From the first pages of Sister Souljah’s 1999 debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever, the teenage protagonist declares that she’s been a style icon since birth. “The same night I got home my pops gave me a diamond ring set in 24-karat gold,” Winter Santiaga says. Practical considerations, such as whether her infant fingers could even hold up the rings, mattered less to the Brooklyn-raised diva than the shine. “It was important for me to know I deserved the best, no slum jewelry, cheap shoes, or knock-off designer stuff, only the real thing.”
The novel vividly details how Winter’s hubris and greed, two other heirlooms passed down from her drug-dealing father, led to her undoing. She even meets—and ignores the advice of—a fictionalized version of Sister Souljah, who appears as something of a role model to the wayward teen. By the book’s end, Winter is serving 15 years in prison. Now, 22 years later, a new sequel finds Winter ready to reclaim the life that should have been hers all along—but not without facing unexpected hurdles. In Life After Death, published last week, Sister Souljah continues to explore the vices that ensnare Winter and materialistic young people like her. The second novel follows Winter to a temptation-packed purgatory where she must surrender the avarice, lust, and ego that have defined her existence. Though Life After Death doesn’t take place on the literal streets of Brooklyn, the sequel joins its predecessor—and the rest of Sister Souljah’s work—in illuminating both the glamour and the danger of urban life.
Sister Souljah’s first novel has sold more than 1 million copies since it was published, a statistic that doesn’t even account for the many young readers who passed it around in classrooms, buses, and locker rooms like contraband. “The Coldest Winter Ever is one of those books we all read in middle school, or high school, when we were entirely too young,” the book blogger Ms. Malcolm Hughes put it in a recent video review.
“I don’t think it’s right for any author to decide [their own] work is classic,” Sister Souljah told me in an interview last week. “But when … the high schools use it; and the junior high schools are not authorized, but they use it anyway; and everybody’s mother read it; and the grandmother read it—that is the people saying, No, this is a classic novel.” The Coldest Winter Ever is often credited with popularizing “street lit,” sometimes referred to as “urban fiction.” Within a decade of the book’s release, the genre made up the most popular paperbacks at Black-owned bookstores around the United States. And now Life After Death presents an opportunity to more thoroughly consider literature of its kind—for those of us who first became acquainted with Winter as teens, and for a publishing industry that still doesn’t quite understand characters like her.
Street lit is a deceptively simple name for a rich, metatextual art form. Early works, including Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl, featured young female protagonists getting caught up in the excesses of 1980s hip-hop culture, gang life, and drug usage. But the genre can include less nihilistic fare too. Young-adult fiction such as Angie Thomas’s 2017 novel, The Hate U Give, which explores the effects of gun violence and police brutality through the story of a teen girl, is a natural entrant to the category.
In the introduction to a 2013 anthology about street lit, the editor, Keenan Norris, connected the genre to a long history of literature and journalism chronicling the beauty and pitfalls of city life. He described the genre as “a body of American literature produced by post-1980s Black and Latino writers and deriving its formal structure, narrative technique, and themes from the determinist and naturalist fiction of past epochs in African American and American literature.” Norris drew parallels between street lit and early-20th-century noir novels, noting that authors such as Chester Himes brought the “detective-gumshoe narrative devices” and moral ambiguity of those white noir writers’ books to fiction about Harlem.
As Norris also points out, street lit is “undeniably tied to hip-hop in terms of its origins, raw content, and up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneurship in the production and distribution stages.” Indeed, Life After Death takes its title from the posthumous second album of another Brooklyn juggernaut, the Notorious B.I.G., and does more than just gesture at his influence. In the novel, after hearing one of the late artist’s singles playing, Winter muses on rap’s power: “Nineties rappers and hip-hop music ruled the airwaves, reflected our culture, and moved our streets,” she explains. “It was dominant, not only in Brooklyn, but in all hoods in America and around the world.”
Perhaps fittingly, before publishing Winter’s first tale in the ’90s, Sister Souljah was a musician too. Born Lisa Williamson in the Bronx, she’s also been a student activist, a racial-justice advocate, and a nonprofit director. For Sister Souljah, literature has been just one way to tell the stories of a community, both its social ills and its potential for transformation. She told me that when she writes, she’s “going for a level of excellence that has nothing to do with me being higher or better or distant from my community, but has everything to do with me being close and intimate, and concerned and loving of my community.”
Among non-Black people, Sister Souljah is perhaps best known as the Public Enemy rapper whom Bill Clinton likened to the Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke in 1992. Clinton, a presidential candidate at the time, quoted a rhetorical question that Sister Souljah had posed in a Washington Post interview following the Rodney King riots: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Though she insisted that the quote was taken “completely out of context” and deliberately misinterpreted, the controversy nonetheless led to the term Sister Souljah moment being used—even now—to describe any instance of politicians publicly repudiating a so-called radical figure or idea associated with their own party.
These days, Sister Souljah doesn’t like to spend much time thinking about that chapter of her life, or about what opinions white people hold of her in general. “If you obsess over that, it’s like you’re losing your life force, your energy. You’re losing your time, you’re losing your focus, you’re losing your ability to build, to connect and do things with other people,” she said after citing the theory of double consciousness outlined by W. E. B. Du Bois. “So I try not to live my life in reaction to the power structure or live my life in reaction to racism.”
