Thursday, October 4, 2018

JCUF VOL 5 NO 1 (2018) - The Value of Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" Collection

It's been 26 years, and I continue to write and endorse my "Urban Toronto Tales" novel and short story collection with the eager enthusiasm of my 14-year-old self, and the dedicated ambition of my 40-year-old self. Self-published out of necessity, these books are written in real-time as I have come of age in the urban locale of Toronto (by way of Ajax and Windsor, Ontario). It's been 26 years, but I still feel the need to defend, justify, and validate the Urban Fiction that has been curated from the depths of my soul.

I often doubt my literary prowess. I question my artistic merit. I lament that I will most likely never win a Giller, Roger's Trust, or [insert-Black-woman-of-Toronto-award-here] based on my creative abilities. I don't have any best seller lists to brag about or really any other accolades of merit to boast. I went from submitting query letters and manuscript samples to the great publishing houses of North America with 100% creating "Kya Publishing" as a personal vehicle of expression and hope.

It's been 26 years, and I continue to write and endorse my "Urban Toronto Tales" collection, because I truly believe that somewhere in the adolescent fantasies and young adult realities are a truth about growing up Black in Toronto that means something to someone. Even if that someone is the 12-year-old version of me who would have LOVED to stumble upon a collection like this to work through issues of identity, belongingness, Blackness, Canadian-ness, and womanhood. Even if that someone is a teenage version of me, who would have benefited from reading about other teenagers living in the Durham Region and navigating this diverse and dynamic city from east to west. Even if that someone was an adult me, experimenting with career options, relationships, and friendships, and looking for a Caribbean-Canadian reflection of a similar experience somewhere. Anywhere.

I'm currently finalizing my tenth novel, even though I have yet to verify if the first nine had any tangible impact...anywhere. I'm clinging to the classification of "Urban Fiction" because I've seen the research indicating that this form of writing really helps young people with literacy and developing positive, lasting reading habits. I have accepted that my position within the Canadian literary landscape might just have to remain one of reclusivity and obscurity, but I so believe in the underlying messaging and intent of these novels that I will continue to produce, and publish, and write, and share them, as long as I am able to construct the fictional characters in my mind.

Like most writers, my books are an exercise in fantasy, psychology, sociology, and history. Fantasy, because I'm able to take fictional people and hypothetical scenarios and see what happens when you add particular elements together. Like a social experience, the narratives allow me to play with factors that I can't adjust in real life, but still allows me to exercise the outcomes, the conversations, and the predicaments that may occurs as a result.

The psychological and sociological elements come with the human interaction, primarily. The majority of the "Urban Toronto Tales" have a focus on relationships and friendships. Without getting into the areas of mystery, science fiction, thriller, or crime, these novels and short stories stay on the fringes of romance and explore relationships from a variety of angles and personalities.

The elements of personal change and growth, and pursuing these lanes from various perspectives are entertaining, and at times challenging when forced to ensure that the processes and outcomes are realistic and authentic to the time and space they exist within.

I view these books a historical reference, because 26 years from now, I may not be able to remember the feeling, culture, mood, language and trends of this moment...but I do want them to exist and live on. "This moment" has occurred steadily for me from I wrote my first novel in 1992 ("Eighteen"), up until the present time where I am finishing my tenth novel "Bonafide Toronto Love."

Each book is written from the perspective of a character that is exactly my age at press time, so I can specifically relate the trends, the life cycle, and the priorities according to the exact moment in time, from an individual at a specific age. While writing outside of your personal demographic is a key challenge of writing, perhaps it is a skill I am too stubborn to develop, to transport myself into another age or city. On a biographical level, I do like to use my books as cultural reference as to what was hot and common at any particular moment in time, and know that it is authentic.

I love to read the vernacular used in my high school books, like "The Way We Used to Be." It entertains me! It's nostalgic for me to remember the issues and thought processes of adolescent girls, when I re-read "Eighteen." With the more recent novels, it's still interesting to see the thought processes and happenings of my characters in the present time...while I am still living in this time.

Self-serving? Possibly! Irrelevant? To some. Necessary? I believe so.

