JaQuavis and Ashley Coleman find success writing Street Lit

Wahida Clark, who has hit the best-seller list twice, wrote her first book while serving time in prison for white-collar crimes.
Wahida Clark, who has hit the best-seller list twice, wrote her first book while serving time in prison for white-collar crimes.
Posted: August 25, 2011

Correction: A story Thursday on novelists Ashley and JaQuavis Coleman gave their age incorrecly. They are 25.

JaQuavis and Ashley Coleman, both 25, are likely one of the youngest married couples to hit the New York Times best-seller list. And they owe all to their very colorful past.

His as a drug dealer. Hers as his ride-or-die chick.

He was pushing product. She was counting up the money. And that's what they do, still.

Only now the product is literary instead of illegal, and the money comes as royalty checks instead of crumpled dollar bills from the hands of a crackhead looking for a hit.

The Colemans are among a group of authors who write Street Lit, a genre that many considered a bastardization of African American literature when it first hit the bookshelves a dozen years ago. Street Lit is urban fiction but written in a grittier style, focusing on a subculture of drugs, prostitution, and street violence. Accusations that it glorifies those things abound.

One well-known African American author, Nick Chiles, even wrote an editorial for the New York Times in 2006, stating in part: "I was ashamed and mortified to see my books sitting on the same shelves as these titles."

Other African American authors echoed Chiles' views, and a prevailing thought in the literary community seemed to be that Street Lit perpetrated the worst stereotypes of African Americans and that the novels glorified drug dealing and street violence.

JaQuavis Coleman bristles at the criticism.

"We came up in Flint [Michigan], and where we grew up the dope king was the top man," he said in a phone interview. "He was like Obama, so of course they were our role models. They were who we wanted to grow up to be. That may not be others' reality, but that's our reality. And we're writing our reality. And, yeah, it's Street Lit. I embrace the term."

"Make no mistake about it," he added. "We're screaming from the gutter."

It was a source of pride in the African American literary community, but not a big surprise, when Terri McMillan's Waiting to Exhale - a novel about four middle-class African American women in Phoenix dealing with relationship crises - made the best-seller list in 1992. That book is credited with opening the floodgates for African American commercial fiction.

But when Philadelphia native Teri Woods made the list in 2007 with True to the Game II - a sequel to her 1999 novel, True to the Game, about a young woman from the projects in North Philadelphia who falls in love with a dope dealer and gets involved in drug trafficking and murder - there were gasps.

Street Lit as an authentic genre could no longer be ignored, said Vanessa Irvin Morris, a professor of library and information sciences at Drexel University.

"Making the New York Times best-seller list gives the genre a credibility that it deserves," said Morris, whose book, The Readers' Advisory Guide to Street Literature, will be published by ALA Edition (American Library Association) in October.

"It makes a statement that Street Lit is readable on a mainstream level. And that their mostly African American and Latino followers are reading and buying books on par with everyone else."

Thanks to the Colemans - writing together as Ashley JaQuavis - and Wahida Clark, author of the Thug Loving and Payback series, Street Lit has had a presence on the highly acclaimed list in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Clark hit the list in 2008 with Payback Is a Mother, published by Grand Central Books, and this year with Justify My Thug, published by Cash Money Content.

"I always enjoyed writing and being an author, but when I hit the New York Times best-seller list, my new publishing company really rolled out the red carpet for me," said Clark, who wrote her first book, Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, while in prison for white-collar crimes, including money laundering and mail and wire fraud.

When Street Lit icon K'wan Foye - author of 14 Essence best-selling books, including Gangsta and Welfare Wifeys - first read the Chiles editorial, he said, he was disappointed that Chiles had felt he had to write it.

"I've never met the brother, and he was just talking so greasy about the genre, and I was like, 'We're all writers, man,' " said Foye, whose new book, Eviction Notice, will be published by St. Martin's Press next month. "I'm trying to feed my children just like you. I'm trying to get a message across just like you. You may not have come from where we come from, but that doesn't make our stories any less legit."

Ashley Coleman agreed.

"How can you say one genre is legitimate and another is illegitimate? One thing that JaQuavis and I don't do is sugarcoat where we come from. And we write about where we come from," she said. "I don't think that we ever had the New York Times best-seller list in our sight. But look: We made it!"

Not once, but twice.

Their Cartel II: Tale of the Murder Mamas and Cartel III: The Last Chapter hit the list in 2009 and 2010.

Murderville: The First of a Trilogy was released in July by Cash Money Content, and speculation is that it, too, will find its way onto the list.

"We have the best fans ever," Ashley Coleman said with a sigh.

Murderville tells the tale of Liberty and A'shai, who fall in love as children in Sierra Leone and are captured by human traffickers when they run away from their village. Forcefully separated when they reach the United States, they go through a mind-blowing journey that includes drug cartels, brothels, and arranged marriages before finally reuniting as adults.

The story has an ending that readers will not see coming, and leads straight into the second volume of the trilogy.

The titles and the release dates for the last two books of the trilogy have not been released, but Urban Books will publish the couple's Murder Mamas in September.

"Being on the New York Times list is a major accomplishment. It actually established our career," said Ashley Coleman. "We're established writers now. It's guaranteed that we will be doing this for the rest of our lives."

She took a deep breath and added, "Instead of grinding to the top, we're at the top."

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