A couple of weeks ago, I sat back and penned an article called Selling Ghetto. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the piece, it was my way of sparking a healthy discussion on the state of black literature, and shedding light on the shifting in the aisles of content now bound inside each book.
To ignite the discussion, we received a drifting scope of opinions from both the readers interviewed for the article, as well as a professional point of view from respected Authors Keith Walker and Steven Morgan who perfectly lent a hand to aid in our understanding of the changes in today’s fictional market. Through the landslide of one-sided responses from Clutch readers, we caught the attention of K’wan Foye, one of the pioneers of modern day Street Fiction and the ESSENCE bestselling Author of his new book titled, Section 8: A Hood Rat Novel.
In a personal letter to Clutch, the Harlem native and celebrated writer of over 8 Urban Fiction novels wrote in to say:
“I don’t knock people who feel that Urban Fiction [isn’t] for them, but I think it’s a little unfair to judge the genre as a whole because of a few bogus stories. What may be trash to some was a way out for others. What looks like a bunch of curses on paper may be the story of some kid’s life. A lot of these parents are so far removed from their kid’s lives that they are totally clueless as to some of the things they have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes. In some cases Urban Fiction is a way to bridge the gap. It’s a window into the generation we have spawned and if applied properly can be used to give parents insight as to what’s going on. I always encourage the parents to read the books before allowing their kids to read them so that they can determine if their child is mature enough to digest what’s in the book. My stories are not a glorification of violence, but an interpretation of the world as I see it when I look out the window. If people find the things that I write about offensive, then they should take a minute to think about how offensive it is to live under these conditions.”
Often times when I’m lurking through blogs, websites and online magazines from here to Paris, I notice that when readers disagree with the topic, the writer, or the words being expressed, their initial courtesy to the person who wrote the piece, or the other innocent readers writing in to give their opinion on the subject, can easily take a backseat to one’s desire to express their argument -even if their words show no respect during their delivery.
There were many things K’wan could have written in to say, but for a man with class beyond measure he didn’t let his mission to shed his opinion on the piece get lost in his negative feelings on the subject. It was through his calm and greatly respectable response to an article that unintentionally fed his street genre to the wolves, where an interest was piqued in knowing the man behind the poignant words that were so softly expressed through such a piercing significance that breathes as a rarity nowadays when people respond to an article that has content they disagree with.
I’ve seen many people grab the mic and make a statement that’s only effect will lead a person to want to cover their ears.
And then came K’wan…
Clutch: How’d you get started writing?
K’wan: My mother was a writer, but that’s not really what I took to from young hours. I was always drawing, messing with clay and painting. I wrote a book in 1995, but I actually did it just for fun. It wasn’t until my mom got sick that I started to really sit down and put together my first novel. It was actually a memoir called Gangsta.
Clutch: Where’d you go from there? Did you self-publish that book, or were you trying to find a publisher?
K’wan: No, because I was doing it more or less just for myself when I wrote it. But I did at some point start sending queries, or my version of a query letter out to different publishers. I would take all the books on my bookshelf, and take the publishers contact information off the back of the book and just start calling them and reaching out to people. This was around the time when I’d first gotten email or Internet access. It didn’t really work out, but it managed to build the synopsis for Gangsta, which fell into the hands of Vicky Stringer. I had hit her up from the information that was on the back of a book, and she hit me back. She was basically like well, “This stuff is good.” Nobody was even doing anything like what I was doing at the time. There were a few other people writing what is now called “Urban Fiction,” but I guess my story was a little different or more personal. I’m a guy from New York writing about Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles. I guess it was the way the story played out. And when I got my first hit, I was not really looking for public consumption from it out of the gate. I was just kind of doing it as a therapy for myself. What I was hearing from the publishers at the time is that there was no market for Street Fiction or the kind of story that I was telling. They would kind of look at me like I was from Mars and say, “You can’t sell this? What is this? This is trash? No, nobody wants to read about this.” That was a good amount of years ago though, maybe 2001 before all the stuff started rolling. Vicky was starting a publishing house called Triple Crown, and she asked me to be the first author. I was like, all right, cool. I’d be the first author on Triple Crown, rather than go to another publishing house and try to compete with a spot on the roster. I was still apprehensive about trying to be published, but it took off like a bat out of hell.
Clutch: That’s nice, and from there you’ve churned out several books. You’ve made it onto the best sellers list for ESSENCE, and you’ve also been interviewed by MTV, BET, Time and several others.
