Edited by Miles Marshall Lewis
Bronx Biannual: The Journal of Urbane Urban Literature, Issue No. 1, sets out to give further credence to hip hop’s cultural contributions, perhaps a questionable proposition to those familiar only with its more commercial forms. But don’t doubt that beyond the flash and bounce of a Ludacris video, hip hop is a bona fide movement. Editor Miles Marshall Lewis introduces the Bronx Biannual as an heir apparent to literary reviews of the past, those connected with the Harlem Renaissance and other hallowed circles of African American artists. It’s all right if you find your hips swerving to Jay-Z or Missy anyways, this volume is not begging to be taken too seriously. After all, fans of Lois Lane and Clark Kent garner “a shout out” from Lewis as do readers of Amiri Baraka and Aime Cesaire. The selections run the gamut, from blunt-inspired poetry to a cultural critique of Sex and the City versus Girlfriends to a sermon delivered by KRS-One to an investigative report on the Korean-dominated business of African American hair care products.
Let’s begin with my personal favorite: “Pangborn” is a zombie tale as told through Hera, the jive-talking, flesh-eating superfly sister whose line of work regularly takes her from a sass-mouthed robot girlfriend and her home on the moon to carry out professional hits on Earth. This time the target marked for death is holed up in the guts of an unfriendly Bronx housing project. Tailed by her lethal hunger and a private dick who’s made the suicidal mistake of falling for this undead assassin, Hera hauls our wimp asses through the countless twists of post-apocalyptic organized crime. Perhaps the best part about this science fiction short is the way Greg Tate, a longtime writer for the Village Voice, has his central character spit her disses with a smoldering, Pam Grier-like cool. This is a must-read for fans of the crackpot, DC/Marvel-inspired narratives of Dr. Octagon and Madvillain.
Poet, novelist and contributor to The Source, Dana Crum, turns in a taut, coming-of-age story with “Nothing Can Remain Unchanged.” It’s graduation night, and Sidney, the Princeton-bound valedictorian from a disadvantaged neighborhood in Washington, D.C., is wrapping up a heartfelt speech about choosing education over thug life. Unfortunately, his two best friends from childhood have been on the latter path for years. The story’s tension swells as Sidney screeches away in their cherry red 5.0 to celebrate what he suspects will be his last night with his drug-dealing friends. Please don’t die, please don’t die, you whisper to yourself as they hotrod through the streets of D.C. to a party in the city’s notorious Eastside. All the while, Sidney tries convincing his proud but resentful friends that nothing will change when he really wonders how long it will take for them to find their way to prison or the coroner’s office.
Not limited to short stories, the Bronx Biannual leaves no literary genre unturned. In “The Milk and the Meat,” KRS-One eloquently sermonizes to Christians that following in the steps of their savior requires more than warming a bench on Sunday morning. Atheists, don’t be too easily turned off: his message of walk the talk easily holds true for non-devout visionaries. Toy collector Michael C. Ladd pens “Browse,” a brief, humorous memoir on exploiting his Arab-American features to scare a heavily German-accented hobby shop owner out of any buyer expectations that she may have. And you’ll find poetry’s pulse beating in the emcee-like lyricism of muMs’ “Angels in the Realm of Paranoia.”
This collection represents many strong writers, and the selections are as diverse as the different groups that define urban life. For a literary review, such diversity can pose a problem — a lack of cohesion. Readers may have to tap into the more patient part of themselves to explore Bronx Biannual’s widely varied range of voices. Just when you’ve soaked long enough in one piece it’s time to dive blindly into a new subject and genre, as well as the writing style of the next contributor. The purpose of a review is to present a chorus of insights into a given topic, but when beginning a selection in the Bronx Biannual, you often feel as though you showed up late to the party and have to work double time to catch up with the conversations. While compiling the next issue, the editor would do well by introducing the authors and making it thematically tighter. The urban experience might just be too broad and lived by too many to address as a topic unto itself. Perhaps in this case, start with one of the themes within the theme.