Thu Jun 8 2006
The beats generation
When rap scribe Miles Marshall Lewis left Harlem for Paris in 2004, he wanted to achieve at least two goals while abroad—become a father and a published author. Now, two books and one toddler son named Lucas later, Lewis can add a third item to his list of accomplishments. As the editor of Bronx Biannual, a journal of essays and short stories published by Akashic Press, Lewis aims to do for hip-hop literature what Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s has done for highbrow humor writing.
“We don’t need another urban magazine,” explains Lewis, whose bibliography includes Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, a collection of autobiographical essays about growing up with hip-hop culture in the Bronx, and There’s a Riot Goin’ On, about Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album of the same name. “I couldn’t imagine a new angle on that Uptown-Oneworld-Vibe type of template. So I thought a literary journal would be cool to showcase fiction and essays from the perspective of the hip-hop generation.”
Given the overall strength of the writing in Bronx Biannual, it’s clear that Lewis may be headed in the right direction. The pieces cut across a wide range of writerly styles while touching on diverse topics, some with obvious references to hip-hop music and others just imbued with an undiluted urban sensibility. In Adam Mansbach’s cheeky “Risk, Taking,” the Jewish DJ protagonist bridges the generation gap in an unlikely graffiti-bombing mission with his grandfather, who adopts Bronx as his nom de plume. Caille Millner’s “Wigged Out” explores the economics of the Korean-dominated black hair-care industry. In “The Milk and the Meat,” KRS-One contributes a well-intentioned but long-winded tract on spirituality. Greg Tate’s “Pangborn” imagines an Afro-futuristic fantasy world. And in “Angels in the Realm of Paranoia,” actor Mums from HBO’s Oz offers gritty and evocative short fiction, at one point likening weed smoking to “burning rainbows with lightning.”
The varied selections reflect Lewis’s own eclectic literary tastes. The 35-year-old Morehouse graduate grew up in Co-op City on a healthy diet of comic books, Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi, Miles Davis and Rakim. However, he’s under no false illusions about Bronx Biannual’s probable readership. “That’s the classic dilemma about being a hip-hop writer,” says Lewis, who has penned articles for Rolling Stone and Vibe. “Just because a person likes to listen to hip-hop music doesn’t mean that same audience wants to read about it.”
Yet Lewis is confident in the population of ambitious readers looking for a challenge. “Of course I want Bronx Biannual to be successful, but I don’t have an interest in how I can reach the widest amount of people possible,” says Lewis. “Just those people who really dig Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead and the young black writers slowly becoming canonized now. People who like literature.”—Brett Johnson