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Books

Shadings deepen chick lit

Ethnic characters widen a genre's scope by changing stereotypes about blacks.

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published June 25, 2006


According a recent review in the New York Times, chick lit is sinking like last season's deck shoe craze.

But that's just part of the story. A new crop of chick-lit titles by minority authors is keeping the genre afloat.

Ethnic chick-lit characters live for city hot spots, struggle with relationship problems and salivate over the same Marc Jacobs bags as characters in the general chick-lit books. But they also deal with situations more familiar to people of color, such as racism and maintaining cultural traditions far away from home.

Think Bridget Jones's Diary starring Lauryn Hill.

Tia Williams, author of The Accidental Diva, writes about the life of Billie Burke, a black 20-something magazine beauty editor who struggles with life and love, with New York's fashion publishing industry as the backdrop.

Williams, former Teen People editor, co-host of Cosmo's new morning show on Sirius radio and beauty blogger at www.tiawilliams.net, says the ethnic chick-lit genre has nowhere to go but up.

So, do you believe the hype - that women readers will pull their hair out if they see another fuchsia- colored, stiletto-heeled, martini glass book cover dubbed chick lit?

I do think the cover art could be a little more original at this point. And every chick-lit author hates the term. In the beginning it was all about a Sex and the City lifestyle, but our books are a lot more layered than that now. It's not just stilettos and cosmos - it's life.

In The Accidental Diva there's fabulous makeup, parties and man complications - the stuff of any good chick-lit book. So, what is it about this story that makes it more familiar to brown and black girls?

Just being the only one in the room. The main character Billie Burke is the only one in the room in her industry most of the time. I also think it makes for an interesting discussion on class. Billie is from upper-middle class suburbia, and she falls in love with a guy in the projects. It makes her question whether she's "black enough." I think that's something black and Spanish minorities can relate to.

When I think of ethnic chick-lit books like The Gotham Diaries by Tonya Lewis-Lee and Crystal McCrary-Anthony and Bling by Erica Kennedy, I realize both books peek into the lives of a sort of black elite subculture that hasn't been explored very much. When you were writing The Accidental Diva, did you have this sense of "See, we live fabulous lives too?"

It wasn't that. It wasn't a "Look at us we're keeping up with the Joneses" thing; it was a "We are the Joneses" thing. I wasn't trying to prove I was just as fabulous as Carrie (from Sex and the City); it was really about writing about who I truly am.

Speaking of Sex and the City, did you ever wonder why they never had any fabulous black girlfriends?

I know why not. Everything is dumbed-down for massive public relations, and I don't think the producers thought it would have massive appeal if Carrie Bradshaw had friends who were black. The reality is never portrayed. Two of my bridesmaids were white. But unless it's a movie with someone's sassy black girlfriend, we don't see those relationships in the mass media.

Let's be clear here: Ethnic chick lit is not urban lit, which generally includes high drama, scandal, deceit and often street crimes, right?

No, it's not that at all. And that mix-up makes me nervous. There's room for everyone, but I'm nervous that the mainstream is only comfortable with seeing black culture in a certain way. You look at the news: Whenever you see a black man he has been shot or there's a ghetto situation, and that's how we're comfortable seeing black people. What we're writing shows that street fiction is not the only representation of black culture. It's valid, but is not the only experience.

And ethnic chick lit isn't limited to black authors either. Jessica Jiji's Diamonds Take Forever is about a Moroccan twenty-something in New York City, and there's Buddha Baby by Asian author Kim Wong Keltner.

I think we were all off in our corners doing this at the same time, and that was because we were all aware that there should be a choice. A young white girl can read a romance, a western novel or a sci-fi book where the main character looks like her, but we don't have that choice.

You wrote the manuscript for The Accidental Diva while teaching for six months in Spain. When you returned to the United States, how did publishers respond to your book idea?

They were really excited. It was the right place at the right time. Gotham Diaries and Bling had just come out. We were all doing this at the same time, so publishers saw the need for it.

What about the marketing of ethnic chick lit? It seems as if in every mention of The Accidental Diva, there is a mention of Billie's being black. Are you cool with the genre being compartmentalized that way?

No. Of course she (Billie) is black, but all my white friends have read this book and love it too; 65-year-old white women have read this book and love it. It bothers me that every genre of black literature in the book store is lumped under "black fiction." But the rest of the bookstore is separated into genres. It's a problem with thinking that there's one black experience. Would you put Stephen King and Danielle Steel on the same shelf?

Nicole Johnson can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or njohnson@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 23, 2006, 11:08:22]


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