[13 August 2007]
For the general reading public, literary journals are next to invisible. They take up the bottom shelf at only the most well-stocked newsstands, and are often thicker than your average romance novel with little to disguish one from the next. The second issue of the Bronx Biannual, then, might seem slightly out of place. Its eye-catching front cover and comfortable size give it the look of a funky book of poetry, setting it well aside from others of its kind both visually and stylistically.
Though the cover claims it to be a “journal of urbane urban literature,” the name barely does the anthology justice. “Urbane” certainly makes sense in this context, and although it is not fair to expect New Yorker-quality writing, the stories in the Bronx Biannual seem to pride themselves on creativity and sponteneity rather than the scholarly nature of the writing.
Not that any of it is unworthy of publication—even the least outstanding writers here know, for the most part, how to deliver quality stories. Bahiyyah Davis’ “The Story of My Hair” is at times rambling and redundant, but overcomes these flaws with its originality and very honest account of a young girl’s identity crisis. “Born Again,” by t’ai freedom ford, is similarly redeemed through the author’s ability to manipulate the story’s immaturity and use it to her advantage.
Both the above stories manage well to harness feelings of inexperience rather than using those feelings as a prop, as so many diary-like accounts tend to do. They stand out as two of the best stories in Bronx Biannual by capturing a near-perfect balance between the mundane and the exquisite.
This dualistic style is no accident—editor Miles Marshall Lewis said it himself in the introduction: “bourgeoise yet boulevard.” He’s deliberately playing a joke on the world, mixing up our expectations until we have no idea what is going to come out in the next issue. “Bronx Biannual is fluid like water,” he continues. “No guiding manifesto per se, no set format, with a concept in mind of what The Factory might’ve come up with had Warhol put out a literary journal.”
Lewis probably knows better than most what this bizarre idea would have produced. Having lived in the Bronx until 2004 (when he then expatriated to Paris in protest of the Iraq War), Lewis has been all over popular culture, as music editor of the hip-hop magazine Vibe, and author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises (2004). His worldly approach on literature shows through even on the front cover, as a little yellow ticker at the bottom states: “one must know the world before one can help the world.”
Or specifically, the Bronx. With his selection of stories and mix of old and young Bronx-based writers, Lewis is exposing the side of the BX that many are too blinded with stereotypes to see. Of course, he entertains the nervous tourist perspective—pimps, drugs, street fights—as do his writers, who at once live and mock this stereotype. But he is also careful to choose stories that accentuate the underlying character of the Bronx more than anything else. Most of the pieces in Bronx Biannual could take place in any other city in the world, though any Bronx native would probably argue that it is the mentality of the writers and their characters that so clearly define each story as taking place in New York.
Sure, some of the stories may strengthen stereotypes, but what else is Lewis trying to do other than give a well-rounded perspective? Each “Bronx-typical” tale is balanced with a sensitivity that prevents it from dipping into the realms of either tough-guy arrogance or self-pity. “Broke-Down Princess” could have gone either way; author kelly a. abel let readers see through protagonist Shawntaya’s over-confidence with men and into her unexpressed doubts about sex (which, for a 13 year-old, I should hope she is having). “The Wu-Tang Candidate,” written by Lewis himself, is a mockery of a mockery of the rap industry, leading us backstage into the mind of rapper Ace Boon Coon, who suddenly finds himself living the life he has parodied for years.
Strangely, several of the stories have a whiff of nostalgia about them, instead of the ultra-modern, slang-filled style that “Broke-Down Princess” and “The Wu-Tang Candidate” possess. Old-school jazz takes center stage in Michael A. Gonzales’ “Blues for Sister Rose,” while “Knot Frum Hear,” by D. Scot Miller, is like Naked Lunch revisited by B-Boys. Lewis did not choose these stories randomly—their offbeat language broke up the journal into a pleasing shuffle of styles, and gives to the world exactly what Lewis had in mind: a multi-faceted, reworked, intellectualized version of the dear New York Bronx that we all know and (may or may not) love.
For something that claims to be “the most important literary journal in hip-hop” (not that there is much competition), the Bronx Biannual makes a decent showing, especially for a sophomore issue. But its clientele is what worries me; its spunky style and urban language may pigeonhole the journal into the hands of a region-specific group of readers. If Lewis can somehow expand the scope of Bronx Biannual without abandoning the integrity of its roots—perhaps by bringing in former Bronx residents to write, or encouraging well-known authors to write about their experiences in the Bronx—then there may be hope for this unique little bit of publishing.