August 25, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


Paperback Writer 

Richmond novelist Nikki Turner wants to be the Jackie Collins of the 'hood.

"The first week, I sold 1,500 copies. So many people were calling my cell phone asking me, 'Where can I get your book?' I had to meet my girlfriends and give them cases of books so they could take them different places for me. Trust me, every car wash in Richmond, every beauty salon, churches, every parking lot — I've been there."

Today, Turner — who sets most of her books on our very streets — is riding in on a publishing wave that stands to change book publishing the way rap music changed music.

"A Hustler's Wife" has sold more than 100,000 copies — at a time when most first novels run printings of about 5,000. Her second book, "A Project Chick" (Triple Crown) already has sold 50,000 copies, landing both titles on Essence magazine's best-seller list in August.

Turner and fellow writers Wahida Clark and Chunichi are featured in "Girls From Da Hood" (Urban Books), which hits bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks in October. You'll also find it at The Literary Boutique, a small local bookshop on Semmes Avenue where Turner is a partner.

She recently signed a two-book deal with mainstream publishing behemoth Random House.

"I'm a VIP everywhere now," she says, laughing — especially in her free time, when she watches professional boxing. "I get to sit ringside at the fights."

Not up on street lit? It goes by lots of names: urban fiction, ghetto lit, hip-hop lit. But it boils down to commercial paperbacks about life in the 'hood. They're stark stories of prison guys named Secret, single mothers with explosive crackhead boyfriends and Calvin Klein ensembles described in mind-numbing detail. BMWs, bullets to the face, cellphones and ground-thumping music. It's the scary and very real world, say its supporters, of places like Richmond where the murder rate has climbed to 58 so far this year, 49 of the victims young African-Americans.

"It's the reality. There's no need to sugarcoat it," says Angela Patton, a fan of hip-hop and, increasingly, of street literature. As part of her summer program for 12 adolescent girls in Gilpin Court, she encouraged mothers to read "The Coldest Winter Ever," a street-lit classic by Sister Souljah.

"It's just so visual. If you've ever lived or visited public housing, you've seen these people," Patton says. "The characters are real in how they look and talk, even down to the nicknames. If you've ever been there, you know them, or at least you've known someone like that or who has been a part of the situation."

Here's a ghetto hairdresser (and hustler) from Turner's world.

So, she called Gypsy, AKA Queen Bitch, AKA scandalous, no good, selfish, self centered, gossiping, ongoing shit starting, paper-chasing stank hoe, who was also her beautician and could do the best hair in all of Richmond and surrounding counties. Now Gypsy was no joke when it came to a comb, some curlers, gel, and a brush. There wasn't any style Gypsy couldn't do from ghetto to conservative. It didn't matter if it was long, short, synthetic or horsehair. …. Not one time did the thought ever cross Gypsy's mind that without her customers there would be no her.

It's that connection that might help explain why these books are being scooped up by young black readers — urban and suburban — faster than you can say "a'ight Shawdy."

Waldenbooks in Regency Mall recently devoted three entire bays to the literature, and its sister store in Southpark Mall is planning a book signing featuring 20 urban-lit authors in October — the first event of its kind for the chain. Store manager James Weishapl estimates that at least 50 percent of all African-American literature titles are street lit right now. Aside from Japanese anime (adult cartoons in book format), urban lit is the largest growing area for Waldenbooks nationally.

"It's going to be huge," Weishapl says of the upcoming event. "We anticipate about a week's worth of sales in one day."

"People say this is a trend, but I couldn't disagree more," says Marc Gerald, Turner's California-based literary agent who is seeing hip-hop writers cross into lucrative deals with established publishing houses. (Turner's deal with One World, an imprint of Random House, offered an advance 10 times larger than that of her first two books combined.)

The genre, Gerald says, can be traced back 25 years to heroin-addict-turned-author Donald Goines. His 16 novels, which included "Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie" and "Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp," have sold more than 10 million copies, according to Publisher's Weekly. The genre got a shot in the arm with the mainstream publication of "The Coldest Winter Ever" in 1999. Since then, urban lit — particularly fiction written by women — has become unstoppable. And while most urban fiction has so far appealed mostly to young female readers, Gerald says Turner's gift is that she draws male and female readers equally.

"The only thing that will kill this," Gerald says, "is a publisher signing the wrong people or going for the buck too fast. But I think it will endure. Just look at rap music. It went in ebb and flow, but in the end it solidified."

