Winter Santiaga, the protagonist of Sister Souljah’s 1999 debut novel The Coldest Winter Ever, is anything but a wallflower. The equally beautiful and selfish favored daughter of Brooklyn drug kingpin Ricky Santiaga, Winter is sixteen going on twenty-five, and accustomed to the luxuries bought with dirty money—her biggest concerns are looking fly, getting off, and having fun. When things are good, Winter’s life is a label-flashing Hype Williams video. Her father expresses his love through expensive gifts, from 14-K gold and diamonds to head-to-toe Chanel and Gucci outfits. Winter admires Ricky’s hustle, confusing wealth for the promise of unshakeable stability, social status, and security. Unfortunately, Ricky’s empire implodes when jealous rivals snitch to the feds. He is arrested and shipped off to Rikers. CPS snatches up Winter’s three younger sisters, and her mother is arrested for being an accessory to her husband’s felonies. Without hesitation, Winter snaps into solider mode, plotting and scheming ways to make some quick cash while remaining in hiding. She’s not above using sex to get what she wants, whether that be cash, transportation, or a place to crash for the night. She says, “To be able to shit on people before they get a chance to shit on you. That’s power.”
Including her fiction debut, Sister Souljah’s books continue to sell year after year. Despite the staggering success, mainstream publishing has been quick to categorize her work as Urban Literature or Street Lit. The origin of the name is literal and, according to scholars such as Keenan Norris and authors such as Omar Tyree, refers to stories around the plight of urban life, ranging from Stephen Crane’s “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” to Iceberg Slim’s memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Yet mainstream publishing, which is typically not a reflection of diversity but racial and often gender uniformity, uses this label as a code for Black, as though all work revolving around Black characters in urban environments repeat the same stories. One look around your last standing Barnes and Noble, or even while browsing the endless genres on Amazon, shows this race-based categorization and exclusionary hierarchy of literature. Souljah’s novels routinely address the trials and tribulations of Black and African-American people. However, this does not mean that her work cannot also embody a category not defined by Otherness. This would otherwise simply be known as Fiction.
Souljah herself isn’t comfortable with the label. She confesses to Time, “I’m a college graduate, and if I read something like Romeo and Juliet, I’m reading about a gang fight, I’m reading about young love, young sex, longing. I’m reading the same themes that I’m writing in my books. So if somebody comes along and says, ‘Yours is street literature’—what was Shakespeare’s?” It’s a label conjured by a very white, male, privileged publishing industry. Thus, it carries a different, even class-based connotation than Fiction. Such a label does a great disservice to the novel, relegating it to Other, separating it from Literature (aka work written by white authors). Why must it solely stay in the African-American Literature section of bookstores? What is it about Souljah’s novel that disqualifies it from Fiction?
In an interview with The Root, the author says, “I’m not in sync with this street-lit genre. I think that when European authors or Euro-American authors write about urban, suburban or rural areas, it’s just called literature.” Unfortunately, her argument is nothing new; this critique of diversity (or the lack thereof) in mainstream publishing has been echoed by Toni Morrison and all corners of social media, namely with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. In an interview with Urban Times, Souljah elaborates on the marginalization of works written by Black authors. The labels of Urban Fiction and/or Street Lit, as Souljah puts it, stem from “fear and power.” There is an inherent privilege in being a white author as, “making books by African American authors have a segregated place in bookstores with very little advertisement and even less copies available to the customer allows the ‘mainstream authors,’ white authors, to remain dominant in sales, presence, and imagery.” The authors that seem to implode this glass ceiling are proof of the need for diversity in publishing. According to T Magazine, husband and wife writing team JaQuavis and Ashley Coleman “have earned millions of dollars, almost exclusively from cash-for manuscript deals negotiated by independent publishing houses.” Yet even if Urban Lit authors can push past the obstacle of representation, there are certain advantages denied to authors on the so-called fringe. For the Colemans, their prolific work ethic didn’t necessarily attract traditional publishers. In fact, the article notes, “the pair had no literary agent; they sold hundreds of thousands of books without banking a penny in royalties.”
