While I work on new fiction, I have been reading a lot of other people's fiction and, because I have not posted to this blog for months but do read about a book a week, and because I want to clarify my thoughts about the books I'm reading, I plan to spend the next several months writing about other people's fiction, starting with Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever.
I came to it because students in a prison fiction writing class talked about urban fiction as a genre and recommended it highly. The book has been out since 1999, so I am coming to it late. But it's still in print and the 2006 paperback edition I bought announced there are a million copies in print. With all that, I'd never heard of it. A
If one of the reasons to read fiction is to learn about other lives and other cultures, I can unequivocally recommend The Coldest Winter Ever. The protagonist, Winter Santiaga who tells her own story, is a 17-year-old woman of color who is the daughter of a wealthy Brooklyn drug-dealing family. She worships her father, has three younger sisters (Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes, which says something about the family's values), is sexy and smart, if contemptuous of school. "...my policy was to go to school just enough so the authorities wouldn't kick me out. If I had a new outfit to show off or some new jewels I knew I'd get sweated for, fine, but I wasn't gonna report to school every day like it was some type of job when they weren't even paying me for it. School was like a hustle. Teachers wanted me to come to school so they could get paid to control me. What do I get out of the deal?"
When Winter's father is arrested; his entire drug-dealing organization rolled up; the house, cars, jewels, and other property confiscated; her mother picked up; and her sisters taken by Child Protective Services, Winter is—for a while at least—on her own. She makes one questionable decision after another, running on pure appetite and rationalization. I suspect the book would be very irritating if Winter were an adult—how could she be so stupid?—but as an adolescent I was willing to follow her from one crisis to another. What is she going to do next?
Because I know so little about the world that Sister Souljah portrays, I believed these characters in these situations would speak and act in the way they do. Souljah includes herself as a character in the book, a do-gooder that Winter tries to use and for whom she has little patience: "On the radio, suddenly Sister Souljah started talking shit, her coarse voice overpowering the music. 'The number one group of people dying from AIDS is young black women.' I popped in a tape to shut her down before she started gettin' on my damn nerves."
Winter is a force of nature. I'm not sure that she has learned anything socially useful by the end of the book. But the reader has, I believed, learned much about the assumptions, attitudes, and lives of men and women in our ghettos.