Vanessa MorrisI had the great privilege of interviewing Vanessa Morris, professor, blogger, street lit scholar, and author of the upcoming Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature. Here’s what she had to say:

Tell us about your work with street lit.

Currently, I am the author of the blog site, Street Literature, located at: http://www.streetliterature.com. On my blog I post articles that explore what Street Lit is and is not, who Street Lit readers are or are not, how Librarians and other Educators approach the genre or not, and other social commentary that relates to our understandings of what “street” is, what “text” is, what “literature” and “genre” can be.

I am also author of the upcoming book, The Readers Advisory Guide to Street Literature, published by ALA Editions. Publication is anticipated for Spring 2011. In the book I discuss ways that librarians can approach Readers Advisory services as readers with a heightened understanding and appreciation for the merits of the genre. I was co-columnist with Rollie Welch, M.L.S., of the Cleveland (OH) library system, on the “Word on the Street Lit” book review column for Library Journal (2008-2010). I recently ran two (2) librarian book clubs focusing on the reading of Street Lit, for my dissertation study with the University of Pennsylvania.

How did you first hear about street lit?

I was born in Philadelphia, PA, and grew up in Camden, NJ, during the 1970s when the Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim books were popular. My father was an avid reader of many things; Goines and Slim were a part of his literary diet. So the books were around the house. Also, I grew up during a time when street stories from an African American perspective were being chronicled in film and in music, with the advent of Blackploitation cinema and Hip Hop music. Street Lit has always been a part of my environment, literarily, but it is also an epistemological part of my identity, because “the street” is what I live (and have worked) in the ghetto experiencing and witnessing many things that continue to be depicted in the genre.

What misconceptions about street lit do you see among librarians? What about in the literary community?

In library world, I have learned that librarians assume a lot about Street Lit without having really read anything in the genre. I am particularly concerned about the service inner city patrons get from their neighborhood librarian, if she/he holds judgment about Street Lit. Is that librarian fulfilling book requests as earnestly as he/she could? Are they reading book reviews, author and blog sites to learn about the merits of the genre so that they can order quality authors and titles and provide unfettered access to the materials on the shelves? I wonder and I worry.

I’ve heard stories about librarians censoring Street Lit books by hiding them in their desks, locking them in display cases (I actually saw that), and keeping the library shelves bare because they refuse to replace stolen copies of the books (saw that too). In my book, I talk about ways in which librarians can promote the genre without rancor, and I offer historical commentary to help heighten the understanding of Street Lit as a literary genre that exists along a historical continuum, and therefore deserves respect like all other genres on library shelves.

In the literary community, there is currently a chasm between Street Lit and “contemporary” or more “mainstream” African American authors, perpetuated by the contemporary authors (in my view). Some of these mainstream authors (like some librarians) feel that the genre punctuates negative stereotypes about Black and Latino peoples. However, what is misunderstood is that Street Lit is doing what it has always done – for the past ~300+ years that it has been published in novel format. The genre chronicles the realities of the everyday citizen who lives in poor, city enclaves, be they British, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Black, Latino, or Asian. I talk about this issue in my latest blog post, “Towards A Definition 4 Street Lit” where I assert that Street Lit is not necessarily a sole testament about raciality in the hood, but it IS necessarily testimonial about the socio-economic realities of low-income/poor peoples in the hood, no matter who they may be.

Low-income and poor people in the hood come in EVERY hue and cultural assignation. In other words, EVERYBODY is in the hood. If you read through current-day Street Lit, you will see characters depicted from virtually every cultural location. If you think about it – bottom line: Street Lit is about how low-income city dwellers chase after the American Dream.

In yesteryear, Italian immigrant stories were chronicled, Jewish ghetto stories were documented. Right now, African American and Latino American authors are predominantly telling the street stories, because they are the current experts in the socio-economic experience of American life in low-income city communities. Are you upset about the graphic nature of these stories? Well, imagine living in such a reality – and then see how upset you’d be – on the daily.

Ask yourself – how would you live if you were poor, of color, genderized in a negative way, lacking resources, support, and opportunity, and you lived in a community where everyone was in the same boat. But – you see American capitalism thriving every day on TV, downtown in corporate center city America, even perhaps, in the way your public school teacher talks and dresses. Then ask yourself, how would you feel? How would you live, knowing you don’t have equal access to mainstream American life, even though you are American? What would your standards then be? How would you survive? Better yet – how would you go about acquiring and living the American Dream? I’m not offering justification for how anyone lives; but I am seeking to contextualize the reality and validity of inner city living and experience, as part of the human experience. And as such – the realities must be documented as history (Non-fiction Street Lit) and fiction (Fiction Street Lit), so that such stories become memory, instead of a perpetual reality. In this vein, Street Lit can be perceived as emancipatory and transformative. How ‘bout dat.

You once helped facilitate—or you still facilitate?—a teen street lit book club. What are some things you learned from that experience?

I created the book club in 2005, and ran it until 2008. What I learned from that experience is that it is the library patron who is the community expert and also the expert in what he/she wants to read, and that that expertise emerges from one’s lived experience coupled with one’s imagination as ignited via reading text.

I think that we librarians often assume that we are the experts in the library. I learned and was very humbled by the fact that no – we are not – expertise is EARNED. Unless we fully immerse ourselves within the local culture of the communities we serve, we are outsiders to that culture and therefore are not experts in the ways in which people are readers, or the ways that people are literate. We know nothing until the patron shares it with us. I want to make this clear: we don’t “know” anything about the patron’s agency just because we asked, or looked down the street and made an assumption – we learn their agency because we are trusted enough to be told. There’s a big difference there.

I have an adage that I always tell my library science students: “Every life experience is the answer to a reference question.” This goes back to: if you’re serving in a neighborhood where you did not grow up – whose “expertise” is valid? To be trusted? How do your life experiences translate to readers advisory? Or a reference interview? How does working in a city public library infuse with your “life experience”?

The teens in my book club were very clear about their literacy, and were acutely aware of racialized assumptions (and therefore misconceptions) by librarians towards inner city teens. The confidence and resiliency the teens exhibited though, taught me that inner city teens do read – in many ways, in many contexts and subtexts – they read voraciously and WELL. When it comes to text, they also read a lot of literature, across many genres. Again, all we have to do to find this out is – ask the patron, and then listen, trust, and respect, their expertise. In turn, we earn ours.