Clutch: I understand that after reading Selling Ghetto, you decided to reach out to Clutch. I’m truly glad that you did, because when I was putting together that piece I didn’t want the deck to be stacked on one side. I was lucky to have some wonderful opinions on the subject from new Authors Steven Morgan and Keith Walker for it. But I did want more readers who were for “Street Fiction” to respond to the post. It was a good argument, and I enjoyed the turn out, but most importantly, I don’t ever think there’s a reason to fear discussion on any subject matter.
K’wan: Not at all.
Clutch: The email you sent us was truly nice, and says a lot about who you are as a person. I really wanted to just post the email, but I’m glad I got the opportunity instead to sit down and talk with you.
K’wan: You know why I sent it? What happened was a guy hit me up on Facebook and referred me to the article and he was like, “Yo, you better check this link out. This is the reason why we have to go harder.” I checked it out, and I read it and I thought it was a very good article. You didn’t lean too hard one way or another, you just expressed yourself, which you’re entitled to do, but what spurred me to hit Clutch magazine was the responses. I was like damn, they’re just kicking the hell out of [Street Fiction.] I think the answers you got from the two authors were great, but nobody really elaborated on the real or the heart and soul of what Street Fiction is. Street Fiction was just a way for us to express ourselves. It was never about money, because none of us were getting any money back then. It was a way for us to express ourselves and to tell the stories of our neighbors, our family, our people; kind of like griots. You know, when you pass the story down from one to another. So when I saw it, I hit Clutch up on twitter. I saw the article and it was cool, but I wished y’all had got my take on it. That’s when they referred me to the email, which I thought was good of them to even follow-up with my comment.
Clutch: Well let’s go there for a second. So what is your take on “Street Fiction” these days? How do you feel about the way the market has kind of changed from back in the day when we had Authors like Edwidge Danticat and Pearl Cleage coming out? Today, everything is extremely different.
K’wan: It is.
Clutch: How do you think it became so popular? It almost seemed to happen overnight.
K’wan: Honestly, it gave every little kid from the ghetto a way out so-to-speak. Like they say when you sling crack rocks, you automatically gotta be a rapper. This was just another outlet, kind of like rap and sports or hustling or whatever. I think what happened was when people started reading more, and people like me, Shannon Holmes and Vicky Stringer came out- we came after Iceberg Slim, they realized that when we entered their homes that we were just like your everyday person; the person from your neighborhood. Most of them were like, if he can do it, well I got a story I can tell too that I need to get out there and get myself some notoriety. Some people of course did it from a therapy angle like I did and were like, you know what, this is a great form of expression and it’s wonderful for my soul and I can get this off my chest without having to worry about people judging me. I can express it in the way of a novel or non-fiction, but I can express the things that I can’t say out loud on paper. I think that’s what kind of initially grew the next crop of authors that came behind us. But, somewhere along the lines, as it kept going on, it started getting crazy. The majors came in. Now you have these big conglomerates or big organizations trying to be our best friends, waving checks at us and saying you can do this, you can do that. I think it’s dope, but I think it also kind of turned into a bit of a circus. Now you have everybody climbing over each other, or Peter trying to knife Paul to get this lucrative publishing deal, which is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That caused another influx too. So once the book market became expanded and the money started coming in, everybody wanted to get rich off street fiction. But then if you look at the quality of some of the work, you’d be like, “This is trash, they didn’t even care about spelling or errors, etc. If he can do it, and put out this book and make some money, then why can’t I do it? I’m not a great writer, but I’m a better speaker than him or her, or I got a better story than him or her, so if they’re getting paid, why can’t I get paid?” Then you have the mold being lost in the dollar. The mold being lost in the monetary side because people forgot what it was in the beginning, which was self-expression and empowerment.
Clutch: So do you think that’s why we have the situation now where you might pick up a book and it wasn’t edited properly -the English isn’t up to par?
K’wan: Yes. My first book, Gangsta was probably one of the most horribly edited books in the history of the world because they printed it exactly how I sent it to them. You have to keep in mind that I started out writing freehand and then I typed Gangsta with one finger. I didn’t even know what the “tab key” was for so I would just count over four spaces on the spacebar, and those were my indents. The book was printed just like that, but it was about the story… the emotion of the story, and I was just one of the lucky ones who had a poorly edited book, was able to learn from it and get better with it. A lot of people don’t take the time to get their stuff edited and cleaned up properly. Your sister’s baby cousin T.T., who was real good at English in high school, is not necessarily a qualified editor, but she’s cheaper so you’re going to let her do it.