Studying the Publisher’s Weekly review from 1999, it’s easy to see why Souljah dislikes being marketed solely as “Street Literature.” It implies that the genre lacks a certain finesse and elegance, even literary merit, in comparison to that which is regarded as Fiction. The review commends her for using “a raw and true voice,” but then goes on to say “though her prose is rough and unsophisticated” in the same sentence. The review also criticizes using African-American vernacular and slang rooted in hip-hop, calling it “potentially offensive prose.” Such comments are a reflection on the narrow-mindedness of the reviewer, and not the structure of Souljah’s narrative. Hip-hop is integral to the story and to dismiss this obvious correlation is evident of cultural and racial ignorance. The Coldest Winter Ever is much more than Urban Lit; it’s a literary bridge to a kaleidoscope of human behavior.
Contrary to what the Publisher’s Weekly review posits, the prose is not rough, but a reflection of how speech patterns are influenced by hip-hop culture and Black slang. Why is Souljah’s prose “unsophisticated” when authors such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner can write in Southern dialects, and in Faulkner’s case, sometimes long, twisty, confusing streams of consciousness, only to be labeled literary geniuses? In both Faulkner and Souljah’s works, a person’s voice is a window into their character, serving as both the imprint of cultural and historical influences. Souljah’s novel is strictly told from the perspective of Winter and thus, the prose vividly showcase a mixture of the arrogance of youth and the entitlement of a pauper turned princess. If writing in vernacular can be considered high art when executed by Faulkner, why aren’t the code-switching skills of Souljah’s characters worthy of the same esteem? Just as Faulkner wrote unflinchingly brutal depictions of human relationships, Souljah does not present a sugarcoated version of victories and failures in her prose. In this world of trust no one, love can be a shield or an Achilles heel.
Winter’s voice is that of a young, mostly streetwise girl who thinks she’s untouchably older and wiser than anyone in her peer group. When her friend Natalie comments that, “The block is hot,” Winter says, “That shit didn’t scare me ‘cause we always had plenty of cops around our way in Brooklyn.” She adds, “The way I figured it everybody had to have a hustle to survive. The cops wasn’t no threat as long as their cut was in it. As Santiaga said, ‘You gotta know how to spread the cheese around the table.’” Winter’s voice can easily switch from street slang to the familiarity of a confessional yet unapologetic narrative guide. When Winter runs into an old hookup buddy, his usage of street slang indicates the depth and the seriousness of his commitment to the hustle. Bullet boasts, “Come on, Winter. You sleeping on this nigga…A nigga been stacking chips, I’m about to cop something lovely. I got a little business on the side making moves. I’m about to come into something real big soon.”
Although Publisher’s Weekly doesn’t fault Winter’s narcissism and materialism, other mainstream publications, such as Booklist and Kirkus, deliver backhanded compliments relating to the strength of the novel’s context. The latter says, “The audience to whom this book is written will find the language real and raw, yet the story could have been told with less obscenities and vulgarity.” The former assesses, “This is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character.” Why does the “flashiness” of the characters’ lifestyles demote its literary meatiness? Both Mario Puzo’s novel and Coppola’s Godfather clearly follow the time-told American fairytale of attempting to make it in the land where the streets are paved with gold. Materialism and hustling aren’t viewed as immoral offshoots of debauchery, but a means to an end, a way of survival. Hip-hop and rap culture form the heartbeat of the novel, never romanticizing the lifestyle, but vividly showcasing the extremes of the spectrum. The novel, which pointedly touches upon the everlasting and all-around destruction caused by HIV/AIDS, uses Winter as a cautionary tale but does not succumb to a puritanical treatment of sex. Winter’s exploits are reminiscent of prominent female MCs in the 90s rap scene, such as Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. Like those of the former Junior Mafia member and Brooklyn native, Winter’s sexual politics directly challenge and, to an extent, mock the double standards imposed by patriarchal rule. Winter is fearless and, even when she can’t ward off feelings of anxiety or insecurity, she clings to the tough-girl persona exhibited in the rhymes of the aforementioned MCs.
