By EDDIE MIKUS
While Fordham professors are no strangers to the task of writing and publishing books, one faculty member recently branched into a form far more different than the scholarly works usually associated with professors.
Mark Naison, professor of history and African-American studies, recently co-authored a novel titled Pure Bronx, which will hit stores in e-book form on Oct. 15 and will receive a print release in November.
“It’s a book about two young people who are living in the Bronx, supporting their families through activities that many people regard as disreputable,” Naison said. “The young man is a drug dealer and part-time car thief. The young woman works at a strip club. They both support their mothers, their siblings and feel that, given their education levels and where they are, this is the only way they can do it by doing things which most of society looks down on. And then it’s like a crime novel. They decide to kidnap her client at the strip club and hold him for ransom, and then the whole story kind of takes off from there.”
When asked how he came up with the novel, Naison explained that it was part of a genre which details the hardships of street life.
“The idea is that there was this whole new form of popular fiction which started in the late 1990s,” Naison said. “Most of the books were written by people in prison about their lives in the drug business, in the underground drug business and in jail. They’re books that are not widely known by the general public, but sold enough so that you could find large numbers of them in the bookstores.”
As such, Naison came up with idea of assigning the hip-hop and street literature class he was teaching to write one of these novels.
“We decided to do a course that looked at this form of popular fiction, alongside of hip-hop because they came from basically the same neighborhoods,” Naison said. “So I gave a challenge to the class: Why don’t we write a book of our own in this genre? And I was taken up on the challenge by a young woman in the class named Melissa Castillo-Garsow, who was a creative writing student at Fordham and an aspiring novelist and poet. So I made up this male character, Khalil, and she made up this female character, Rasheeda. And we just started writing back and forth. And then after we got about a hundred pages, we showed it to some people and they said, ‘You know, you could get this published.’”
Naison also described the process of collaboration between him and Castillo-Garsow, who is now an American studies Ph.D. student at Yale University.
“I’d write a chapter in Khalil’s voice, and then Melissa would write back a chapter in Rasheeda’s voice,” Naison said. “So we would have fun. Sometimes at three in the morning, I’d send her a chapter, and at six in the morning I’d get a chapter back. This was all done on email.”
While Naison stated that all street lit novels follow a prescribed formula, he also explained aspects that make his novel different from others in the genre.
“If you are going to write within this formula, you have to have drugs, prison, violence and poverty,” Naison said. “Some books have a social justice message and some don’t. They’re a lot like hip-hop. Some of them just glorify material success through violence and courage. We decided to add a social justice element.”
Naison strived to make his book unique to New York.
“Our book is set in the Bronx. We have something about gentrification, about economic inequality,” Naison said. “What we also have that a lot of the books don’t have is something about immigration. One of the characters is African-American, the other is West Indian. There’s a major character who is African, there’s a major character who is Puerto Rican, there’s a major character who’s from Honduras, so we show the ethnic diversity of the Bronx in the book, which not all of the books do. Some of them, it’s just the characters are almost all African-American.”
Additionally, Naison said Pure Bronx’s ending differentiates it from other books in the genre.
“Not all of them have a happy ending,” Naison said. “Ours has a happy ending for the characters. They get the big score and they move their families out of the South Bronx, put their younger brothers and sisters in good schools and nice apartments. They win. And they get out of the ghetto and they don’t have to sell drugs or strip anymore.”
Naison himself served as the inspiration for one of the characters in the novel, something that came about at the suggestion of the street lit author Jihad Uhuru.
“He read the book and said, ‘Why don’t you add a character who is a white black studies professor, who will help solve some of these problems?’” Naison said of Jihad. “So there is a character, who is loosely modeled on me, named Nelson Temple, who is a white black studies professor at Lehman, who can do all kinds of things like move money across borders, dispose of bodies. He ultimately helps the characters solve their problems and start a new life in Canada.”
Naison also spoke about how writing a novel compared to writing a scholarly work.
“It’s totally different because this comes entirely out of your head,” Naison said. “It’s like fantasy. There are no guidelines on how to do it. I was trained by a lot of pretty famous professors about how to do research on how to write a scholarly article or a scholarly book. There’s protocols that I was taught that I use in the documentation, in the style, in the organization. None of that was there with me in the fiction.”
When asked how the novel would be received, Naison said that the book would be entertaining, but would not qualify as a seminal American work.
“People who have read it find it very entertaining,” Naison said. “This is not great literature. It is written to a formula that exists for a lot of these books, which are themselves not great literature, but I would say, if you read, you’re not going to be bored. You’ll be on your toes waiting for what’s going to come next.”
In fact, Naison said that he is in the planning stages of a sequel, (Pure Bronx 2), if the upcoming novel is well-received by critics. He also said that he would consider writing other books based on his character, Nelson Temple.