"I came busting out of my momma's … on January 28, 1977, during one of New York's worst snowstorms."
So began The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), one of the most compelling novels of a generation, a cult classic that catapulted Sister Souljah from dissed-by-Bill-Clinton "raptivist" to best-selling author, trapping millions of readers in a trance-like state that didn't end until the last, scandalous page of protagonist Winter Santiaga's story.
A drug kingpin's pampered daughter, Winter was cold as ice and hot like fire. But she melted for Midnight, one of her father's lieutenants. Black and mysterious, he was a force of nature.
And now, that character is the subject of Midnight, Souljah's latest novel, which was as highly anticipated as it is disappointing. It's hard to match the page-burning, twisted-mouth, crackhead momma-filled original. But this one doesn't even come close.
In The Coldest Winter Ever, Midnight was 22 years old. Souljah's new book follows his early life, ending when he is 14. The story explores Midnight's arrival in America from Sudan, his family's struggle to make money to move out of the Brooklyn projects, his relationship with his two best friends, Chris and Ameer, and his conquest of Akemi, a 16-year-old Japanese art student, who doesn't speak English.
"Midnight is the heart of The Coldest Winter Ever," Souljah wrote in the special collector's edition of her first novel. True enough. It was his mysteriousness, sex appeal and intelligence that had Winter, and all of us, salivating. However, the young Midnight's cool makes the pacing of this new 432-page book too slow and steady.
Fans of The Coldest Winter Ever will be turning the pages of Midnight to see if the central character gets promoted to Ricky Santiaga's right-hand man, to watch him fend off Winter's sexual advances. But it never happens. There's no Winter. No drama. No scandal.
The pace picks up toward the last 100 pages when Akemi and Midnight confess their love and sneak around against her parents' wishes. But just when you thought there was a glimmer of the old Souljah, the fire flickers out.
Each chapter has its own miniature story line: a few pages about Midnight's sister, Naja; several pages of talks with his mother about their family business, Umma Designs, an apparel, jewelry and fragrance line. He hangs out with his friends, joins a basketball league led by Brooklyn street hustlers, works at a Chinese fish market and religiously practices martial arts at a Japanese dojo.
His absent father still works in Sudan. But Midnight heeds his father's lessons on leadership, self-sufficiency and confidentiality to protect his family.
After wading through 300+ pages, you want to know if his love for Akemi can survive cultural barriers and her parents' disapproval, if his family gets outta Brooklyn and how and when he connects with the Santiagas. But the last page leaves you hanging. Literally. Dot. Dot. Dot.
Readers deserve better, especially from Souljah, whose literary career was improbable from the beginning. In the early '90s, she was better known for being all over TV, schooling the masses after the L.A. riots. With the help of campaigning-to-be-president Bill Clinton, she even spawned a political cliché—a Sister Souljah moment. Her side ponytail, gold hoop earrings and innocent but piercing eyes reflected the style of the 'hood. But she voiced her own convictions on racism, politics and society, with poise and intelligence. Thousands of youth flocked to her concerts and rallies. Sister Souljah, that's what I told ya.
Maybe she could redeem herself with another book. There is an eight-year gap from where this latest book leaves off to Midnight's arrest in The Coldest Winter Ever for shooting a man who tried rape his younger sister. We could watch his rise with Santiaga in the drug game, hear his reasons for not falling vulnerable to Winter's bold and raw lines.
Or she could finally give us a movie version of The Coldest Winter Ever. Who could play Winter? Who is sexy enough to play Midnight? Jada Pinkett-Smith has reportedly displayed some interest in the film, but according to Sister Souljah's Web site, she still owns the rights.
If anything, Midnight might encourage people to take a fresh look at The Coldest Winter Ever. I dusted off my old copy recently and instantly fell back into Winter's world. And it was as wonderfully cold as it was the first time. Too bad Midnight brought neither heat nor chill.
Erin Evans is a writer and copy editor at The Root.