Raja Sekhar Vundru

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Ph.D on Dr.Ambedkar's Electoral System from the National Law School, Bangalore (NLSUI) Currently working as Deputy Director General, UIDAI, Government of India , New Delhi +911123752322 (office)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Beyond Protest

Date:07/08/2005 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/lr/2005/08/07/stories/2005080700330600.htm
Literary Review

Beyond protest
RAJA SEKHAR VUNDRU

As the social profile of the African-American community changes, so does its literature. The Harlem Book Fair reflects this transition.


The buildings in Harlem are brick and stone
And streets are long and wide
But Harlem is much more than these alone,
It's a dream you keep dreaming again.
It's a tear you turn into a smile.
It's the sunrise you know is coming after a while.
That's the heart of Harlem!
Langston Hughes, `Harlem, New York' (1945)

THE African-American literary extravaganza, Harlem Book Fair, is held every July in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City to celebrate life through books. The Seventh Harlem Book Fair was held on July 23, 2005 spanning the entire West 135th Street on the Malcolm X Boulevard, Lenox Avenue. An estimated 60,000 adults and children thronged the Book Fair which had more than 350 stalls, including nine of them in the Food Court selling soul food.

Golden era

The Fair is located adjacent to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, established 80 years ago to pursue the dreams of Harlem Renaissance (1910-1927), which was the golden era of black expression in fiction, poetry, drama, music and art. The Renaissance produced great poets like Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and inspired a generation to the civil rights movements lead by Martin Luther King Jr. and the revolutionary movement of Malcolm X.

The summer heat and sticky tar on the 135th Street mingled with the bursting crowds in the Fair as book readings echoed through Harlem. On July 22, the annual Phillis Wheatley (first African-American author to be published, in 1773) Awards were presented to poet Gordon Parks and author Rosa Guy.

Even though Toni Morrison received the Nobel prize in 1993, Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale (1992) had taken the literary scene by a storm and the black middle class identified itself with the new novel. With the book market surging ahead, there was a resurgence of African-American writing in the 1990s.The publishing houses responded by creating special imprints for the growing black middle class interest. Simon & Schuster has Atria Books and Washington Square Press imprints. Random House has three: Harlem Moon for Doubleday, One World Books and Villard and Strives Row (named after two blocks in Harlem).Time Warner has Walk Worthy Books; Kensington Publishing has Dafina and HarperCollins, the Amistad imprints. The Penguin Group and St. Martin Press have created a special line-up of books. All big publishing houses were sponsors of the Book Fair and competed in attracting visitors to their stalls.

Market clout

Studies showed that African-Americans spent at least $175 millions in purchasing books in 1991 and readership has grown exponentially in the last decade. The Book Fair reflected the great change from "everybody's protest novel" to the urban pulp fiction of popular culture, which has taken over black writing. The urban lifestyles of material success, the social milieu of the new century, the changing outlook of the younger generations on sex, sexual orientation, romance, possessions and fame emerge in the writings after 1991.

The big publishers play on the demand, delivering hundreds of titles every year. The fiction deals with crime, sex, romance and violence, attracting the urban reader. For instance, HarperCollins' imprint sells Black Romance titles of best-selling author Beverly Jenkins (Something like Love, Taming of Jessie Rose); Mysteries by Valerie Wilson Wesley (When Death Comes Stealing, Where Evil Sleeps). Black-owned enterprises chip in. Urban Books Publishing has the category "best street fiction" and Triple Crown Publishing the "Simply Gangsta" fiction. As the market expanded, Faye Childs in 1991 created Black Board African-American Bestsellers List, the equivalent to the New York Times Bestsellers List. Oprah Winfrey's Book Club selection became another route to the bestsellers list.

Going it alone

The most endearing of the Book Fair were the 70-odd self-published authors with their books displayed on small tables, selling briskly. Rebecca Simmons for instance, wrote three novels and published them using her own company, Diligence Publishing. The Book Fair offered workshops on self-publishing, guerrilla marketing of books on the Internet and powerful authorship lessons to sell more books. Most of them draw their inspiration from E. Lynn Harris, who self published and marketed his first novel, Invisible Life (1991). It sold 10,000 copies at book clubs, black beauty salons and black-owned bookstores before Anchor Books acquired it.

Lynn Harris, 51, who went on to write seven more novels for Random House, is one of the highest selling authors in United States today. His novels Not a Day Goes By (2000) and Anyway the Wind Blows (2001) debuted at No.2 on the New York Times bestsellers list. His novels candidly portray the pain and passion of middle class, professional African-Americans in today's society. The Fair also offered motivational and self-improvement books, like the bestseller Chicken Soup for the African American Soul, the other major genre that is on demand.

Emerging concerns

The emergence of the African-American mass market popular fiction with the rise of "pimp drama" and "chick-lit" was one of the concerns debated in the seminars organised simultaneously at the Book fair. Issues like black arts movements, black political writing and black poetry, the hip hop culture in writing, Urban fiction and Erotica and the emergence of a New Harlem were also discussed in these seminars.

As the great poetry of Langston Hughes still reverberates in Harlem streets, poets like Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton and Yusuf Komunyakaa carry forward the torch of the literary heritage of the African-Americans. The Harlem Book Fair is a unique literary exposition of a humanity whose slave narratives, protest novels and poetry, blues and music tell a painful and passionate story of a civilisation now poised to enter the Second Renaissance of its literary prowess.

Raja Sekhar Vundru is an IAS officer.

1 Comments:

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11:50 PM  

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