By Ariana Austin
The last decade has seen an upsurge in what's called "urban fiction" or "street literature." Placed among those authors at the bookstore are classics — Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison — all lumped together in one section under the heading "African-American Fiction." Wouldn't it make more sense for these titles to be divided by genre? Classics among classics, erotic fiction with erotic fiction, and "street lit" — well, it should have a section all its own. Still, despite the preponderance of so-called urban fiction crowding the shelves at your local Borders, there is a vital canon of contemporary African-American literature, with writers like ZZ Packer, Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle all releasing heralded titles in recent years.
Coming up behind those darlings of the literary establishment is a new wave of young, gifted and black writers getting rave reviews, publishing deals and even a few national tours. Nick Burd, Danielle Evans, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Ernessa Carter and Gary Jackson are five writers who have all written accomplished debuts, penning stories and plays and poetry that are both literary and provocative. All have distinctive voices and write on myriad themes.
Among these young writers, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker's names surfaced as literary influences, as have contemporary writers like Junot Diaz, Packer and Suzan-Lori Parks. These writers are all embracing what Evans describes as the "post-integrationist" moment. They see themselves as being blessed with opportunities to further their writing, while free to delve into themes of their own choosing. Each offers a fresh take on classic themes, melding history, pop culture and various identities into their own unique literary moments, often juxtaposing imagined worlds with stark realities.
The Root talked to each of them about their writing process, their influences and when they realized that they could make a serious go of their writing.
Nick Burd, Novelist/YA Author
Book: The Vast Fields of Ordinary
Burd explores sexuality and adolescence through a diverse cast of characters, including his protagonist, 17-year-old Dade Hamilton, a closeted white teenager growing up in the suburbs. "I wanted to have gay characters who were complex, not flamboyant or weak, who were empathetic," Burd says. He admires James Baldwin's ability to grasp the human angle, capture complex relationships and celebrate differences.
Residence: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Graduate degree: M.F.A., The New School
Influences: James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Roberto Bolaño
Themes: Sexuality, suburbia, adolescence
Reading now: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, old detective novels
Emerging moment: After my second year at The New School, I sold my graduate thesis, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, to Penguin. It's since been optioned for film, and I've just finished my second book, Andrew Frank, which will be published next summer.
Book: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
Evans, whose short stories are about young, mixed-race and African-American women confronting tensions surrounding sexuality, race and family, describes her overreaching theme as "post-integrationist experiences, sort of akin to the immigrant experience. Many of the same tensions arise although we rarely couch them in those terms." She sees a connection between the strong, female characters in Morrison's work directly informing her own.
Residence: Washington, D.C.
Graduate degree: M.F.A., Iowa Writers Workshop
Influences: Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer
Themes: Adolescence, race, gender, sexuality
Reading now: Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad
Emerging moment: While a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, I started to send some of my short stories out. "Virgins" was published by The Paris Review, then included in Best American Short Stories, which was all very exciting. Then the collection was picked up by Riverhead Books.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Playwright
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play puts race at center stage: A classics professor is troubled by his new "neighbors," a group made up of a family of black minstrels (based on the archetypal theatrical stereotypes like the Mammy and Sambo). "It's supposed to be this very personal treatise on blackness in the theater," he says. "Blackface still freaks people out, as do most things having to do with guilt, shame and American history."
Residence: Brooklyn, N.Y./Berlin
Graduate degree: M.A., performance studies, NYU
Influences: Suzan-Lori Parks' In the Blood, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, Caryl Churchill's Far Away, Tracy Scott Wilson's The Story, Sam Shepard's The Red Cross. Non-theater influences: Toni Morrison, Olafur Eliasson, Aaron McGruder, Nina Simone and Michael Haneke.
Themes: History, race
Reading now: Theater history books, Octavia Butler, early American literature, accounts of Spaniards "discovering" the New World, diaries of early settlers and Indian captivity narratives, religious sermons and poetry.
Book: Missing You, Metropolis
Gary Jackson traces two distinct narratives in his collection of poetry. The first is what he describes as "a comic-based narrative in the form of a poem." The other, more autobiographical one is "of my experience growing up as a young black man in the Midwest … these poems bounce off each other and create this tension between the recognized and fictional world and how both worlds are equal parts real and imagined."
Residence: Just returned to the U.S. after a year spent in South Korea
Graduate degree: M.F.A., University of New Mexico
Influences: Ai, Louise Gluck, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, A. Van Jordan, Bryan Dietrich, comics
Reading now: It's hard getting English-language books in Korea, but I managed to order the complete collection of Lynda Hull's poetry. She's since become my favorite poet; the way she turns images is breathtaking.
Themes: Isolation, masculinity
Emerging moment: After I graduated in the spring of 2008, I submitted the manuscript to a few places with no real results. Then I revised it from the ground up, renamed the collection after a different poem and submitted it to the Cave Canem Contest (which includes publication of a first book). I was in a hotel in Korea when I found out, and it was completely surreal. To be honest, I'm still reeling from the experience.
Ernessa Carter, Novelist
Book: 32 Candles
Ernessa Carter wanted to put romance at the center of her novel about an ugly duckling reinventing herself in the big city. "A lot of books were being written about glamorous black women who had it all figured out," she says. "I wanted to write about the journey itself and to talk about love and acceptance in a dynamic way." She credits two influences: Alice Walker's The Color Purple and filmmaker John Hughes' pop-culture hit Sixteen Candles. Both works, she says, laughing, are ultimately about "two misfits finding themselves a happy ending unexpectedly."
Residence: Los Angeles
Graduate degree: M.F.A., dramatic writing, Carnegie Mellon
Influences: Alice Walker, John Hughes
Themes: Beauty, love, mental health, pop culture
Reading now: Terry McMillan's Getting to Happy, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel
Emerging moment: I participated in "National Novel Writing Month" reworking a screenplay I'd written. After the 30 days, I kept writing. After two years, I sent query letters to 16 agents with the finished product. Two showed interest, I went with one and she sold the novel. I thought, "No one else wants to read about a quirky black woman." I was happy to find out some people did. When all the press and tour started, Bernice McFadden sent me a note that said, "Enjoy the Ride."
Ariana Austin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.