Clutch: I’ve learned that your books are a complete departure from a lot of these others in the genre that some would call “Ghetto Fiction.” They don’t glorify the street life, rather they teach people how to come up from the street life.
K’wan: Yes, there’s always some type of moral lesson.
Clutch: Some books only glorify the street life. If a kid didn’t know how to sling rocks, they know how to sling now. In considering that your books are different, what do you think about those other novels that glorify being a gangster compared to what you write?
K’wan: My books are different in a way to where I may show you a blueprint to how this kid went from ashy to classy, but also on the flipside, before it’s all said and done, something bad is going to happen. I create these casualties for these ghetto superheroes; these ghetto Robin Hoods, and then I think of the most violent way possible to murder them at the end of the book. It really kind of hits home because the reader is going, “Damn, well what the hell. He had it all.” But you have to remember that he also had the karma on his back from what he had to do to get it all. The morality of my stories is what makes them different. When some of these people are reading these books you have to remember that they’re looking for something in your work. They just spent $15 on your book and might have only had $20 on them. So you want them to say, “What can I take from this book so that I know this was money well spent, and I can recommend it to somebody else.” I try to leave readers with some kind of moral content, or something that will leave a lasting imprint on your soul. That’s what makes me different than someone who says, “I got an ill story about a nigga who robs banks and him in his crew roll around drinking champagne in Harlem like Jim Jones and them.” At the end of the day for me, it’s not only about that. It’s cool to entertain people and have that kind of stuff in your books, because I got plenty of bottle popping in my books, but at the same time there has to be some kind of substance to what you’re putting out. If it’s just words on paper it doesn’t count for anything.
Clutch: What do you say about the authors that do the opposite of your mission-the ones that inspire the youth to never want to be more than just a drug dealer?
K’wan: To those authors I’d say you’re an accident waiting to happen because you still haven’t learned the lesson yourself so how can you impart the proper knowledge on someone else. The one’s who go around and make it seem like it’s cool to ball out, still have a lot to learn. I can’t honestly think of one off the top of my head, but those are the authors that are giving the genre’ a black eye because there is way more of them then the ones who are actually putting the craft and the positive message first. It’s crazy. That’s why when you go into the bookstore and you see some of these crazy off the wall covers, and books printed in these crazy fonts that aren’t typeset, you pick one up and say, “This is ghetto, I don’t even want to read this.” They really need to take a step back and first and foremost learn the craft. Learn the craft before you jump into it. Don’t just type this up and have your cousin edit it, put your little money behind it, print out 200 books, sell ‘em at church and now you’re calling yourself a bestseller. That’s the wrong way to go about it. Learn the craft. I had to learn it on the fly. They threw me in the water and told me I was going to either drown or swim, and it took me a long time, but I learned how to swim. There’s a lot of things I did wrong at the beginning of my career because I didn’t know anything, but the trick is that when you learn from those mistakes, you apply them to your next project or the next step in life. Don’t just say, “Alright, I’m just not going to get caught out there like that,” but you didn’t take anything from it, or learn anything from it.
Clutch: How do you think women are portrayed in “Street Fiction”? Do you think it’s in a positive light or more negative?
K’wan: That right there is a trick question because it all depends on the author and how he or she views women. You’ll have some men that are down on women, so they always paint women in a bad light in their books, or you’ll have a female who’s on a Lifetime movie kick where every book they write has a triumph, or maybe she’ll kill her abusive husband and get away with it. For me, I try to mix it up because I know negative women and I know positive women. I try to give you a mixture of the two. It may be a negative woman who’s the catalyst of the story like the initial Hood Rat book. They were all into negative things, but it also showed how those negative things affected their lives and forced them all to change and overcome certain adversities to understand that they didn’t have to be negative. They could do something outside of what they were originally doing, and that it was possible for them to endure on their own.
Clutch: What would you say is the biggest argument against “Street Fiction”?
