City Paper is not for tourists
Forsaking all others, producer Sean “Puffy” Combs has dubbed Sister Souljah the “#1 author of the hip-hop generation” on the jacket of her debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever. But although his hyperbole may sell millions of records, in the realm of literature Combs is to be ignored.
The black female literary tradition is known and esteemed for protagonists who find imaginative ways to cope with formidable personal circumstances, but Souljah rejects the high road. And beyond the self-proclaimed community servant’s uncharacteristically sober approach, this book clearly illustrates that the author’s writing voice is unrefined—a shortcoming first suggested in No Disrespect, her first nonfiction work. Still, with two books penned (I hear she’s working on two others now), Souljah claims her place in the emerging quasi-literary post-Terry McMillan commercial-success genre of scantily edited, if not semitalented, writers with important stories to tell.
At the outset, the novel requires more than the routine suspension of disbelief; readers will need to brace themselves to get through Souljah’s storm of shameless self-promotion. The apparently self-absorbed author introduces herself in the first sentence: “I never liked Sister Souljah, straight up. She the type of female I’d like to cut in the face with my razor.” Souljah the character, ostensibly a savior of wayward young folk, is interspersed throughout the work as the characters knock and laud her activism ad nauseam. “Tonight I’m going to see Sister Souljah speak,” says one character. “She’s a real beautiful sister who has helped me to understand myself a little bit more and get it together.” Although the real Sister Souljah, a former rapper, has indeed put her Rutgers University education to work for homeless and disadvantaged inner-city youth, here her immodest interloper technique serves more as a distraction than as an effective literary device.
Still, barring this most flagrant offense, Souljah’s account of heartless adolescent gold digger Winter Santiaga is chilling. Although the criminal nihilism of boys in the ‘hood has directly affected young girls in the ‘hood, mass media attention and literary portrayals of the women and girls touched by the same vicious late-’80s to mid-’90s inner-city drug climate covered in this book have been peripheral to nonexistent. Years after Hollywood’s obsession with black inner-city drug life has waned, Souljah presents Winter not as mute, objectified outsider, but as subject and central figure.
Born in the projects of Brooklyn, Winter is the eldest daughter of a drug kingpin whose dynasty begins to crumble just as she comes of age. For her family, accustomed to ill-gotten riches and the illusion of power, the fall is devastating; it rips them apart. The novel is as much about the inherently tenuous family ties of a culture fixated on drug abuse and its proceeds as it is about the insidious impact of materialism.
Winter’s father, Ricky, lavishes her with the excessive, impractical possessions characteristic of quick and dirty money. At birth, he buys her a diamond ring—too big, of course, for her tiny fingers. At her fifth birthday party, held in a hotel ballroom, she wears Gucci patent-leather loafers and is surrounded by 500 balloons—100 for each year of her life.
Winter’s mother is no better. “Momma didn’t work ’cause beauty, she said, was a full-time occupation that left no room for anything else….She made it clear to me that beautiful women are supposed to be taken care of. She would whisper in my ear, ‘I’m just a bad bitch!’” Born when her mother was 14, Winter at 12 is herself virgin no more. Winter’s numerous sexual encounters during her teenage years are even encouraged by her mother—whose top-shelf nails, hair, and apparel merely mask an impoverished soul.
When Ricky’s enemies close in, his wife is caught in the crossfire—literally—and loses her most precious possession: A gunshot permanently disfigures her face. The incident reveals as much about her daughter as it does about her. While the mom (we never find out her name) recuperates in their recently purchased Long Island home, Winter is less interested in comforting her than in scheming to profile in her mother’s new Mercedes.
Her wish is granted, but shortly thereafter, her father’s arrest cuts off access to all property: Their cars, their home, and its contents are seized. Winter’s three younger sisters are taken into the custody of the social-services department, and she and her mother trek back to Brooklyn as virtual indigents.