Melody Guy, editor of Random's One World imprint which will publish Turner's fourth book next summer, agrees: "You have to acknowledge that this is part of people's life. Not everyone is an executive. And this represents what a certain young woman wants to read about."

To think of street lit as something in its infancy probably is a good thing. Until now the books have been largely self-published (for around $20,000, Turner estimates) or published by small presses — a world often as shady as any ghetto. If the drive-by shootings of the plot don't sicken you, the lax editorial standards will. Characters begin a scene wearing fly Nike sneakers but end it wearing boots. Sex scenes are written from a character's point of view and then — uh-oh — disturbingly switch to first person. Quotation marks are dropped, sentences aren't complete and accurate spelling is optional.

Even in Turner's "A Project Chick" — considered near the top in the genre — there are some howlers:

With all the commotion and confusion going on Tressa almost forgot about the cake she had gotten for Wiggles to celebrate her sobority.

She started screaming when she saw the three-carat diamond earrings on the arangatan's ears.

Turner, who refuses to comment on her former publisher, Triple Crown, is aware of the problem.

"I get blamed for editing," Turner says. "People blame the misspellings and things on me. But I'm only the writer. I can't be the writer and editor, too. It's impossible. The majority of the comments I get [from readers] is that they like the story, but they hate the typos. But it's unfair to me. Especially, when you're dealing with places that say, 'We'd rather just print your book as is because we know it's going to sell anyway.' That's one of the reasons I wanted to go to a major house."

One World's Melody Guy is confident that editorial shabbiness will be a thing of the past. "I think [the errors] were purely unintentional," she says. "That's a plus for these writers. We'll offer that editorial resource here."

Turner is not from the hood. The 5-foot-4, medium-build woman that you see on her web site ( strewn across a bed wearing a tiara — actually has a quiet voice and only a single tattoo of a rose and heart peeking out near her calf to suggest a wilder side. She spends most of her time writing or promoting her book, often as she whips up macaroni and cheese from scratch for her two kids.

One of her favorite things to do on rainy days is to curl up and watch Lifetime. The flashiest thing for her lately was her car — recently stolen from a parking lot. It was a black Volvo convertible.

"I'd love a BMW convertible," she says, "but you know, they're so expensive."

Raised by her mother, Denise Turner, and her grandmother, Margaret Scotts, she attended First Union Baptist Church, took ballet lessons, cheered for the Highland Springs teams, and won lots of awards as a majorette. Throughout her years in Henrico County Public Schools at Jacob L. Adams Elementary School, Fairfield Middle School and Henrico and Highlands Springs high schools, she was considered a good student, if a bit talkative. She once thought she'd be a pharmacist. Later she worked as a cookie packer at FFV cookie factory near the Boulevard.

"Even though my father wasn't there," she says, "I had the perfect childhood. And the older I get the more I appreciate what my mother and my grandparents did for me. They gave me so much love. I was an only child, and when I asked for a brother or sister, my mother would say, 'It wouldn't be fair to another child, Nikki. I couldn't love another child as much as I love you.' "

That's not to say that she's totally inexperienced. She is a single mother of two children, Kennisha, 11, whom she adopted from her ex-boyfriend, and Timmond, 7, who she says is her biggest fan.

"Oh, I probably could write about this," she says of Kennisha's adoption. "I dated a guy who had a daughter from another chick, you know with drugs and all. Of course, by me being his girlfriend, he'd say, 'Can you watch the baby?' We eventually broke up, but you know, I kept that baby."

Kennisha's father eventually went to prison on drug charges.

Turner admits she doesn't draw her stories from her own life, which is stable, and for that she's grateful. "I'm afraid with my next book, 'Girls From Da Hood,' " she says, laughing. "If they think I'm that character, I'm going to have a problem. That girl is scandalous. She puts every petty hustle into play. It's so crazy! When my editor read it, she said, 'The real girls in the hood are going to hate you because you're going to expose them.'"

Turner routinely mines daily life in Richmond for ideas. It's become easier as she's become well-known. "People they come up to me now and pour their hearts out to me. You have no idea," she says. "Some writers, they'll say, 'I go to the park and listen to water and then it comes.' It doesn't happen like that for me. I can be somewhere or hear people talking. ... I keep my ear to the street. I always want to know what's going on. I'm always asking a bunch of questions. It's what makes me a good writer."

What emerges are stories about Richmond's neighborhoods that sound like an insider account — the juicy and repulsive explanation of every depressing Times-Dispatch account or deadpan police briefing.

