Meet Sidi Ibrahima, a pulp fiction author in Harlem ♦
Harlem’s 125th Street is a bazaar of cottage industry products: incense and earrings, knit hats and demo CDs. But the goods on one table near Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard are more colorful than the rest. Bright books with racy covers are spread over the stand. People, mostly women, stop to flip through “Homo Thug II”, “The Lesbian’s Wife,” “Mandingo,” or Sister Souljah’s latest title.
On any given morning, you can find Sidi Ibrahima at his bookstand, stacking paperbacks and recommending good reads to passing ladies. He hands “A Streetgirl Named Desire” to Deborah McKenzie, a self-described “bookhead” who goes through five titles a month. “If you don’t like I’ll take it back.” Besides this stall, Ibrahima distributes books on five other stands across New York, including the Bronx, Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Besides being Harlem’s main distributor and street fiction enthusiast, Ibrahima, who is from Ivory Coast, is a self-published author who made his foray into the industry with a book about a West African girl, Fatou.
Variously called hip-hop, street or urban lit, the pulp genre has been growing in popularity since the 1990s, when activist and author Sister Souljah first published her autobiography, “No Disrespect,” and then her debut novel, “The Coldest Winter Ever.” These books are widely credited with resuscitating the tradition of 1970s authors Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, streetwise counterparts to Ralph Ellison.
Ibrahima owns one of Harlem’s few bookstores, the Harlem Book Center, a small outlet that also sells movies and cohabits with a lively hair-braiding salon. Harlem Book Center consists of two walls of shelves, a counter, a computer and another wall of shelves for movies. Ibrahima, tall and dark-skinned with a piercing gaze, spends his afternoons behind the counter at his crammed bookstore. Dressed casually in running pants and a jacket today, he sports a newsboy cap and round glasses that give him an earnest look. In between checking his email and conversing with the women who come in to get their hair braided, he describes the long road he’s travelled to get here.
Ibrahima, born in the capital Abidjan, read a lot when he was young, but was especially impressed with the works of African “Negritude” writers like Amadou Ba. Ibrahima immigrated to Germany in the ’90s to start an import/export business based in Nuremberg. In 2000, he moved to New York to pursue more opportunities.
“In Africa, on TV, they’re always talking about America. We think America is a paradise,” he says. “When you come here, you see the reality. You have to work. But for that you need a work permit. You have to start from scratch.”
It was this reality that Ibrahima, then driving a cab, decided to write about. He had just discovered urban lit, which he describes as targeted mostly to African-Americans and African-Caribbeans. Ibrahima learned the genre by reading books like Sister Souljah’s “Coldest Winter” and Terri Woods’ “True to the Game.”
His first book, “Fatou: An African Girl in Harlem,” might not be a “World’s #1 Bestseller” as it’s cover proclaims, but the author says he has sold 85,000 to 95,000 copies since publication in 2004. Accurate sales figures are hard to come by, since most of these books sell on the street. “Fatou” begins with a man raping his young daughter in an African hut before sending her off to Harlem to marry a much older man in exchange for a big dowry. She escapes into prostitution, drug dealing and gangs. Despite its incredibly graphic sexual and violent content, Ibrahima says his book is based on the true story of an immigrant he met on his first trip to the U.S. in 1994. When the woman who inspired “Fatou” told her story, he says, “I was in tears. I said, ‘I’ve got to let people know what happened to this brave and smart – not only book smart, but street-smart – girl.’”
Ibrahima approached several publishers, but says he lacked the connections to get his book printed. A few mainstream publishers have urban lit imprints, Random House’s One World and Simon and Schuster’s Atria/Strebor Books, for example. Most major urban lit publishers, however, started with one author on a shoestring self-publishing budget and grew. So Ibrahima decided to try and go the way of Terri Woods Publishing, Urban Books and Triple Crown Publications and published 500 copies of “Fatou” on his own.
He had saved money from his stall and from cab driving to publish “Fatou.” “It passed my expectation,” he says, recounting how the first run sold out in a week. He published another 1,000 copies, and says he was inundated by calls from Barnes & Nobles, Borders and distributors wanting more. Mary Davis, a spokesperson for Borders, said that although the stores do have dedicated African American and urban lit sections, they do not currently carry Ibrahima’s titles.
Despite the fact that “Fatou” appears nowhere on any of the national book review sites for urban lit like streetfiction.org and theurbanbooksource.com, local success is part of the genre’s vitality. The book’s popularity, particularly among New York’s African and Caribbean readers, led Ibrahima to his next project. While shopping at a 116th Street West African grocery, Ibrahima ran into a fan. She told him her own story, which eventually became “The Lesbian’s Wife.” “Fatou was a girl coming from Africa to America and ‘The Lesbian’s Wife’ had a woman going back to Africa,” he says, pointing at the cover of the latter book, which features a buxom woman in a power suit against a backdrop of palm trees. Ibrahima says the book has sold about 15,000 copies. Under the moniker “Sidi,” Ibrahima has also written a sequel to “Fatou”; “Tamika”, about a Jamaican girl; and two books about a male prostitute, “Mandingo.”
Readers and writers of urban lit can’t seem to quite agree on why it’s so popular. McKenzie, the “bookhead” says that she likes stories with “drugs, killing and sex,” and reads them to escape from her life for a bit. Ibrahima, though, insists that his books reflect reality. “Most of it is about our day to day struggle,” he says. He extends his arm to reveal a bullet scar on his hand and describes how he was shot at while driving a “young thug” passenger who was dealing drugs.
Ibrahima insists that urban readers have already been exposed to sex and violence; to pretend these don’t exist would spell irrelevance for his books. “You know America – anything with sex sells. People really like violence,” he says. “Violence in our books, it doesn’t really mean that we’re trying to teach the violence. At the end of the story, there’s always a lesson to learn from the story. Because if you raised by the gun, you’re going to fail by the gun, and that’s what we’re trying to say.”
Marva Allen, who co-owns the more highbrow Hue-man Bookstore across the street, disagrees. When it comes to urban lit, “I’ve heard all the arguments for it, but I believe that what we’ll see is what we’ll be,” she says. “It’s an unfortunate life for people to emulate.” She’s read Ibrahima’s books and objects to more than their violent content. “I read it with a red pen,” she says. “You might as well put the book on Twitter.”
Ibrahima believes that getting African-Americans to read – anything – is a worthwhile endeavor, however. “If you want to hide something from black men, put it in a book,” he quips. He points out that he sells non-fiction as well, like Barack Obama’s memoirs and various biographies. He believes that urban fiction can open the door for readers who then get hooked on more serious literature.
But Allen believes that urban lit’s popularity will wane. “It’s like what happened to hip-hop,” she says. “It started as a solidarity movement and it’s become an urban commodity with nothing to do with liberation. Hip-hop lit is kind of passé right now. It’s like eating too much sweet and then feeling sick. I’m hoping that’s the trend.”
Ibrahima’s outlook on the genre remains positive though. He’s started publishing other authors, like Ashante Kahari (aka Aaron Fraser), who has spent time in jail for check fraud, run for City Council from Brooklyn and penned the “Homo Thug” series. Ibrahima dreams of fostering more authors and becoming a global distributor of urban fiction.
Eventually, Ibrahima would like to return to Cote d’Ivoire. Speaking over a piped CD of African drums he says, “I’m not rich, but I have a lot of experience and ideas and, God willing, I will go back soon. We cannot leave the responsibility of building our continent in the hands of Europeans or Americans,” he adds. Meanwhile, he’s working on an autobiography. “Self-made Millionaire,” he calls it.