Left to her own devices, Winter manipulates the people and situations in her life (and in her way) to her advantage as she doggedly attempts to maintain a spare-no-expense lifestyle. She lies, cheats, and steals, and uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Her blind faith in her incarcerated father’s wisdom even puts her on a futile mission to build her own narcotics organization, if not sleep her way into an extant one. Meanwhile, her mother becomes a dope fiend.
Winter’s loyalty lies wherever the money is. She betrays one and all; she even passes her own mother a crack vial. Forced to enter a group home until she turns 18, Winter begins to hustle her housemates, selling them goods her longtime friend steals. Yet when this same friend is pregnant, incarcerated for “boosting,” and pleads with her for bail money, Winter deserts her—an affront later avenged with a 7-inch gash across Winter’s face.
Both girls are soon locked up on drug-related charges stemming more from the company they keep than from their own actions. “But me, Natalie, Zakia, Chante, and a bunch of Brooklyn girls got a crew up in here….But we wasn’t nothing but the girlfriends to niggas moving weight.”
Winter and her father—who has been given two life sentences for drug trafficking and killing his two brothers-in-law while doing time at Riker’s Island—attend the mother’s funeral in chains. Here, Winter sees that one of her three younger sisters is destined to travel a similar road. But, perennially self-centered, Winter decides not to intervene. “She was perfect. Her hair was perfect. Her legs were perfect. Her clothes were perfect. But I wanted to warn her about certain things in life. Usually I’m not at a loss for words. But I didn’t feel good enough to tell her what I really thought.” Ultimately, the author suggests, Winter cannot be saved, even vicariously through her younger sister.
Souljah presents Winter as a sign of hopeless times: “There is no such thing as love anymore./At least not the deep satisfying kind…” reads a poem of dedication in the book. “There is no reason to celebrate anymore./Just empty actions and empty reactions…This novel is dedicated to the era in which we live./The era in which love, loyalty, honor and respect died….”
In her short-lived hiphop career, Souljah released 360 Degrees of Power and rapped with urgency, rage, and a clear mission to decolonize the minds of black people, a la Public Enemy. But here she drops the ball. The hiphop community has often abandoned hope for Gothic accounts of despair and dysfunction, so disillusioned hiphop heads may view Souljah’s decision to toss Winter down the drain as keepin’ it real. I disagree.
Although I’m not advocating a superficial, happy-go-lucky ending, by virtue of Souljah’s identity as youth educator and activist (and now fictional activist, as well), it is incumbent on her to defrost the Winters of the world, if only through her pen. If she can’t muster up the determination to write her book’s main character out of her dead-end destiny in 337 pages, then, despite her many hats, she is an enabler of the very era she reviles.
As just one more sorrowful storyteller, Souljah underserves the legion of young girls her novel could assist, and promotes the status quo among readers who’ve long ago thrown their hands up at young ladies like Winter.
Folk novelist Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that black females might just be “de mule uh de world,” and it’s widely believed, if not entirely factual, that society at large couldn’t care less about the plight of lost black girls. But someone must care; most often, it’s been other black women, especially black women writers. Yet Souljah lets Winter wander in darkness from the beginning of the novel right into her prison cell.
Still, as psychologists and other experts attempt to understand and explain misguided, criminal-minded American youth, Souljah does offer a case study. And her finger is on the pulse. Winter’s is a credible voice: She is arrogantly ignorant, the hussy image of Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim made literary flesh. “He had all the right stuff and I’d give him some pussy to get it from him,” Winter says of a drug dealer she dates, “but only if I could be sure I was gonna get exactly what I wanted. I see plenty a niggas who will flash their jewels, cars, and gear, run through pussy and leave the girl with rug burns on her back and nothing else. I needed cash, training, a solid team, and a real man to look out for me in every way. So I started to fuck with his head.” Winter’s below-the-belt methods mostly make her an unsavory character, but she is indeed a go-getter, and her street survival skills are her temporary saving grace.
Although the character Souljah creates demands attention, her self-serving distractions and unpolished writing talent ensure that her debut novel will go unread by many, despite Puff Daddy’s claims. CP