reflects not only a genre of fiction, but also a sub-culture of readers and writers.
The definition of urban that I am working with is a positive one, although some believe it to have negative connotations as a code word of sorts to “mask” discussion of Black culture. Rooted in its literal meaning being “of the city,” I believe urban (in terms of fiction) is reflective of a style of culture: music, clothing, attitude, and a mentality of the streets … be they hard impoverished streets, or the trendy city streets of a bustling metropolis. The commonality being its link to urban popular culture, its ideologies, codes of conduct, values . . .and yes, more often than not it is a reflection of Black/African-American/Caribbean-Canadian culture. Given the demographics of Toronto and our diverse living proximity and sharing of cultural activities, we can also throw a variety of other cultures into the mix of what makes Canada “urban.”
Now, this may not be the same for our counterparts south of the border. Just as their culture is unique, so is the way they present it, and celebrate it. So while Urban Fiction in American may be more on the “street” side than the “Caribbean culture” side … it is still rooted in the need to depict a particular community authentically, and keep the writing and the characters true to their origin.
In the Canadian context, Canadian Urban Fiction is just as relatively new as urban culture. Just like music, clothing lines, and radio licensing, we have witnessed the emergence of a lucrative and internationally powerful recognition of our status. Add a successful basketball team, chart-topping recording artists, successful choreographers and videographers, and there’s an industry that has been steadily on the rise for the past 20 years, and quickly reaching domination in various categories.
Black- African- and Caribbean-Canadian writers have been winning awards, topping bestseller lists, and making noise in the Canadian literary scene for decades. Greats like Dionne Brand, Lawrence Hill, and Austin Clarke have cemented their place as voices and historians of the Black Canadian culture through their words, storytelling, and artistic talents. To define their writing by race alone would be an injustice to the universal nature of their stories their words, and craftsmanship.
In the emergence of Canadian Urban Fiction, I would not classify the works of a[a1]  ‘George Elliott Clarke’, of an ‘Afua Cooper’, or of a ‘Rosemary Sadlier’ as “urban” or of that genre. I believe their legacy is that of an inaugural nature, and of foundation. It is beyond classification, by these narrow confines.
It is the generation just following these legends that were raised by the “urban culture” of the nineties and beyond, that Kya Publishing is capturing almost specifically: the generation that birthed the term urban, and was exposed to the emergence of the “BET (Black Entertainment Television)” culture, the change and monetizing of hip-hop culture, and the diversification of its racial impact.
I cannot personally speak for the American tone, or the British tone to urban writing, but I will claim that the Canadian tone is infused with an American influence, Caribbean and African presence, and a multicultural awareness that only Toronto/Canada can bring. It is less gangster, more cultural; less street, and more city; less explicit, and more authentic. I will claim the Canadian interpretation of Urban Fiction to be gritty, real, raw, and a familiar interpretation of our various ethnicities and cultural values.
As a publisher, I strive to be a communicator and supporter of urban literary content, through ensuring that we as writers are all like-minded in our descriptions and creations of the urban Toronto/Canadian caricatures that will stand the test of literary time and permanency.
Historically, Urban Fiction has been popular with teens and twenty-somethings, as a gritty introduction to literature and real life experience, much like youth-focused television programming, music, and magazines. It made the reading experience so personal, that the very life they were living, music they were listening to, clothing, and speech patterns they were familiar with, found themselves into literature.
Not unlike most books, the experiences reflect reality. However, it wasn’t until the introduction of Robert Beck aka Iceberg Slim, that the realities of the “streets” and the urban underworld of sorts, were celebrated in literature. This manifested as urban pulp fiction in the 1970s, and while widely circulated, it is difficult to find professional reviews of this content and its originators.
Other literature of the time by African-American authors focused more on culture, racism, slavery, and striving for equality…featured autobiographies, and less about drugs, gangs, and street as the urban pulp fiction was highlighting.
Writers like W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T Washington, and Frederick Douglass spoke to the meaning of the Black American presence, and issues of people of African descent living in the U.S. Political in nature, and rooted in change and awareness, there was another movement of writing in the 70s that was more mainstream than the gritty street literature of the inaugural Urban Fiction writers.
This was not the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1940s … this was a different tone altogether, with a high appeal to otherwise reluctant readers. These books were defined by socio-economic realities, and very culturally specific. Neighbourhood specific. This was not speaking about the plights of African-Americans everywhere … this was talking about the life of a particular ‘hood at a particular time. This was refuting the dominant, intellectual literature culture. This was Urban Fiction, and it began to stand as a genre on its own.
There was no mainstream acceptance, and arguably still isn’t. Urban Fiction authors became accustomed to self-publishing their words, and independently marketing their efforts.
While the 1990s did see a surge in popularity with writers like Omar Tyree, Terry McMillan, and the likes … their books soon transcended the urban framework, and became staples of African-American literature, much like their predecessors.
Today’s Urban Fiction authors came up with a different hustle to the game--an urgency to publish these tales by-any-means-necessary to keep the texts current, and frequent. In their own communities, Urban Fiction writers and publishers have built and sustained a thriving industry of hundreds of novels, authors, and its own infrastructure.
Through the Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction[a2] , we will continue to explore this genre of writing, the historical and future impact, and the writers that are dedicated to its growth.

Stacey Marie Robinson is the founder of Kya Publishing, a writer, and communications specialist. Contact Stacey at:

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