In an interview for Paper magazine with renowned feminist, scholar, activist and author bell hooks, Lil Kim gives insight into her thoughts about sex and sexuality. hooks mentions that critics, especially right-wing advocates, have said that the rapper talks too much about sex and that her music is anything but liberating for women. Kim says, “I don’t think that either. You wanna know why? Because we have people like Too Short, Luke Skyywalker [of 2 Live Crew], Biggie, Elvis Presley, Prince, who are very, very, very sexual, and they don’t get trashed because they like to do it. But all of a sudden, we have a female who happens to be a rapper, like me, and my doin’ it is wrong.” There’s something undeniably refreshing about Winter’s cutthroat philosophies and her refusal to feel shamed for not being, as Drake would say, “a good girl.” Being “likeable” is irrelevant. The narrative is compelling and exciting precisely because Winter is no damsel in distress; she’s a female Michael Corleone. On the other hand, Winter is only sixteen and considerably sheltered from the more hardcore aspects of her father’s intricate drug empire, thus making her sexual freedom more of a fall from grace than a feminist manifesto. Later on in the interview, Kim elaborates on how money embodies almost the same transgressive properties as sex. She explains, “ I feel money is power in certain senses. A lot of women out there are just givin’ it away. And then there are the women that’re selling their bodies. But they chose to do that. But this is how they make their money. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.” Winter is the daughter of hip-hop, heavily influenced by both her street-smart father and the boss-bitch mentality of the few women rappers in the game. In her song, “My Life,” off her sophomore solo album, Chyna Doll, Foxy Brown takes a moment to show equal parts blunt vulnerability, regret, and unapologetic bravado. Like Sister Souljah’s protagonist, Brown discusses the double-edged sword of materialism and the pursuit of financial prosperity, name-dropping designer labels as markers of status, class and exclusivity. The high-price life is regarded as an escape hatch, utilized to gain autonomy.
At the age of fourteen, introduce to coops
Learnin’ how to seduce niggaz takin’ they loot
Quickly, got involved with this money lifestyle
The finer things, all kinda things, power, money
Cars and diamond rings, and nice braids, flaunt it
The Gucci boots with the G’s on it
A high price for this ‘high price’ life
The labels of Urban and African-American Fiction fail to tell us anything relevant or tangible about these novels. Fiction can deal with a variety of topics, people, places, and time periods. When publishers use the aforementioned genres, it prescribes a one-size-fits-all set of expectations onto a novel that just so happens to feature Black characters. A coming-of-age novel doesn’t have to resemble the lily-white versions of New York as seen in The Catcher in the Rye or the Manic Pixie Dream Girl wonderlands of a John Green novel or the coke-snorting, pretentious exclusiveness of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero. By placing Winter Santiaga as the protagonist, the novel demands that readers do not think exclusively in absolutes. Winter’s narrative is very much a coming-of-age novel without overt preaching. There is a lesson to be learned, but the way in which Winter reaches such a conclusion is not cut and dry. If anything, the events of the book portray an inverted fairy tale; Winter’s fall from royalty not only enrages her, but makes her anxious to regain her title. She thinks it’s her God-given right to reclaim what’s destined. Winter’s narrative may not be universal, but its grittiness matches the hip-hop soundtrack threaded in the prose. For mainstream publishing, The Coldest Winter Ever may not be a “traditional” coming-of-age novel, but this kind of praise seems irrelevant when “traditional” typically means white, heterosexual, and male.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on but are not limited to: Vice, The Toast, The Hairpin, The Billfold, Hazlitt, and Mask Magazine. She is Creative Director of Winter Tangerine, an online literary journal dedicated to the eclectic.