Sister Souljah: More Than a Street-Lit Author

Back on the scene with a new novel, Sister Souljah talks to The Root about the purpose behind her work, hip-hop and what she thinks of the "street lit" label.

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It was 8 a.m. on a weekday morning, and the phone rang three times before someone picked up on the other end. In the faintest whisper, a voice struggled to say hello.

"Sister Souljah?"

"Yes," she replied, the word coming out in a breathy squeak, as if blown from a dog whistle. Her tone seemed uncharacteristic of the boisterous rapper and social activist who made headlines in the early '90s. But her insistence on continuing the conversation, despite the obvious interruption of her sleep, seemed true to form.

After bursting onto the political scene in the early '90s as hip-hop's smart, radical and controversial commentator, and then re-emerging as a sharp and game-changing novelist in the late '90s, Sister Souljah has settled into an active life away from the media spotlight. But her presence is still felt. The author, novelist, MC, lecturer, and political and community activist is back with her fourth book, Midnight and the Meaning of Love.

Midnight is a character from Sister Souljah's first and second novels, New York Times best-seller The Coldest Winter Ever and Midnight: A Gangster's Love Story. The Coldest Winter Ever, which garnered Sister Souljah a cultlike following and national recognition as a best-selling novelist, was credited with reinvigorating the street-literature genre. The Urban Book Source named Sister Souljah to its Top 10 Street Lit Authors list, noting that she was "responsible for single-handedly rejuvenating the genre during its dry spell." But Sister Souljah rejects that description of her work. 

"I'm not in sync with this street-lit genre," she told The Root. "I think that when European authors or Euro-American authors write about urban, suburban or rural areas, it's just called literature. So I call my work literature, and anyone who reads my books knows that it's literature."

Her latest novel is a love story about a teenage, Sudanese-born, Muslim-immigrant ninja warrior and his Japanese wife who live together in -- wait for it -- Brooklyn, N.Y. But the novel's complicated plot and international scope are evidence that her wide-ranging interests and influences extend far beyond black America's borders. She's traveled to Europe, Latin America and Africa throughout her career and weaves those experiences into her work.

"I've always been a writer and a thinker interested in philosophy, history and culture," she said.

Her writing and diverse interests might come as a surprise to those who remember Sister Souljah only from her high-profile tiff with a sitting president. In 1992, though, one would have been hard-pressed to miss Sister Souljah on the radio circuit, since she was an active political commentator before she began penning novels.

Her often bold -- and controversial -- statements made the perfect quotes and sound bites for the very racially charged Rodney King era. In one such statement, immortalized in a now-infamous interview with the Washington Post, Sister Souljah gave this tongue-in-cheek defense of the people responsible for Los Angeles' deadly riots in 1992: "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"

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