It was quite peculiar that although there were known beefs throughout the 233, 644, 321, and 359 [telephone exchange] neighborhoods across Richmond. However, once the fellas from Richmond were behind the prison walls many beefs no longer existed. Instead they all came together and the wars went on from the Richmond dudes with the Tidewater dudes.

She'll typically write four hours a day, around her kids' school schedules. And she produces two to three book manuscripts a year. To date, her biggest influences are street-lit writers Goines and Iceberg Slim ("Pimp: The Story of My Life"). But above all, she loves the work of queen-of-nasty white girl Jackie Collins.

"People say, 'Jackie Collins?' because they see she's a white woman. But 'Hollywood Wives'? 'Rock Star'? She is gangsta. Just the way she makes her women win. I think my women win. Even when they don't win, I want the young girls to see the struggles."

Struggle is putting it lightly. In "Project Chick," for example, the heroine is originally in college and then, thanks to hooking up with a drug dealer, finds herself in the projects. Here's an exchange with rowdy boys who wet her down with water pistols.

Oh, you muthafuckas think this shit is funny? Oh, OK. Okay, ya'll don't know who da fuck yall fuckin with cuz I'm always gonna get the last laugh, baby. Believe that! BELIEVE THAT!

At the novel's conclusion, the character's a willing accessory to the murder of her ruthless, abusive boyfriend, a plot decision Turner says was the right one. Will young readers decide it's glamorous or anti-social? It an argument that's been the generational rift in rap music for years.

"I think my stories can teach girls," Turner insists. "A lot of times, these girls, they see the Mercedes, the diamonds, the money — they are so easy to sidetrack. But they don't know what comes behind it. I hope they won't read this and make the wrong choice. They need to see the whole picture, the good and the bad."

Community activist Patton, who used Sister Souljah's book with her campers, agrees: "If a person lives in that community, if a person wants to work in that community, you need to understand. …. This is what's happening. And we black people, we need to stand up and say 'What are we going to do about it?' If I'm a black teenager — even if I live in the suburbs and never got exposed — I'd need to know. It doesn't mean we accept it . … Brothers and sisters, there's another way. But we can come back and help pull people out and tell them the world is bigger than this."

But hand-wringing over a diet of violence aside, if the genre is truly to endure, say critics and fans alike, it needs to expand. Troy Johnson is founder of the African-American Literature and Book Club, a New York-based Web site launched in 1998 to promote black books and authors worldwide.

Johnson says 90 percent of his customers are highly educated women. He's impressed by the amazing rise of writers like Turner — also a best seller on his site — in a relatively short time, but he says his readers soon will need more.

"Urban literature is something to be reckoned with," Johnson says. "More and more people — all kinds — are reading it. But in order to be sustained, the story lines have to be changed. You read one, two, three of those stories and you need something else."

Shannon Thomasson, founder of Richmond-based PSSST (Professional Sistahs Sharing Stories Together), agrees. Her book club comprises 15 professional women ranging in age from 27 to 40. They've enjoyed several urban literature titles in the past, and they're evenly split on whether it emphasizes the worst aspects of black culture or whether it's simply realistic. Regardless, the stories sometimes wear thin.

"My oldest book club member, who happens to be my sister-in-law, is the hostess next month," Thomasson says. "She'll pick the book next month. She said, 'It just seems that every book in the bookstore is about the hood, the ghetto, the drug lords. I am sick of it.'"

All of which Turner, an avid reader, keeps in mind as she considers her newest stories and projects. It's always a growing list.

"So many writers in Richmond and in Virginia have reached out to me. These are people who are so talented, but we don't know them. We're going to do a collection of the Virginia hip-hop writer. It's a package, and I hope I can sell it to somebody else."

But her crowning achievement is going to be a lot simpler than that. What she'd really like is for her extended family to decide she's not out of her mind.

"My family, they don't understand what I do. They think I'm crazy," Turner says. "When you don't do the norm, everyone else in the family thinks you're wrong. I stepped out and said, 'I'm going to be an author.' Right now they say, 'Yeah, OK, Nikki.' They don't understand why I want to do this or how big this can be for me."

"She'll be really modest about this, I'm sure," her agent says. "But Nikki's new book with Random is really a revelation. Her first two books were good and good for her audience. But her new book with Random, I think it will be equivalent of a classic."

Believe that! BELIEVE THAT! S

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