Meet street literature with an Occupy Wall Street edge.
A Bronx professor and one of his students have penned a novel about a young couple’s desperate attempt to break out of South Bronx housing projects at any cost —even kidnapping a Wall Street head honcho.
“People call us gangsters because we steal cars and sell parts on the black market, but the biggest gangsters in the world are the people who own banks and run governments,” says Khalil, the 21-year old heroin dealer at the heart of “Pure Bronx,” written by Fordham Professor Mark Naison and his student Melissa Castillo-Garsow.
Naison, a white guy from Park Slope, Brooklyn, is populary known as the Hip Hop Professor, who chairs the Department of African-American studies at Fordham.
“Pure Bronx” is Naison’s entry into a new genre of urban literature, or “street lit.” Street lit has surged in popularity in inner cities over the last 15 years, and often tackles the same theme: hustling out of the ghetto.
This novel is no exception. Khalil, along with his lover Rasheeda, who works nights at a strip club to pay her way through college, hatch a plan to get rich quick in the first years of the Obama presidency.
The pair kidnap one of Rasheeda’s clients, Robert Seidman, a Bernie Madoff-inspired sketchy business man.
From there, mayhem ensues.
“Readers might not be surprised by the politics, but they might be surprised by the amount of violence and sex,” Naison said. “I haven’t written anything like this.”
The idea for the novel started in a creative writing class Naison teaches at Fordham. The prof wrote the first chapter, a drug deal scene in a playground near Khalil’s stomping grounds, Mott Haven’s Patterson Projects.
Naison asked his class to help him continue the book. Castillo-Garsow, then a graduate student at the university, jumped on board. She ended up writing the portion of the book that tells Rasheeda’s story.
The authors went to great lengths to describe life in the South Bronx under the Cross Bronx Expressway to a T. “Pure Bronx” bounces around scenes sketched from real-life. Readers get a glimpse of life at a strip club at the Hunts Point garage on E. 138th Street and Grand Concourse. At one point, Khalil hijacks a car from the Gateway Mall alongside the Deegan Expressway.
Along the way, the love pair encounter a vivid portrait of the diverse South Bronx population.
“We wanted to portray the Bronx as it really is,” Naison said. “That makes immigrants from so many places: Africa, the West Indies, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, people from Honduras.”
Underneath the tale of violence, sex and intrigue is an undercurrent of social criticism —no surprise given Prof. Naison’s loud stance against gentrification and against Wall Street.
“An interesting question is if what Khalil and Rasheeda do is justified,” he said. “That’s for the reader to figure out.”