Part of the appeal of Sister Souljah’s novels is that they let their characters do the same. Winter, for the most part, determines her own life. Her poor choices, rather than any explicitly named social force, are what tend to land her in trouble. At her story’s high points, she narrates with an almost intoxicating self-assuredness. Sex, money, beauty, power—Winter has it all, at least for a while, and readers get a glimpse of what it feels like for her. “Now a bad bitch is a woman who handles her business without making it seem like business,” she says after an early exchange with her mother, who had “made it clear to me that beautiful women are supposed to be taken care of.” That bad-bitch mystique, as described in the novel, influenced a generation of readers. It helped the famed Love & Hip Hop cast member Yandy Smith-Harris land her first job in the music industry. It even inspired a hip-hop mixtape of the same name, from Ms Banks, an artist raised across the Atlantic in South London.
That’s not to say that Sister Souljah’s characters and those in other so-called street-lit books don’t live in worlds shaped by oppressive systems. Winter and her family endure plenty of strife, much of which is a direct result of the social and economic conditions surrounding them. In one early Coldest Winter Ever scene, Winter’s father cautions her against romanticizing their former life in the projects: “Those streets don’t love you. They don’t even know you,” he warns her, foreshadowing the fall to come. “The street don’t love nobody.”
Even in her condemnation of Winter’s actions, Sister Souljah—both the actual author and the character in the book—addresses the larger injustices affecting people who live in similar environments. The novelist’s critiques are interpersonal as well as societal. That’s one of many reasons the book has been circulated widely in (and sometimes banned from) jails and prisons, both real ones around the country and fictional ones on television. Connecting The Coldest Winter Ever to the work of hip-hop feminists such as Joan Morgan, the filmmaker and professor Stephane Dunn wrote in 2012 that “Souljah’s novel bridges the gap between the African American literary canon and contemporary black pop fiction, between the academic and popular, while being concerned with elevating the mass audience’s critical consciousness to provoke transformative thinking and action.”
Still, Sister Souljah’s books pose a challenge to readers and critics invested in a specific vision of literary “Black excellence.” Some Black authors and booksellers have bristled, at times infamously, at the mass-market appeal of novels like hers. Take this description of street lit from a 2004 Chicago Tribune column, in which one Black bookstore owner referred to the genre as “mindless garbage about murder, killing, thuggery,” while the writer described its rhetorical conventions in starkly unfavorable terms: “An exemplary tale is a mixture of foul language, flying bullets, fast cars, a flood of drugs, fallen angels, and high-priced frippery. It venerates grams over grammar, sin over syntax, excess over success.” Or this 2006 New York Times op-ed, in which the author Nick Chiles objected to the books’ placement under an “African American literature” placard at Borders. Chiles lamented “the whole community of black authors—from me to Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, from Yolanda Joe and Benilde Little to Edward P. Jones and Kuwana Haulsey—[being] surrounded and swallowed whole on the shelves by an overwhelming wave of titles and jackets that I wouldn’t want my 13-year-old son to see.” (McMillan also wrote a blistering, personal invective against “ghetto lit” the following year.)
Unlike those authors, Sister Souljah’s frustration with the term street lit isn’t about the other writers she gets grouped with; it’s about whom she doesn’t get discussed alongside. She’s spoken publicly about her unease with the label for at least a decade now, and when we talked, she reiterated the points that she’s long been making. She calls her books “literature,” just like celebrated white authors from Europe and the United States whose works explore the same core emotions as hers do. “Because we’re all human beings, right? So we’re writing about love. We’re writing about hate. We’re writing about fright. We’re writing about struggle. We’re writing about culture, art, food, music, dance,” she said. “Everything that we’re writing about is a facet of every single community, no matter the race, no matter the language you speak.”
She continued: “So if you create a category and say, ‘These books are not literature; they’re street lit’—like, what is that? And what does that mean?”
At a practical level, it means these books are rarely showcased at major bookstores, instead relegated to the small displays and scant shelving reserved for Black authors. It means, as Sister Souljah recalls, having a bookseller tell her that their store kept copies of The Coldest Winter Ever locked up for fear of having them stolen by readers. Often, it means that the books aren’t considered for their thematic or artistic value. Sometimes they’re even discussed in terms that one might call “racially charged” in polite company. A 1999 Publishers Weekly review, for example, claimed, “Souljah peppers her raunchy and potentially offensive prose with epithets and street lingo, investing her narrative with honesty albeit often at the expense of disciplined writing.” Kirkus Reviews, meanwhile, referred to it as “a tour de force of black English and underworld slang.”
But as the writer Vanessa Willoughby asked pointedly in 2016, “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?” Regardless of the publishing industry’s grasp of Sister Souljah’s literary vision, or of the Santiagas’ rhetorical flair, the books find their readers. The readers find one another. And this summer, at parks and nail salons and malls and everywhere else young people gather, it’ll be Winter’s time again.