There is a part of me that can not stop writing, no matter how much I realize that my writing isn't receiving the attention or merit that most authors dream of. I've passed that moment as an artist, where the validation and acceptance is my primary goal. I'm at the point where I simply want my writing to exist in historical context, and mention matters that were important, scenes that were entertaining, and cultural phenomena that were really, really crucial to someone. Even if that someone

I've dedicated this edition of the Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction--in the most selfish of ways--to my books. I've researched, and brainstormed, and thought about how I could prove to myself that for the past two and a half decades, that my writing had a purpose. TAnd for the decade before that, that 10-year-old Stacey wasn't writing her heart out, for nothing.

I imagine that somewhere down the line in history, someone, somewhere will care. Perhaps? Someone will be pleased to find a fictional account of what it was like to party in the 90s in Toronto, or attend high school in Pickering. Someone, somewhere, will want to read the language and "slang" of a young person growing up in Toronto in the early 2000s. It is my hope that the words I've written will not exist in vain forever...and I am patient enough to let my work exist digitally, knowing that one day, they may have value that exists beyond my own ego and amusement.

I have always admired the way our African-American neighbours have utilized the wonders of Urban Fiction. Like most, I was drawn to the genre through Terry McMillan and Sister Souljah. I have yet to dive back to the 1970s Iceberg Slim to get the true, true roots of Urban Fiction, but I do value and appreciate the spirit with which his stories were recorded. I love the relevance they still hold.

Aside from the most prominent authors, it is difficult to find professional reviews of many Urban Fiction novels. Despite the best selling books from the above-mentioned authors, and the hundreds of other contributions from small presses and independent authors across America, there is still a bit of a void when it comes to research in this area. The Kya Publishing Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction exists as a preliminary attempt to institutionalize the study of Urban Fiction, and to chronicle the academic and social importance of the books, once the reader puts it down.

Existing research (many studies that will be referenced in this edition of JCUF), declare that the teen protagonists appeal to many teen readers. Despite the sometimes controversial placement of these books in school and public libraries, there has been evidence that Urban Fiction has a high appeal to otherwise reluctant readers, and is a valuable way to connect with young patrons.

In the "Readers' Advisory Guide to Street Literature," author Vanessa Irvin found that Urban Fiction (also known as "street literature") is a great way to promote library use, and has been helpful with assisting library staff with establishing their credibility by giving them the information they need to knowledgeable guide their young readers.

Its impact in the United States of America is fundamentally more powerful, based on the number of Urban Fiction authors, as well as the availability of books in bookstores, libraries, street corners, and online. This grassroots promotion and hustling of books has made the Urban Fiction industry in the U.S. an interesting model of entrepreneurship, as well as community independence.

In an assessment of Canadian writer George Elliott Clark's 2000 book, "Odysseys Home: Mapping African Canadian Literature" Andrea Davis noted that "What black Canadian literature offers is the convergence of multiple African diasporic voices, coming from different ethno-cultural, linguistic and national spaces, but together articulating a deliberately transgressive Canadianness that not only takes cultural differences into account, but also positions the lived experiences of Black Canadians as an essential part of a wider discussion about what it means to live and be in this country."

Davis mentioned that while African-american literature was defining itself within the American canons, according to "Black nationalist and Black aesthetic traditions," that Black Canadian literature to some extent is is a projection of the imagination, because it is representing various identities within "coherent national narratives."

The identities represented in the "Urban Toronto Tales" are not a specific Black Canadian experience, or Caribbean-Canadian lifestyle, but a combination of what I have observed from my own Black/Caribbean-Canadian lens, and my interpretation of how these events play into the greater narrative of living in this country and the ways in which the cultural context impacts that experience.

Music has, and always will, play a huge factor in the development and understanding of the mood of my stories, and how I try to convey that mood. A reflection of the urban musical experience--be it hip hop, R&B, reggae, or soca music--the stories often exist within that framework: in the presentation and enjoyment of the music as a root to understanding the culture.

As a means of understanding the experience, the culture, the music, the race politics, the identities, and the interpersonal relationships, it is just my hope that the Urban Fiction novels of the "Urban Toronto Tales" collection can serve as a catalyst for youth to enjoy reading, a reflection in identity construction for young people and young adults, and a documentation of the African-Canadian voice in a specific space in time.

It's been 26 years, and I hope to continue to write for 26 more, as I age, as I learn, and as I continue to respect the value of story and the importance stories have in how history remembers even the most routine and casual of occurrences. To some of us, it is this experience that make up the beauty of our lives.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction."

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