K’wan: They say it glorifies violence. When you’re looking at a lot of these stories, these guys and girls aren’t writing about anything that isn’t already going on in the world here. Yes there is violence, yes there is sex, yes there is teen pregnancy, yes there is drugs, yes there is incest- these are all things that people are writing about, but when you have things that are taboo like that, we want to act like it’s not there. That’s like if a kid a few houses down is sexually molested by their relative or an uncle that you see everyday in the neighborhood and thought they were cool, it hits you, but it doesn’t really hit you close to home because it didn’t happen in your house. After a while it’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s the same way when you see stuff like that on the news. It’s so graphic that you may turn your head- you want to push it away, but it doesn’t change the fact that it happened and it’s happening. I can understand it from that respect from people who think that it’s a glorification of violence because these are the people who are alien to that sort of situation. If you don’t understand something initially you’ll try and tear it down. But on the flipside, I’m not even going to argue the fact that the readership is young and old African American men and women has spiked since Street Fiction came along because they’ve found books that they can relate to. Look at it like this, a lot of authors who are writing this stuff were doing negative things with their lives before they found an outlet like myself and others who came home from jail and had been writing book after book while they were in prison. They found a way;they found their magic; their niche through these stories. It’s like, “As long as I have something constructive to do to fill my time and to feed myself and my family, I don’t have to focus on negative things. You don’t have to worry about me climbing in your window, or pulling you out of your car anymore, because I’m not on that. I’m learning a different way.” If you open yourself up to the craft, the craft will open itself up to you.
Clutch: Do you feel like the modern day black author is pigeonholed into only writing “Street Fiction”?
K’wan: Yes. Yes. Definitely. A lot of major publishing houses that you go into, when you give them the story, their first question is, “Well can you street it up a little bit?” On the flipside of that, the way they were throwing money away around 2003 when they were snapping up all the “Ghetto Talent,” they’re not doing it like that anymore. What they’re realizing is that the hype is over. So now, if your story can’t stand on it’s own, they can’t sell it. A couple years ago you could’ve written a bum novel, slapped some fancy paper on it and a cover and sold about 40,000 copies of it. You can’t do that anymore because the readers are waking up. The readers are getting wiser. Now you have to stand on more of your talent than just your storytelling ability as opposed to this cover with a girl with her butt out, or whatever you feel was eye catching and appealing at the time. The chicken heads are coming home to roost.
Clutch: What do you do apart from writing, or is that your only niche?
K’wan: That’s it, but let me tell you a funny story. I had a job as a junior investment banker at one of these companies downtown. You had to do cold calling and what not. You’d be calling like 300 people a day, and you’d always hear the phone ringing- the phone ringing. So I was suffering from what I considered something like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, because every time I’d hear a phone ring it would drive me crazy. One day I was at the job, and the phone was just ringing, ringing, ringing and finally I’d said I’d had enough. I threw all my contact cards in the air, took off my headset and said, “I’m leaving, kiss my ass, I’m out of here because I can’t take this anymore, I can’t deal with it.” So like the next day, 9/11 happened and the planes hit the building and that was right where I worked at. Had I gone into work the next day instead of quitting, I’d have been at Krispy Kreme ordering donuts and a plane would have fell on my head. That right there was a sign to me. I knew then that it was time for me to do something else.
Clutch: Wow. So was it hard taking the risk to become a writer or did you know it was what you had to do?
K’wan: Yes it was, because I started writing initially as therapy from when I was going through that whole thing with my moms. Writing was my way of expressing it, which is why Gangsta was such a sad book- such an emotional book because of the things I was going through in my life at the time. It wasn’t until the book was almost done that I started thinking about putting the book out to get some quick money because I had a baby on the way. The fantasy novels that I was shopping, no one wanted to look at. But here it is this Street Novel that I wrote solely for me, fell into someone’s hands who said it was dope and wanted to put it out and see what we could do with it. It just took off from there. I also want to point out something that often goes overlooked: They say that Street Fiction is “this”, Street Fiction is “that”. It’s all negative, and all we do is creep around, but they really don’t shed a light on what some of us do in our spare time like when we go up to the schools and donate books to the kids. For an example, we’re doing a benefit on February 13th in Brooklyn called, Authors For Haiti. A bunch of us authors are going to get together and do this great big old book signing and donate all the proceeds to one to the organizations helping the people in Haiti. A lot of times people don’t share. Some of the big authors only say that they are community activists and public speakers because it looks good on their bio. But then you have us, the little guys on the totem pole, who are actually doing the stuff in the neighborhood like driving for hours to go down to the library-for no pay, but we do it because we feel it’s necessary. We’re actually getting paid in full because we’re building the communities that others try to inject the negativity into. We’re trying to undo the stuff that others did through our writing.
Clutch: Where can the readers find you?
K’wan: www.kwanfoye.com, and of course you know I’ve got a couple of novels coming out this year. Be on the look out for Welfare Wifeys.