Tales from the city

Vivien Goldman on urban lit - stories of survival, revenge and desire on the streets of New York

The kind of consumers that mainstream publishers always claimed "don't buy books" jostle round the cloth-covered table of the 37-year-old Ivoirien Sidibé Ibrahima, aka Sidi, at the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and 125th Street in Harlem. Schoolgirls pool their dollars to buy his Fatou Part 2: Return to Harlem and ask for number three. Parked alongside the table in his battered van, sitting with a protégé, Jason Claiborne of Augustus Books, Sidi explains that national sales of Fatou: An African Girl in Harlem, The Lesbian's Wife and his new erotic novel, Mandingo, have enabled him to turn down offers from publishing majors - and his Tamika: Adventures of a Jamaican Girl is coming soon. "Sidi has [bookselling] tables in all five boroughs," says Claiborne. "Now we got movie people coming to us. Sidi is our Russell Simmons!" he adds, likening him to the pioneering hip-hop mogul.

Generally dealing with survival, revenge and desire on the ghetto streets of "urban" (ie, black) centres in New York or Atlanta, the movement called street, hip-hop or urban lit has attracted the attention of the publishing establishment - and made more "literary" black writers nervous. Racily written in the ebonic street-speak that hip-hop spread to the vanilla suburbs, the energy and thrust of this latter-day pulp fiction recalls the birth of punk - untrained writers shunned by the system seize the means of production, organise distribution, share what they learn with others and make their raw (sometimes very raw) voices heard by any means possible.

Not everyone is enamoured, though. "They've got the hustle, but they don't have the flow," says Colin Channer, a Jamaican novelist, literature professor and co-founder of the Calabash Literary Festival. He's concerned that this literary fast food genre's uninhibited pursuit of, as Erick S Gray's popular title puts it, Money, Power, Respect (Q-Boro Books), is eye candy so addictive that it will eat up the comparatively scant space for black writers in bookshops and publishers' budgets.

"Other writers need to step up their game," says Toni Prince of Harlem's Hue-Man Books, which has even begun selling street lit at American airports. She traces the new wave back to Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines in the 1960s and 1970s, and more immediately to Sister Souljah's Coldest Winter Ever and Terry Woods's True to the Game, both published in 1999. Britain's X-Press, founded by Dotun Adebayo, also played a role with Victor Headley's groundbreaking Yardie (1992) - which became a favourite read at Scotland Yard as the Met attempted to penetrate the subculture.

Street lit has bust out of the ghetto. The mainstream corporations are busy scoring their cut. Still hungry for "mo' cheddar" (cash), the rapper 50 Cent is now mining his gangster years in print, and his G-Unit books are distributed by MTV/Pocket Books. Simon & Schuster's Atria has signed the founder of Triple Crown Books, the queen of hip-hop lit, Vickie Stringer, author of Let That Be the Reason. She began writing while serving five years for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover cop. As in rap, the street cred of incarceration encourages urban writers to romanticise their imprisonment as a poor person's Yaddo-style author's retreat. Having written several manuscripts while doing time for forging cheques, author Relentless Aaron, the self-styled "Father of Urban Fiction" (Push, Platinum Dolls), finds readers in hair and nail salons and the buses taking prisoners' relatives to distant jails. He's signed a large deal with St Martin's Press.

Sidi, however, fits another archetype - the ambitious immigrant entrepreneur. Arriving in the US from Germany in 1994, he went through US immigration with just $30 in his pocket. Working as a cabbie and in shops, he saved up enough to get his first book table. Soon realising that his audience wasn't being well served, he wrote and self-published Fatou, on his own Harlem Book Centre imprint, never expecting that his first print run of 10,000 would sell out in weeks. Arguably street lit's greatest heroine, Fatou is an African Candide: sold by her parents to a much older husband, forced to be a sex slave in Harlem. After much tragedy, she becomes empowered as a somewhat sociopathic "gangsta bitch" - but her tale doesn't end there. "When I met the real Fatou, I promised I would tell her story," explains Sidi. "I know so many characters like Fatou; they are my readers. They're self-made, like me."

Fatou herself is remarried and successful. Yet, despite gentrification, the Harlem of crack and corruption through which she rampaged still lives. Now that Sidi is successful, this beat-up van is not his only ride, but he says matter-of-factly: "I like to keep a low profile. In Harlem, people will kill you for money."

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time